Welcome back to my final front office review for the 2015 season. After taking a moment to consider the front office structure at the beginning of the month, and the risk the Rays face in losing talent, the team did in fact lose their Director of Player Personnel Matt Arnold to the Brewers. He took a job as to VP and Asstistant GM under their new-look front office. As of now, the Rays are considering promoting from within to fill the vacancy.
Matt Silverman, the GM
In the second and third portion of this series, I included polls for voting on how you would grade Matt Silverman's front office's performance in the 2014 off-season (A - 14%, B - 65%) and during the 2015 season (B - 65%, C - 27%). You'll have a chance to vote for the front office's overall performance at the end of this article, but first I have many thoughts.
Well-Prepared for the Season
Before we can criticize, let's consider the mountain Silverman had to climb, as we did in the first edition of this series. Two of the three minds steering the front office left the franchise, with Gerry Hunsicker and Andrew Friedman departing for the Dodgers.
The non-GM of the three was suddenly left holding the bag, and he had a mess to clean up. Matt Silverman promoted from within and named Erik Neander and Chaim Bloom to VP roles to round out GM duties, with Silverman assuming the position of President of Baseball Operations, implementing a similar team structure to those now used by the Dodgers, Red Sox, and Athletics, to name a few.
To clear the table, the Rays dumped ~$20M in salary commitments by dealing Yuenl Escobar, Joel Peralta, and David DeJesus across the season, and absorbed the Balfour and Molina contracts to set the table for a competitive year. Ben Zobrist was also traded, but his salary was ostensibly reallocated to Asdrubal Cabrera while the team brought in John Jaso and two good prospects, continuing the long tradition of gut-wrenching trades of veterans to stock up for the future.
As the injuries piled up to start the season, however, Silverman's plans were undone. Erasmo Ramirez was brought in for rotation depth after Alex Cobb and Burch Smith went under the knife. That became a stellar trade -- Ramirez was arguably the team's third best starter this season -- but the response from there forward is hard to defend, as the in-season moves were lacking.
The In-Season Letdown
Tampa Bay started the year with a 40-30 record, but went 40-52 the rest of the way. The depth acquired to start the year circled through the revolving door, and the only mid-season deals that attempted to shore up that depth were acquiring first baseman Marc Krauss in a pinch, and picking up LHRP Xavier Cedeno for cash. Cedeno was a necessary deal, giving the Rays important outs and good value, but that was the end of additions to this team. In fact, Silverman's in-season moves would only subtract from the major league squad.
Minor league signings of Grady Sizemore and J.P. Arencibia helped, but their contributions were only really be felt in September when the season was already lost. Once the Rays reached the trade deadline, they had fallen from ten games above .500 -- a miraculous feet given their injuries -- to a few games below, still in the Wild Card hunt. And the Rays did nothing.
It's possible that the Rays made several waiver claims in July and August attempting to buoy a spent bullpen, the team's most glaring weakness, but nothing came about. Either Silverman pulled the chute, or the Rays maintained their status quo, acquiring a bit of future talent while riding their outside shot at a playoff berth. It depends on your perspective.
It should be noted that the Rays remained competitive enough by not going into a full fire sale mode, sending off only David DeJesus for a minor prospect, and high leverage reliever Kevin Jepsen for two more-heralded arms. The former deal was consequential in that it cleared $3.1M in salary off the Rays books, but the Jepsen deal looks more credible. The Twins certainly overpaid, and Tampa Bay cleared $7M in salary commitment over this and next year.
The consequence on the 2015 season, however, was dire.
The clubhouse felt the loss of those two veteran presences in DeJesus and Jepsen, and the Rays did not make any moves to replace Jepsen's high-leverage arm in the bullpen. Shortly thereafter, Jake McGee tweaked his knee and needed surgery, and suddenly the bullpen was left with only Brad Boxberger for any high leverage situations.
Boxberger would finish the year as the AL leader in saves, but he wasn't his lights-out self from 2014, and the mix of Cedeno, Brandon Gomes, Steve Geltz, and (longman?) Alex Colome was all the Rays could reliably call upon to bridge the gap from starter to closer. Geltz would fall apart in August and lose his role to Andrew Bellatti out of the Durham bullpen, while the excellent Cedeno fell to injury and was replaced by Enny Romero. The situation only got worse, and here's how that shook out:
The Rays would fall to the bottom of the division and conclude the year ahead of the Red Sox in the standings for the 14th worst record in baseball.
Such a poor end to the season could have been anticipated after the injuries piled up on the team, but the performance was strong at the onset of summer. If the front office saw this decline coming, though, why sell so few players?
