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Tampa Bay Rays 2015 season preview

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SB Nation 2015 MLB Preview

Steven Souza Jr
Steven Souza Jr
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It's not often that a face of the franchise walks away from his team, but that is the fate the Rays have weathered twice in one off-season.

Andrew Friedman, former VP of Operations and de facto General Manager, was permitted to leave Tampa Bay for a promotion (and raise) to President at the Los Angeles Dodgers, and highly respected skipper Joe Maddon used the same open door to find greener pasture on the north side of Chicago.

Both men had been in their roles for nine years, but each found different opportunities when they left. For Andrew Friedman, it was more money in a more dominant market, upgrading from small market to the biggest stage. For Joe Maddon, it was an opportunity to become a legend, to bring a championship to a team that's suffered more than a century's drought.

The former was acceptable, Friedman's tenure had been very successful, but many thought it was time for the Rays to shake things up, with or without the GM. The latter came as a complete surprise, with Maddon saying just a week prior he was dedicated to the franchise. Regardless, both were daggers in the hearts of Rays fans who had grown so accustomed to the dynamic and intelligent duo. Change is inevitable, but surprising change in painful.

It should be noted that one face of the franchise remains: that of Evan Longoria, who has twice signed team-friendly extensions with the Rays and has every intention of finishing his career in Tampa Bay. At this time, trading him might result in mutiny, though his contract is likely too valuable to be outbid.


Evan Longoria -- Photo credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

In place of Andrew Friedman, the Rays assigned Team President Matt Silverman to the job held by his former colleague, choosing to build from within. Continuity was a sensible move. Although the man at the top had departed, the Rays retained the entire brain trust that had operated under Friedman, and were able to make a smooth transition. In the clubhouse, however, the Rays elected to try something new.

Joe Maddon was an intelligent manager, but a quirky one, more likely to bring penguins into the clubhouse than a motivational speaker. The Rays were known as a loose clubhouse that welcomed any and all players, but also one of inimitable flare, so when it came time to search for his replacement, they decided to cast a wide net. After the initial interviews, they narrowed their selection to three finalists, and the Rays passed over Maddon's long time right hand mane Davey Martinez, a surprising turn of events, as he was considered a front-runner. Martinez chose to leave the Rays and now serves as Chicago's bench coach, once again alongside Maddon.

The finalists for manager were diverse: former Mariners manager and Kansas City bench coach Don Wakamatsu, his former minor league teammate and Kansas City DH Raul Ibanez (who had not yet retired), and as a long shot, former Rays catcher Kevin Cash, the bullpen coach in Cleveland.

After impressing the front office, Cash would win the job, thanks both to his intelligent mind and extreme likability. Cash had never managed a game in any capacity, but that didn't hampered his consideration. A finalist earlier in the off-season for the same opening with the Rangers, Kevin Cash became the youngest manager in baseball, and a feel-good story for Rays fans to latch onto. Cash was not only a Devil Ray, but a Tampa native and Gaither high school graduate, having played on World Series teams with the local little league and Florida State.

matt silverman kevin cash

Photo Credit: Skip Milos-Tampa Bay Rays

Fortunately, the Rays are able to surround Cash with a great support staff.

Former Expos infielder Tom Foley was promoted to bench coach after a long journey in the Rays organization. On board at the time of the inception of the club, Foley was the first field coordinator in team history, and had served as third base coach for 13 seasons across three managers. Eight-year manager of the Triple-A affiliate, Charlie Montoyo was promoted to third base coach in his stead, and former star Rays prospect Rocco Baldelli was promoted from the front office to man first base. Furthermore, the coaching services of both hitting coaches, the bullpen coach, and pitching coach extraordinaire Jim Hickey were retained.

In many ways the front office and managing staff of the Rays are certainly new, but after much promoting from within and the welcoming home of Kevin Cash, the fanbase has responded with appreciation and anticipation for what could be another competitive year for the franchise.

