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Eye on the Prize....Constantly

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Service Time Champs. The phrase has become one of the many phrases we toss around this site throughout the season as we watched Brandon Guyer, Desmond Jennings, Alex Cobb, and even Russ Canzler stay in Triple-A Durham a lot longer than we all wanted them to be there. 

If you follow any of the national pundits on Twitter or read their work online, the Rays are criticized rather soundly for both delaying the promotions of their prospects based on service time as well as a steadfast refusal to trade those prospects at the trade deadline. The latest such article comes from my colleague at Baseball Prospectus, Kevin Goldstein entitled "Eye on the Prize...Eventually." One of the reasons I jumped at the chance to join the Baseball Prospectus staff when I was invited to do so earlier this year was for the chance to work with Kevin as I have been a fan of his work since his days as an independent minor league blogger at The Prospect Report. He turned that into a job at Baseball America before joining Baseball Prospectus and ESPN. Rarely do I find myself disagreeing with anything he publishes, but his latest article is one of those times I do disagree with him.

The article centers around the Rays riding out the left-field three-headed monster of Sam Fuld, Justin Ruggiano, and Johnny Damon this season that as a whole, was barely more productive than Jennings have been since his call-up. It also questions the ties to Andy Sonnanstine and J.P. Howell this season and how this post-season might look different if the Rays had been more aggressive in their prospect promotions this season. As a fan, I can completely side with the piece, but as an analyst, I cannot.

First off, the Rays being back in this playoff race has every bit as much to do with Boston falling apart left and right as it does the Rays' hot play of late. Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz have been out for awhile forcing the Red Sox to throw stiffs like Joe Wieland and Andrew Miller up on the mound along with John Lackey and Tim Wakefield who have been anywhere from serviceable to horrible of late. Even Jon Lester has been tough to separate from the the other pitchers of late and add that onto the bullpen mess ahead of Papelbon, and it is easy to see why the Red Sox have gone just 28-26 since beating the Rays 1-0 in that 16 inning marathon on July 18th. On top of the pitching problems, the team has had to deal with Kevin Youkilis missing time, David Ortiz dealing with back spasms, J.D. Drew being hurt, and Carl Crawford's struggles nearly the entire season. 

Meanwhile, the Rays have gone 32-22 since that big loss as the entire team has remained healthy save for the recent elbow tenderness with Kyle Farnsworth and 30-19 since recalling Jennings. Jennings certainly made an instant splash when he was called up but he has cooled off considerably over the past three weeks. Jennings hit two home runs in a game against the Blue Jays on August 28th but has hit just .138 (9 for 65) since that time while striking out 26 percent of the time heading into Friday night's game. The good news is that when he gets on base, he scores as he has been on base just 17 times during this slump and has scored 12 times. His overall slash line is .282/.375/.503 this season and Fangraphs already has him at 1.8 wins, but his numbers in this critical stretch have been as bad as any Rays player's numbers this season. 

The ironic thing is that the slump Jennings is in now is reminiscent of the one that ended the Legend of Sam Fuld in that both had trouble laying off the high fastballs and pitchers quickly picked up on that. We all watched Joe Maddon leave Fuld in the starting lineup, and leadoff spot no less, for too long while hitting a lot of lazy fly balls off those pitches and now we see Jennings chasing those same pitches and either flying out or coming up empty going after them. 

The other point raised in the article was under-utilizing Matt Moore this season while giving four starts to Andy Sonnanstine and a lot of work to J.P. Howell this season. Frankly, there is no defense on how Sonnanstine was utillzed this season nor how his roster spot was protected at the expense of allowing Cory Wade to exercise his out clause at Durham to then join the Yankees and make a difference in their bullpen. It should also be noted that the Rays lost all but one game Sonnanstine worked in this season, and that win came in 9th inning mop-up work with a six-run lead.

That said, I don't see the business case for calling up a pitcher who, at the time he was needed, had all of 35 innings of baseball above A ball under his belt. You'll also recall that Moore got off to a rough start in Double-A this season allowing six home runs and 14 earned runs in April before settling down in Mid-May for good. Meanwhile, Alex Cobb opened up the season in Durham incredibly hot but only got a spot start on May 1st before being sent back down to allow Sonnanstine to start three contests and lose to Cleveland, Baltimore, and Florida. Howell, by most measures, has been a major disappointment this season coming back off the shoulder surgery and his control problems along with a drop in his swing and miss rate have made him a volatile pitcher in the pen who can be successful at times and implode in a big way as we saw earlier this week when he gave up the home run to Matt Wieters. Yet, there are other pitchers I would have used to replace Howell (hello, Cory Wade) before moving Matt Moore into a relief role for a season.

