This entire season has felt like one eerie, disappointing case of deja vu. The high expectations. The supposedly dominant offense. The young team that has nowhere to go but up. We've all seen this script before, because it all happened just a couple seasons ago. The calendar may say 2012, but this season has felt like it was taken right from 2009.
And so, much like in 2009, the Rays enter the trade deadline with a dilemma. The fans are currently tuning into games at a record pace -- well, on the television at least -- and most seem to believe the Rays have a good chance at making the playoffs. Technically, they are only 2.5 games behind the Orioles for that final Wild Card spot. Considering how far out of the race the Rays were at this point last season, their playoff odds look absolutely fantastic. Maybe they should hold onto all their players, and instead try to buy a slugger and make a run at it? If Longoria comes back strong and the Orioles begin to fade and maybe Carlos Pena or B.J. Upton begins to hit again...all of a sudden the Rays would look like serious contenders again.
Yet throughout the day yesterday, I couldn't shake this one quote from Adam Sobsey's most recent column.
Here's one way you can tell good teams from bad ones. Both the best and the worst are going to lose more than 50 games a year, which is actually kind of a lot. The difference: When good teams lose, they usually still look like good teams.
Many of us here are long-tenured Devil Rays fans; we know what losing looks like. We've seen all different sorts of losing. There's the hopeless losing where the team is so bad, you wait each night to see how they're going to blow this one. There's the disappointing-but-shake-it-out losing, where it's not so tough to put the games behind you when they're done as you know the team played well and will have a shot tomorrow. There's the agonizing losing, the ones where it feels like your heart has been ripped from your chest. Some loses can leave you feeling pretty good; others hurt like a punch to the groin.
I haven't wanted to admit it to myself, but after pondering Sobsey's words yesterday, I finally decided it needs to be said: the Rays don't look good when they lose. In fact, they rarely look good anymore these days. The games are a chore to watch, and the loses are beginning to take on an inevitable, sickening feel. This ain't a playoff team. Not even close.
And the numbers back up my gut on this. To date, the Rays have an even run differential, suggesting it's not a fluke that they can't seem to climb any higher than two games over .500. They actually have a worse differential than Toronto, Boston, Chicago, or Oakland -- four teams they will need to beat out for that final Wild Card slot. If you prefer to go by advanced stats, the results are the same. The Rays rate as the 19th best team in the majors according to WAR, well behind many of their close competitors for the final Wild Card spot.
Even if the Rays did manage to eek out that final playoff spot, it's worth remembering that they'd then likely have to face the Angels -- on the road, and against Jered Weaver. Anything can happen in one game, but considering the Angels rate as among the best in the majors in offense and pitching, those aren't good odds.
So all the said, what do we do? Do we cling on to hope, trusting that Upton/Pena/etc. will turn it around and Longoria will return from his absence with a vengeance? Or do we throw in the towel on the year, trading off Shields and Upton in the hopes that next season will be different? Which way does Andrew Friedmand decide to go?
I've said before that I think if Friedman has a fault, it's that he's too patient. But that's not quite right; what I meant to say is that I think he's too risk adverse. Looking back on this time period in 10 years, if things end up falling apart and the Rays don't maintain their run of success, I think the one fault we'll point to will be Friedman's cautiousness.
Since the Rays made the World Series in 2008, when have you ever seen Friedman make a move that wasn't extremely safe or risk adverse? Friedman hit the jackpot, and since then, he's sat on his pot and milked it for as long as possible. Consider:
- His extension to Longoria was unprecedented due to the fact that Longoria had never played a major league game, but even if he flopped, the contract was small enough it wasn't a franchise killer. Minimal risk, lots of potential gain. The same goes for almost every extension he's signed with a player; they've all been extremely team-friendly.
- His strategy is creating a bullpen has been to sign plenty of low cost, high upside arms. Joaquin Benoit, Fernando Rodney, Grant Balfour, etc.
- He's traded players, but only when it became absolutely necessary to deal them due to finances -- Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza, and even Edwin Jackson to an extent. Even in the face of an extreme glut of starting pitching, Friedman preferred to move Wade Davis to the bullpen this year rather than trade from a position of strength.
- Instead of going for the big, high-end prospect, Friedman's trades involve lots of parts. Whey put all your eggs in one basket when you can spread out your risk and diversify?
The Rays could have dealt B.J. Upton this offseason, but instead, now they're forced to either hold onto him and lose him for nothing this offseason, or sell him when his value is low. I'm beginning to wonder if Friedman will even do that.
The safe thing to do would be for the Rays to hang onto all their players and make a run at the postseason this year. It'd be the path of least resistance, and you certainly wouldn't hear any fans grumbling about them "not trying" to win. In the long term, though, this team desperately needs to make some moves if they want to get back to an elite level. They have huge organization holes at first base and catcher, and once Upton leaves, the outfield looks shallow as well. Meanwhile, there are still around 6-7 starters that could easily pitch for the Rays right now. Eventually, you reach a point where stockpiling doesn't do you any more good, and you're not getting the most out of the talent at your disposal.
I'm likely not being fair to Friedman, as we have no way of knowing what's going on in the front office and what sort of deals they have heard over the previous year. Maybe teams really have low-balled them for their starters and Upton, and maybe he has done the right thing in refusing to trade them. He's certainly earned our trust after all his success.
...And yet, I hear rumors about how the Rays are interested in Ryan Roberts and I really begin to wonder. Are we going to be in for another disappointing trade deadline, where Friedman takes the safe route out and only adds spare parts, or will he take the leap again? After watching so many disappointing games of late, I know which option I'm rooting for.