Change on the Field

Regardless of the changes in administration, the product on the field for the Rays was guaranteed to change this offseason, and several moves made by the club were expected even before the 2014 season. Salary was at an all-time high in 2014, and several quality pieces of the major league team were on the final years of their contract, which in the Rays world means that they were about to be traded for value elsewhere. Then there were moves that were not necessarily expected.

From the 25-man roster, the Rays traded away 2B Ben Zobrist, SS Yunel Escobar, RF Wil Myers, LF Matt Joyce, C Ryan Hanigan, SP Jeremy Hellickson, RP Joel Peralta, longman Cesar Ramos, and released C Jose Molina.

In that list of players are two former Rookies of the Year (Myers, Hellickson) with years remaining on their contracts, and the second most valuable player in baseball since 2009 by wins above replacement in Ben Zobrist (35.4 WAR, trailing only Miguel Cabrera at 37.9 -- Evan Longoria is fourth at 34.0).

And let's not forget that before the season ended, once the postseason was out of reach, the Rays had also dealt star southpaw David Price. Much hasn't changed, but this will be a new-look Rays.

Still, the front office considers 2015 to be a reload more than a restart.

In order to provide perspective, here's a walkthrough of the marquee deals made by the front office:


Drew Smyly -- Photo Credit: Kim Klement-USA Today

Rays trade LHP David Price for LHP Drew Smyly, SS Nick Franklin, and SS Willy Adames

This three team deal from the 2014 trade deadline feels like ages ago already, with the Rays picking up a then-unheralded 18-year old prospect Willy Adames and a possible proxy for Price in the rotation in Drew Smyly from Detroit, as well as 2013 standout rookie Nick Franklin, who was down on his luck a bit in 2014, for 1.5 years of former Cy Young winner David Price. In effect, it was the first face of the franchise out the door, returning three big question marks.

We could have a better handle on this trade as soon as the All-Star break. Franklin and Smyly are in contention for the Opening Day roster, and Willy Adames has shot up industry prospect lists since the trade, and might be considered a top-50 prospect by mid-season. If these three names are commonplace in baseball circles come June, you'll know this trade was a success.

The opportunity cost with this trade was less the effect of having David Price in 2015, and more the trade they didn't make. Shortstop prospect Addison Russell, now a consensus top-five prospect, was allegedly on the table for the Rays in exchange for David Price, but the team chose to diversify their risk across three pieces. Whether that was the right decision is up for debate, but it might be that betting on a previous top-five prospect made the Rays wary.

Rays trade OF Wil Myers, C Ryan Hanigan, and two pitchers for C Rene Rivera, OF Steven Souza, RHP Burch Smith, and two prospects.

This monster three-player deal saw the Rays exchange their starting catcher for the Padres' backup catcher, and the disappointing OF Wil Myers for outfield prospect Steven Souza. Each exchange is curious, but they were examples of the Rays shipping off volatile players for what the front office clearly considers a safer bet.

Wil Myers hit well in his rookie campaign, but didn't play a great defensive outfield, including but not limited to a few high-profile blunders. The 2013 playoff battle against the Red Sox turned against the Rays after a miscue by Myers on a routine flyball, and an outfield collision resulted in a broken wrist that made 2014 a lost year for Myers.

That sort of performance is less than ideal for a team that prioritizes defense and run prevention. Fair or not, his inability to properly man right field, coupled with doubts about his plate discipline (which may or may not have suffered on account of the wrist injury), likely showed him the door. Coupled with a reputation for not taking well to instruction from the coaches, and the Rays appeared to be fairly fed up with their key acquisition from the James Shields trade.

In place of Myers comes a player with a strong defensive reputation after a diving outfield catch saved Jordan Zimmerman's no-hitter on the final game of the season for the Washington Nationals.