The Rays are often ridiculed for their glacial-like rate of promoting prospects, but the fail rate of those prospects once they arrive is very low. It could be argued Wade Davis and Jeremy Hellickson were more ready when they were promoted than David Price was when he was finally added to the big league roster in 2009. It is not tough to forget Price's awful start in Cleveland and later in Texas that season that had many wondering if he needed to be sent back down while Hellickson and Davis both were immediate successes later in the seasons in which their call-ups happened.

More frustrating than any of that is the fact that the only pre non-waiver trade deadline move the team has made in the past four years is adding Chad Qualls to roster. This criticism by Goldstein is where I agree with him 100 percent because the team holds onto minor league assets as an important part of sustained success rather than taking the short-term risks associated with mid-season acquisitions. The Rays have had areas to address in each of the past four seasons, yet nothing has been done outside of the Qualls addition. This current push back into the playoff race caught all of us by surprise so it is not unreasonable to assume that the front office did no make any deals this season as they did not project the team to be only three games out this late in the season. It takes two to tango and maybe Andrew Friedman has not been able to find the right dance partner at the trade deadline, but that does not lessen the sting of getting to the trade deadline and seeing the trade deadline cheatsheet again.

In all, the Rays are still hanging onto this this slimmer of post-season hope because of their successful play of late as well as Boston's health problems snowballing downhill in a hurry. Even if the Rays do not make the playoffs, they are still very likely to win 90 or more games despite the fact:

  • Manny Ramirez was gone as quickly as he was here
  • Reid Brignac has been a win below replacement level player this season and the overall disappointing play at the shortstop position
  • The failed Dan Johnson experience
  • John Jaso, who has seen most of the playing time at catcher, has been worth 0.3 wins above replacement
  • Evan Longoria missed 26 games and played many more on a very sore foot
  • Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis, and Alex Cobb all spending time on the disabled list
On July 31st, CoolStandings.com gave the Rays a two percent chance of making the post-season, which is where that stood this time last week as well. Despite the improved play of the Rays and the Red Sox treading water, it was not until the Rays swept the Red Sox that those chances improved any. Had the Rays promoted Jennings instead of Kotchman when Ramirez up and quit, which Jennings shows up? The one that was unstoppable for the first three weeks of the season or the one that has struggled to get on base since then? Promoting Moore to use in the bullpen would have been an intriguing use of a pitcher most project as a front of the rotation type pitcher but he could have also gone into the rotation and Davis could have gone to the pen to straighten things out when he was going through his issues through most of the first half of the season. Moving Moore to the pen in 2011 would have also led to concerns in 2012 about how much work he could do as the Rays are always cautious of increased workloads with their younger arms. 

There's a train of thought that says it is better to have tried and failed than not to have tried at all/. Yet, when you are strapped with the financial realities of a small market budget due to continually disappointing attendance totals, the team cannot take the type of risks that are easy to arrange on paper with a short-term vision. The Rays could have made those promotions, made the trades, and the Red Sox stay healthy and they could have clinched a playoff-spot last night making all of the moves all for naught. That would have meant Jennings and Moore, two of the best talents in the organization, hitting arbitration a year earlier and the team being unable to forecast what the financial situation of the franchise would be at that point.

After all, it was just a few weeks ago that former Devil Rays General Manager Chuck LaMar quit the Phillies job because he complained the Phillies were being too short-sighted in their operations and it would not allow them to sustain long-term success, and that's coming from an organization that has been in the post-season five straight seasons and already has one World Series ring on their finger. That organization also happens to have four times the payroll of what the Rays operate under. 

The unemployment situation in the market remains relatively flat making it tough to forecast attendance revenues, and the corporate sponsorship situation at Tropicana Field is not improving either. We know from Maury Brown's work that revenue sharing is not helping the team as much as some want to believe and the Rays would be in more trouble now had they not had that post-season run in 2008. What makes sense to us as fans and unbiased analysts does not always make sense to those who are at the bottom line and have to sign the paychecks.