The post is the first in a two part series about why Rays fans shouldn't despair about the upcoming season: part one focusing on history, and part two on statistics. It's a bit lengthy, but hopefully still worthwhile.
It's only been four years, but we've already forgotten exactly how bad the 2007 Devil Rays were.
Seriously, take another look at that roster. This was a team that lost 96 games - the worst in the majors that year - while letting up 940 runs and only scoring 780. Jason Hammel, Edwin Jackson, and Andy Sonnanstine combined for 67 starts and a 5+ ERA. They weren't the only rotten apples, though: Casey Fossum, Jae Weong Seo, and J.P. Howell started a combined 30 games, posting an average ERA north of seven. Our closer, Alberto Reyes, was viewed as a modicum of stability, yet even he posted a 4.90 ERA. If not for Carlos Pena and B.J. Upton both having monster offensive years, there would have been little point in watching this team.
Going into the 2008 season, there were some small reasons for Rays fans to hope: there had been lots of roster turnover in the winter; Evan Longoria and David Price were well on their way to the majors; and some pre-season projections suggested the Rays could win 90 games. However, most baseball analysts still scoffed at the Rays, writing their favorable projections off as computer blunders. We were never supposed to have a shot at going to the World Series that season.
And now, the same affliction that made analysts write off the 2008 Rays is striking Rays fans too: we're being blinded by the predominating narrative. Baseball is a game that thrives upon stories, from Babe Ruth visiting a sick child in the hospital to the curse on the Cubs to the hope of rebirth rekindled in each Spring. These narratives are intricately wound into baseball and provide context to even the smallest event, making it tough to learn to like baseball if you didn't grow up around it and don't understand the broader narrative.
Take the example of Spring Training. Come Spring Training, there is new hope for everyone: players are always in the best shape of their lives and perennially losing teams are finally going to compete for the playoffs. I know some analysts have a particular dislike of these stories since they're normally founded on fool's hope, but I actually like them. Seeing pitchers and catchers playing catch again brings us back to our childhood, reminding us of when we had our first catch with our fathers, attended our first ballgame, and had out first hit in Little League. The grass is always greenest in spring, and that's because it's touched by a bit of our memories. If we can believe that this player can turn their career back around, we can also believe it's not impossible for us to live up to our childhood ideals. We'll never be able to crush that hope through logic and stats, nor should we.
However, just because a narrative is enjoyable does not give it any factual authority. In other words, we can enjoy a narrative for what it is, but we should be sure to separate what's "analysis" and what's "narrative". A team can have a disastrous history and the narrative about them can be hopeless, but we shouldn't then pass that narrative off as analysis and fact; to do so is often misleading, and leads to mistakes like saying the 2008 Rays will be a last place team. Predicting the future requires us to remove ourselves from the predominating narratives and to look at the facts in an unbiased way. This is counter-intuitive for most people.
This current off-season had been very tough on Rays fans. We've seen the core group of the 2008-2010 clubs leave, while the team has added mostly prospects and young, unproven players. The narrative about the Rays is that they're in the midst of a fire sale, and will be competing for fourth place in the AL East this season. And on one hand, I can understand the emotion behind the narrative: it's tough to watch all these players leave. We've grown close to Pena and Crawford over the past years, and Soriano ingrained himself with many of us in only one year. But while I've been saddened along with everyone else, I refuse to turn that emotion into analysis. Losing star players is not good, but turnover in and of itself is not a bad thing.
When a team is horrible, fans want to see the whole house burned down and new players and coaches brought it; yet when a team is good, there's a desire to keep everything exactly the way it is ad infinitum. Don't change anything! We might lose! Such an attitude is destined for failure. Have you ever seen a basketball team go on a 15-point run, only to be put on the defensive after their opponent calls a timeout? This is not because the streaking team had their "flow" interrupted: it's because when a team is doing good, there's little motivation to adapt or change strategies. "Things are working great for us now, so why bother changing anything? Stick with the status quo and we'll be fine." While that team is twiddling their thumbs, the opposing team is changing their strategy to counteract the attack and get back on the offensive. And so, there's only one way to achieve continuous success: always keep innovating, always keep changing.
The same can be said of roster construction. Financial constraints aside, what if the Rays had resigned all their old players this off-season? What if they'd given lifetime deals to Pena, Crawford, and Soriano? While that strategy might work decently for one or two seasons, time catches up with all players eventually. Pena was already showing signs of decline this past season, while Soriano has a checkered injury history and Crawford's knees have never agreed with the Trop's turf. By resigning these players, the Rays would have been striving to re-create the magic of the past, instead of trying to create new magic in the future. With a minor league system that was getting shallower, the Rays decided to buck the status quo in order to ensure the team's short-term and long-term competitiveness.
Compare the 2011 Rays' roster with that of the 2008 Rays. Despite all the recent losses, the 2011 Rays stack up quick well to the 2008 team. The pitching staffs are very similar: Kazmir, Shields, Garza, Sonnanstine, and Jackson versus Price, Shields, Niemann, Davis, Hellickson. While the 2008 team has the slight edge based on ERA (Kaz, Shields, and Garza all had sub-four ERAs), their peripheral statistics suggest their talent levels were similar to that of the 2011 Rays starters. The offenses also look similar, with the 2011 Rays have a higher upside than the 2008 club. And if you're worried about the bullpen, remember that the 2008 team had Troy Percival as its closer (4.53 ERA, 5.87 FIP) and allowed Scott Dohmann and Gary Glover to pitch nearly 50 innings combined (5+ ERA, 4.5+ FIP). The current Rays are a darn good team, and can continue to be every bit as competitive as they've been over the past three seasons.
Not only that, but the Rays are built for long-term success. The 2011 Rays are a young team; the average age of the players on their 40-man roster is about 26 years old, and there are only four players on the roster older than 30. Also, with their moves this past off-season, most prospect experts say the Rays currently have the second best farm system in all of baseball, not to mention that the Rays have 10 first round draft picks this year. This team has reinvented itself this off-season, dipping into the mystical Fountain of Youth and coming out all the stronger.
The 2007 wasn't that long ago, but we've repressed the memory, ignoring that part of our franchise's history because it's painful to remember. Yet the lesson of the 2007 team is really one of hope: if that pitiful excuse of a team can blossom into the American League Champions in only one season, then who's to say the 2011 Rays can't be competitive? Narratives are a fun part of baseball, but this is one storyline that doesn't line up with reality. Lament the players we've lost, yet then get ready for a ride. This team isn't going anywhere.