Entering his age-26 season, Steven Souza Jr. profiles to be something between Nelson Cruz and Matt Kemp, with 20/20 ability and above average defense in the outfield corner. Souza's development took a bit longer than the average star prospect after personal issues led him to quit the game, but a literal come-to-Jesus moment and mentoring by former big-leaguer Brent Lillibridge, resulted in a turn around for Souza in 2012.

How much do the Rays trust Souza to be the answer in right field? Beyond trading away Wil Myers, the Rays could have rolled with in-house veteran David DeJesus and kept the pieces sent to Washington, namely 2014 first round draft choice SS Trea Turner and pitching prospect Joe Ross. Again, the Rays avoided the higher risk piece (a younger prospect) by taking the player ready to contribute tomorrow in Souza.

Bucking the Rays trend of keeping prospects in the minors as long as possible to extend rookie status, Souza is considered likely to make the 2015 Opening Day roster.

Rays trade 2B/SS/OF Ben Zobrist and SS Yunel Escobar for DH John Jaso, SS Daniel Robertson, and OF Boog Powell.

How often do teams trade away their entire middle infield in one fell swoop? This marquee transaction hasn't been given the recognition it deserves, as Ben Zobrist has been a leader and contributor to the Rays at a high level for six years. His presence at the top of the lineup was instrumental to the Rays' success, and his double-play partner, Escobar, was rock solid in 2013. Both players were expected to produce well next season, and now both are gone.

In return the Rays picked up a valuable offensive piece to balance the lineup. John Jaso is a former Rays catcher sent off years ago in an ill-conceived trade. He blossomed as a hitter in 2012 and has three years of successful hitting near the top of the line up. Concussions took away his ability to catch, and he's not expected to ever use a mitt for the Rays. Should he ever need a glove, it's more likely he takes to the outfield. Still his left handed swing is a real threat, and his contributions will help the Rays move on from the loss of Zorilla next season.

The main piece, however, was shortstop Daniel Robertson. Physically built like a second baseman, with pythons for arms, he has a mature swing that checks all the boxes. His instincts and dedication should help him excel on the left side of the infield, even if he moves off the position down the road. Robertson is not expected to be the answer for a couple years, but inheriting shortstop full time in 2017 is not out of the question.

Lineup Outlook

So if not Zobrist or Escobar, who will play the middle infield for the Rays?

Surprising many, the Rays signed the top middle infielder available on the market this off-season by landing switch-hitting Asdrubal Cabrera, a long time shortstop with the Cleveland Indians (where Cash had previously coached), and briefly the second baseman to the Washington Nationals in 2014.

The Rays signed the 29-year old for $7.5 million, the same salary Ben Zobrist was set to earn in the coming season, which pushed the Rays payroll back above $70 million. That's about market rate, which makes it a costly move for the small-market Rays, and shows that the team really does have expectations of contending for the playoffs next season.


Asdrubal Cabrera -- Photo Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA Today

Given that Asdrubal Cabrera's defensive metrics at shortstop have never been great, and that he is unlikely to get any younger, a move to second base full time is expected, but the Rays appear poised to announce him as the everyday short stop after no other in-house options outplayed the veteran at the position in Spring Training.

The most likely candidate to share the infield with Cabrera is the aforementioned Nick Franklin, whose prospect status is already lost, and who also has a switch-hitting bat to compliment the Rays lineup. His competition in camp is former first round draft choice Tim Beckham, who hopes to blossom into a utility bench role for the Rays.

Evan Longoria and James Loney return to the Rays infield corners as two quality hitters in the Rays lineup, and two plus defenders at their corner positions. Each have incredible hands and are two further examples of the Rays' investments in their on-the-field product. Evan Longoria will earn $11M in year four of his twelve year deal with the Rays, and spray-hitting James Loney will make $18M over the next two seasons.