The Rays had more veterans they could have shipped out. Although much of his season was lost to an injury, John Jaso was getting it done with the bat, and with his contract expiring, he's exactly the type of player teams are looking to add as they gear up for the playoffs. James Loney and Rene Rivera both have questionable trade value at this point, but both of them are well-respected for their defense. The Rays were more likely to find a buyer for those two while playoff hungry teams contemplated their expanded September rosters.
Now the team will get nothing for letting Jaso become a free agent, and it is stuck with Rivera's capsized offense and Loney's contract, while Richie Shaffer and Curt Casali wait in the wings.
In short, against the odds, the Rays were well positioned to compete this season, all the way up to the trade deadline, but the front office did nothing to help the team, while dealing away only two minor contracts. One of those deals subtracted an important player from the Rays bullpen, possibly contributing to several losses. The Rays finished six wins out from the playoffs.
Is that a fair summary? There are certainly counter arguments.
Maybe the Rays wanted to go into fire sale mode and tried to trade several other players and no one was buying. I'm not convinced that would be true, but the near-last place finish makes it tempting to wish it so.
A better response: Maybe the Rays tried to add to the bullpen and actually gear up for a post-season push but no one was selling.
The Rays could have sold high on over achieving players like Nate Karns, Logan Forsythe, or Erasmo Ramirez, and they didn't. Maybe they thought contention was possible, but not a single bullpen claim was awarded in August and September off the waiver wire. Is that happenstance? After all, the Rays successfully added Daniel Nava, who could potentially help the team in 2016 (maybe a platoon with Richie Shaffer). The team wasn't against adding bodies, or adding salary. Perhaps the market simply wouldn't budge for bullpen moves.
Sure, Matt Silverman and his crew might have bungled the 2015 season, either by not selling enough or not buying enough at the trade deadline, but it's important to also remember how little this roster had to work with.
The 2015 season seemed lost the moment Alex Cobb had Tommy John surgery and Drew Smyly was shut down for what might have been the season. More than twenty players would hit the major league disabled list, which ignored the significant injuries in Durham, but the team stayed competitive.
The season still seemed attainable after the trade deadline, but the wheels came off with injuries to McGee and Cedeno while Boxberger and Geltz under-performed. The pieces were in place, and based on their regular season performance there was a reasonable expectation of competitive performance. Who are we to say the Rays could have done more?
This is a tough calendar year to evaluate Silverman on, but let's have a look at the full picture.
Did the front office do well when Matt Silverman "inherited" the team? I'd say yes, he cleared $20M in commitments, and got great value for Jeremy Hellickson, Ben Zobrist, Yunel Escobar, Wil Myers, and Ryan Hanigan, to name a few. The replacements weren't perfect, but that has more to do with injury than performance. Grade: A
Did the front office do well with the cards dealt in the 2015 season? I'm tempted to say the middle-of-the-road approach was underwhelming. Either go for it or don't. Buy or sell. The do-nothing approach of only dealing Jepsen and DeJesus sealed a nearly last-place finish without taking full advantage of the trade deadline. But the middle-of-the-road approach kept the Rays within reach, and a glimmer of hope is better than none. Sure a fire sale would have been nice, but that is a short sighted vantage point. Grade: B
Did the front office do well to prepare for the future? Here I have to say he certainly did. Willy Adames, Daniel Robertson, Garrett Fulenchek, Chih-Wei Hu, Boog Powell, the stellar 2015 draft -- the list of prospects is long and admirable. The only gaffe thus far could be neglecting to add Oscar Hernandez to the 40-man roster and losing him in the Rule-5 draft, although the jury is still out on his major league career's viability.
I would venture to say this franchise went from a bottom-third farm system to a top-third farm system in just one year with Matt Silverman at the helm, from the 2014 trade deadline to the 2015 trade deadline. Matt Silverman and his crew are clearly gearing up for the future, sinking into a re-build through standard Rays operating procedure, without the obvious pangs of suffering the Cubs and Astros had to endure. Grade: A
So how did the front office perform last season? A poor finish in 2015 reveals the wounds of more than 30 injured players on the depth chart more than anything else. This is a franchise well positioned for the future with its talent acquired and its salary maintained, and one that stayed near to contention for the majority of 2015 despite horrid circumstances.
And I say "front office" because it isn't all Matt Silverman. Surely he has leaned heavily on his two VP's to accomplish the GM tasks at hand, and the Cerberus had a clear aim. Flags fly forever, but Silverman and Co.'s focus was more on the future than the present. If you can agree that was the best approach, then the evaluation is simple. Grade: A