How much offense do the Rays need?

Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

Going into 2013, a big question looms: how good does the Rays' pitching staff have to be to offset the Rays' anemic offense?

Imagine for a moment that each MLB season concluded with an awards show akin to the Oscars. Please, don't stop reading; I assure you I'm not going to talk about wardrobes or red carpets.

If this award show were real (and it's not, because MLB doesn't believe we should have nice things like robot umpires and replay) the league could dole out accolades for teams based on the best performances in certain sabermetric categories. Of course, instead of a regal gold statue, these would probably just be copper-plated and depict nerds sitting in their boxers on sofas in their mother's basements since that's still the perception of those who use numbers. Even so, the Tampa Bay Rays would have several pant-less* nerd awards for the team's trophy case, as they topped the American League in several categories this season.

*sorry, I guess there was a wardrobe reference

In this scenario, when the pitching awards are announced Joe Maddon could camp out on stage like he's James Cameron, because the Rays would win a lot of categories:

  • Best starting rotation in the AL, with a starter FRA of 4.11
  • Best bullpen in the AL, with a relief FRA of 3.40
  • Best relief pitcher, Fernando Rodney
  • Fewest runs allowed in the AL
  • Fewest home runs allowed in AL
  • Most strikeouts in AL

When it comes time for the offensive awards, however, Maddon might as well leave the building after "Most walks in the AL" is announced, because the Rays aren't getting anything else. They were:

  • 12th (out of 14) in the AL in OPS
  • 2nd in AL in strikeouts
  • 13th in hits
  • Below AL average in: RBI, 2B, HR, R, OBP, SLG, OPS+, TB

Despite this lackluster showing, perhaps the Rays offense wasn't that terrible. Part of the shortfall can be attributed to the absence of Evan Longoria, who played only 74 games this season. His absence forced a cascade of compensating moves, most of them detrimental. For example, Elliot Johnson was never meant to be the starting shortstop, or starting anything, but Maddon was forced to write his name onto the lineup card 80 times as he shuffled infielders to replace Longoria.

So, yes, perhaps, the offense had more potential than its output this year, but the bad news is that the Rays have a lot to do if they want to match even this year's offensive performance next season given the gaps they may have in the lineup as the result of players potentially departing via free agency. The question is, just how likely is it that a team that is even more imbalanced than this year's Rays can win a division or a wild card spot?

Whether unwillingly or by choice, free agency will leave the Rays with empty spots that will be difficult to fill. The Rays may finally have an everyday shortstop in Zobrist (a move that was overdue, regardless of defensive qualms), and Desmond Jennings can be shifted to center to replace Upton should the latter go, but that still leaves holes at the positions that often pack the biggest offensive punch: left field, first base, catcher (where Jose Molina's option has been picked up, which is not the same as saying the problem has been solved), designated hitter, and even second base, which might as well be an offensive position with Robinson Cano and Dustin Pedroia in the same division.

Staffing those positions in a quality way takes money. The Rays haven't announced a budget this offseason (and likely won't), but they spent roughly $20 million more in 2012 than in 2011, the total of approximately $63.4 million making for the second-highest payroll in club history (after $71.9 million in 2010). It's unlikely they keep the budget that high or go higher, so a lot of those vacancies will go to internal candidates. The best internal options, however, would piece together for a meager offense

Now that the Rays have exercised their $10 million option on James Shields, payroll and talent constraints have come to the fore as they decide if they want to keep their star rotation intact or if they should trade pitching for offense. Even without Shields, the Rays would likely remain one of the American League's best pitching teams. An additional consideration is that for the last three seasons they have ranked among the top teams in defensive efficiency, which supports and enhances the pitching staff; bringing in bats might improve the offense but also hurt the defense. The Rays must walk a very fine line this winter.