With the addition of Steven Souza to right field, the Rays will make a further adjustment in the outfield, moving the gold-glove-nominated Kevin Kiermaier to center field after a successful rookie campaign. He sometime takes odd routes to the ball, but his instantaneous jumps, top-shelf speed, and strong arm make him among the best in the game, and the Rays clearly feel he's up to the challenge. In turn, last year's rangy center fielder, Desmond Jennings, will shift back to his former role of left field where his relatively weak arm will be less noticeable, setting up an outfield to rival the Royals in defensive performance.

Behind the plate, the Rays will have new faces after sending off both primary catchers from 2014. Rene Rivera's framing skills will be on display in a full-time catching role, an unexpected promotion for a journeyman, but one the Rays have made before when they trusted Jose Molina with full-time duty in 2012. Rivera will be joined by either in-house depth option Curt Casali, or veteran camp invite (and another alleged master pitch framer) Bobby Wilson.

As for the lineup itself, Kevin Cash has said he prefers lineup stability, which would be a clear deviation for a franchise that averaged nearly 140 unique lineups per season under Joe Maddon.

Once roles are established, the heart of the lineup is expected to feature Longoria-Souza-Loney, with Jaso and Cabrera featured at the top. Where Souza bats in April, however, may be much lower to ease him into regular time in the majors. The Rays consider hitting fourth to be the most important slot in the line up, and until Souza proves himself capable, he will likely hit something more like sixth.

No. Pos. Player Hand Career
wOBA
Proj.
wOBA
1 CF Kevin Kiermaier L .332 .301
2 DH John Jaso L .325 .324
3 SS Asdrubal Cabrera S .325 .307
4 3B Evan Longoria R .362 .340
5 1B James Loney L .328 .314
6 RF Steven Souza R .278 .324
7 LF Desmond Jennings R .322 .311
8 C Rene Rivera R .280 .288
9 2B Nick Franklin S .288 .302
BN OF David DeJesus L .339 .306
BN OF Brandon Guyer R .309 .309
BN IF Logan Forsythe R .288 .293
BN C Curt Casali R .229 .276

The surprisingly rangy Logan Forsythe and the speedy Brandon Guyer are expected to remain on the Rays bench next season, but David DeJesus may be one final piece to be moved by the club.

DeJesus became a solid platoon bat for the Rays in 2014, and exists as a decent defender off the bench, which is not a role many players are comfortable in, making him a worthwhile piece for a contending roster. It's also my belief the Rays value his veteran presence in the clubhouse and giant smile in the dugout.

If the Rays find a trade partner for David DeJesus, it's possible he could be sent off to make way for either the thumping Juan Francisco, who has an April opt out in his minor league deal, or 2008 draft choice Tim Beckham on the 25-man roster.

The only other possible vattle is at back up catcher, where in-house option Curt Casali continues to compete with veteran Bobby Wilson, who has a well regarded framing ability.

Rotation Outlook

The Rays rotation looks to be one of their strong points once again next season, but that may be in jeopardy come April. With lefty Matt Moore still sidelined as he recovers from Tommy John surgery (expected return mid-June), the Rays other lefty, Drew Smyly, is currently dealing with shoulder tendinitis, putting his status for the start of the season at risk. Even worse, the Opening Day starter Alex Cobb is experiencing discomfort in his forearm.

As the rotation goes into tailspin, here is the Rays starting depth as it stands in April:

Alex Cobb
Chris Archer
Drew Smyly
Jake Odorizzi
Matt Moore
Alex Colome
Nate Karns

That's only three names.

Alex Cobb was set to get his first nod for Opening Day as a bonafide ace. He posted a 1.79 ERA and 2.70 FIP in the second half last season after a few adjustments, and the Rays believe he can carry that through and, considering the uncertain health of Masahiro Tanaka's elbow and the unfortunate season-ending injury to Marcus Stroman, emerge as the best pitcher in the AL East. Now he has tendinitis in his forearm. The baseball gods are not kind. Hopefully, Cobb can make it back within April.

Chris Archer was named the No. 2 starter early in camp, and though projections favored Smyly, it was a logical choice. Archer signed his own team-friendly extension last season and finished the year as a clubhouse presence and leader, setting examples to the other players in how he carried himself, and what he had to say. Can he step up to the challenge of anchoring this staff?

Archer is known for philosophical tweets and phrases, just as much as he's known for being a loose and approachable guy. He's invested heavily in the community, buying gear for fire fighters, speaking at schools in prisons, frequently visiting the children's hospital, hosted orphans in Rays camp, and he's even led local news stories on youth sports in the Tampa Bay area. He's quickly blossoming into another face of the Rays, and his performance on the mound (3.33 ERA, 3.39 FIP) back up his role as a dominant starting presence.


Chris Archer -- Photo Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA Today

As for Drew Smyly, he turned in a sharp performance for the Rays as the new comer last season. After his acquisition, the southpaw began to elevate his fastball and turned in a 1.70 ERA performance over seven starts. He might not be able to replicate the work of Price from the mound, but as the third man in the rotation he can certainly provide value. Health and durability will be his tallest hurdles.

Jake Odorizzi was a new man last season, testing out a new pitch in April that became his go-to out pitch, the signature split-change he learned from Alex Cobb. By the end of the first half he held a 3.21 FIP and 26.5% strikeout rate. Things got off track in the second half, but he'll look to build upon his early success in 2015.

At the bottom of the list, Colome is scratched. He's a flame-thrower who ran into elbow trouble, and when he made his major league debut, his reportedly plus-plus curve was nowhere to be found. He went to the Dominican winter league and worked back into starter's shape, but after a late arrival to camp due to visa paperwork, he has been hospitalized for several days with a terrible case of pneumonia. Out of options, he's guaranteed a major league spot, but when he'll be ready take that spot is still uncertain.

Finally there's Nate Karns, acquired from the Nationals last off-season for Jose Lobaton and two prospects, the Rays liked what they saw in Karns: a pitcher's body, and a biting curve. His key to success is staying loose in his delivery, particularly on the front leg, and repeating what he does best through a full start. He should get a chance come April.

After Nate Karns, there are no established starters in the minors, though a couple with major league experience.

With Cobb and Smyly delayed at least one start, by current estimates, there's room for two more starters in the early go of the rotation, it's down to a slew of triple-A starters -- including groundballer Matt Andriese (who may be best suited to long relief), the wild Enny Romero (who could touch 99 from the 'pen), or the deceptive Burch Smith (recovering from a forearm injury). From a stuff perspective Romero has the edge, but whoever looks best out of camp stands the best chance.

Burch Smith and Enny Romero have reached the bigs in the past, but the former has durability concerns with his own forearm issues, and Romero might lack the control to make it through a full start. Both have already been optioned to the minors and cannot return without an official DL-slotting injury.

Two non-conventional southpaws remain with the big league club in Spring: prospect Mike Montgomery, who was converting to relief, and invitee Everett Teaford, who pitched most recently in Korea. Each will get extended auditions alongside Andriese for the opening roster slots, though anyone other than Andriese would be surprising.

Bullpen Outlook

The Rays have always been a team to prioritize veteran leadership in the bullpen, and 2015 will be no different, starting with Grant Balfour.

After a difficult season in his return to the Rays, then the passing of his father (Australian baseball luminary David Balfour), Grant returns to Rays camp as the favorite to re-earn the closing role from Jake McGee, who underwent a late off-season surgery to clear out bone spurs from his elbow.

Former Angels closer Ernesto Frieri, the only other major league signing of the off-season, will be the other veteran presence. He chose the Rays for the opportunity to work with Jim Hickey, who has a history of turning relievers back into all-stars (Joaquin Benoit, Fernando Rodney).

Other experienced relievers will include the recently acquired Kevin Jepsen (2.63 ERA, 28% strikeout rate), and 2014's breakout reliever Brad Boxberger (2.37 ERA, 42.1% strikeout rate). Each could be valuable fantasy additions in set up roles. Relief pitchers are notoriously fickle, but the Rays will be trusting each to step up next season.