The Rays have had the run-prevention side licked. For the sake of argument, let's assume they err on that side of the equation and aren't able to do much to improve the offense. As it turns out, some fairly unbalanced teams have made it to the postseason. Here are the ten-worst offenses to reach the postseason since 2000, as ranked by True Average:

Ten Worst Offensive Teams (Tav) since 2000

Team

YEAR

TAv

Diamondbacks

2007

.249

Cubs

2003

.253

Reds

2012

.255

Astros

2005

.255

Cubs

2007

.256

Braves

2012

.257

Cardinals

2009

.257

Dodgers

2008

.257

Angels

2008

.258

Braves

2001

.258

The 2007 Diamondbacks, the worst since 2000 to make the postseason, had an 83 OPS+, which is, for lack of a better word, awful. As we shall see, the Diamondbacks are a special case because they ranked 11th in the league in Fair Run Average (FRA) and 22nd in the majors during the regular season despite having Brandon Webb and the good version of Jose Valverde. They had the bestrecord in the National League in a year in which the entire circuit had achieved a kind of miserable parity. As they exceeded their Pythagorean record by a massive 11 wins, theirs was more a case of luck than anything else.

Don't worry, though -- we wouldn't bother talking about this if we couldn't find a connection between weak offense coupled with strong pitching performance, so one more table, this one showing how the 20 worst teams ranked in pitching as measured by FRA. Just as logic would dictate, most of the worst offensive teams have also had some of the best pitching.

Ten Worst Offensive Teams (Tav) and Their Pitching (FRA)

Team

YEAR

Pitching Rank (FRA)

Diamondbacks

2007

22nd

Cubs

2003

5th

Reds

2012

8th

Astros

2005

6th

Cubs

2007

7th

Braves

2012

17th

Cardinals

2009

5th

Dodgers

2008

4th

Angels

2008

5th

Braves

2001

8th

The 2012 Braves ranked 17th in the majors for pitching this season, which mostly can be attributed the starting rotation dealing with injuries and under performance, especially early in the season. Mike Minor and Randall Delgado were struggling, Brandon Beachy was on the disabled list, and Tommy Hanson and Tim Hudson were both erratic. The Braves rotation stabilized in the second half, but their bullpen pitching, which ranked third in FRA for relievers this season, made up for the inadequacies of their starting rotation. If the lack of offense and infield fly rule didn't cut the Braves' postseason so short in the play-in game, they might have been able to ride the bullpen arms further into the postseason this year.

Good pitching without a strong offense doesn't exclude a chance at the postseason it seems, but since 2000, it hasn't resulted in a World Series victory. Note that nine of the 10 teams listed here, as well as a further seven of the top 20, resided in the National League. This makes some sense; in the more constrained offensive environment of the NL, saving runs has a greater impact.

Still, there's hope for the Rays to follow in the path of these unbalanced teams, but the million-dollar question is the most obvious one: How good would the Rays pitching have to be to offset the lack of hitting?

Thanks to Bill James, we can quantify that using Pythagorean expectation to estimate how many games a team should win based on the number of runs they scored and allowed. Over the last 10 seasons, it has taken an average of 98 wins to win the AL East outright, and 95 wins to take the AL wild card. The Rays won 90 games this year, but their Pythagorean record was 95, so there was a sprinkle of bad luck in there. It's not a satisfying answer, but the status quo and a few lucky bounces could put the Rays exactly where they need to be.

The question we're asking, though, is what happens if the offense remains stagnant or declines. For arguments sake, let's if next season the Rays score exactly as many runs as they did this season, and their goal is to win 100 games, their pitching staff would have to shave off another 42 runs to accomplish that. Their staff was already so good, it seems impossible that they could accomplish that even if they keep Shields - their team 3.19 team ERA was the lowest mark in the AL this century, and no AL team has posted an ERA below 3.00 since the 1981 Yankees (for a full season, you have to go back to 1974). To win 98 games while maintaining the same scoring level, the Rays would have to shave off 27 runs, a feat that's more attainable, but still unlikely. If we were to redo these calculations at a lower level of offense, the burden on the pitching staff would be proportionally greater.

In any other division it might be possible for the Rays to win this way, but playing in the AL East disadvantages them; resting on their pitching laurels alone won't be enough to contend without more offense. Sadly, the best option is to trade Shields and see what sort of bats they can get in return (Grant Brisbee has a great article here about what sort of return they might expect). It's tough to stomach the idea of giving up reliable homegrown talent, but unless the Rays are willing to spend to make up for the offensive deficit, they'll continue to pick up those imaginary pitching awards I discussed, rather than hoisting a World Series trophy.

Cee Angi is one of SBN's Designated Columnists, one of the minds behind the Platoon Advantage, and the author of Baseball-Prose. Follow her at @CeeAngi.

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