Brad Boxberger -- Photo credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

As for the specialists, Jeff Beliveau is the only projected lefty other than the injured Jake McGee, so he can expect to finally break camp at the major league level, while the long man role goes unassigned. If the Rays go a different route, any of the pitchers in the running for fifth starter could fill the role, particularly Matt Andriese, whose groundball tendencies serve as a dual threat.

Other internal options to round out the 'pen include the dependable Kirby Yates, big-armed Steve Geltz, lefty C.J. Riefenhauser, or the recently acquired fireballer Jose Dominguez (from the Joel Peralta trade).

That depth chart in full:

Jake McGee (L)
Grant Balfour (CL)
Brad Boxberger
Kevin Jepsen
Ernesto Frieri
Jeff Beliveau (L)
Kirby Yates
Long-Reliever (Smith, Andriese)

Minor League Depth

Among the pieces considered minor league depth, we can expect Steven Souza and Alex Colome to contribute immediately, as well as possible fifth starters or bench players mentioned above, but there are a few names to know for mid-season call up roles.

Ryan Brett is remarkably fast. The anticipated second baseman at triple-A next season swiped 27 bags in 107 games the year prior, and as the only player with 6-grade speed at that level, you can expect to see him come September stealing bags off the bench. His defensive profile is limited to second base, due to his arm, but some serious barrel-to-ball skills could carry him to the majors as soon as 2016.

Should there be an injury in the outfield, the first man up is likely triple-A center fielder Mikie Mahtook, who despite low rankings in the top prospect rankings, has the skillset to carve out a major league career as a fourth outfielder. His ceiling is that of Justin Ruggiano, but in 2014 he's not expected to play a large role.

As for the infield, the Rays have a few pieces able to shuffle around, but should they need to reach into the minors, now is the time for the likes of shortstops Tim Beckham or Hak-Ju Lee to overcome knee injuries and prove their worth as major-league components.

National Perception

Las Vegas has not been kind to the Rays' chances in 2015, giving odds of 1/66 or worse throughout the off-season, but projections don't agree. As of publishing, Baseball Prospectus's PECOTA standings have the Rays tied for first place in the AL East at 87 wins, while Steamer's projections at Fangraphs anticipate a second place division finish.

If everything goes right for the Rays, then the team will have been able to survive a tumultuous April schedule (something of an early AL East showdown), and the Rays will be in contention for the division title. Steven Souza will have taken to major-league hitting without an adjustment period, Smyly and McGee will have returned to form quickly from injury, and Nick Franklin will have found a home as a dependable shortstop. The new-look bullpen will be striking out the world, and the offense will be clicking with men on base.

If everything goes wrong, the Rays will likely be sputtering along as early as May. The rotation will not have been able to survive it's injuries, and the offense will have proven anemic after slow starts by Longoria and Cabrera. The team might even resort to trading several pieces and finally decide to stop toeing the line of competing in the present and building for the future simultaneously, finally shifting their focus entirely to tomorrow. Not only would 2015 become a rebuilding year, but 2016 as well if the Rays don't slog their way to the All-Star break.

This season becomes a success, however, simply if the Rays are able to secure a wild card birth for the playoff run. The Rays fancy themselves contenders, and made moves throughout the off-season to clear out pieces and build from within. Instead of focusing their trades heavily on tomorrow, the team has opted for deals that add a bit for then and a bit for now. Making the playoffs is all the Rays need to validate this was a reload, not a rebuild.

Prediction

The Rays are built to contend, but not in glamorous ways. The team's focus is, as always, on run prevention, with plus defending and superior pitching. With holes in the rotation the Rays will need to turn on the offense as soon as possible, and I believe they can. 85-wins is not out of the question for this team, and if a few one-run games fall their way, this could be a 90-win club in 2015.