Just over a year ago, I wrote an article that examined the Rays ability to win without tanking. Obviously, I - and most others including PECOTA - never expected them to go out there and lose 94 games thereafter, but that wasn’t what the article was about. Instead, it was about the ability of the front office to make maximum use of their assets, whether they be dollars, draft picks, or players.
With the White Sox in full rebuild mode and the Reds following closely behind, I thought it would be worthwhile to re-examine just how the Rays have been able to build towards an exciting season despite trying to compete in the uber-competitive AL East while also facing chronic budget constraints.
For a detailed review of the Rays off season transactions, please read this article.
In this article, we will provide some context and shed light on just how hard this front office has worked to build a competitive team, and how focused they are on the 2017 and 2018 seasons.
Situation: Entering the Off-Season
Salary commitments at season’s end: $81,283,926
- Free Agents: Kevin Jepsen, Logan Morrison, Alexei Ramirez
- ARB Cases: Alex Cobb, Jake Odorizzi, Erasmo Ramirez, Brad Miller, Xavier Cedeno, Danny Farquhar, Corey Dickerson, Kevin Kiermaier, Brad Boxberger, Tim Beckham
The Rays entered the off season with a serious deficiency at catcher, a lack of outfield depth, a lot of underwhelming performers onboard, and a glut of young pitchers coming up through the minors and ready to challenge for MLB roles.
There was a lot of work to do, and the stats showed that off more than anything. The following is where things stood in key areas for the Rays among their peers:
- T-6th worse in BB% (7.4%) and 3rd worse in SO% (24.5%)
- T-3rd best ISO rating (.182)
- 3rd worse BA (.243) and 10th worse BAbip (.293)
- 4th worse OBP (.307) and 12th worse wOBA (.315)
- 13th best SLG (.426) and 12th best wRC+ (98)
- 16th BsR overall (-0.1)
- 18th overall in batting WAR (17.6)
Team pitching statistics: Starters
- 3rd best in K/9 (8.68) and 14th best in BB/9 (2.84)
- 8th worse in HR/9 (1.34) but 7th best in HR/FB (12.4%)
- 15th in LOB% (72.6%)
- 2nd worse in GB% (39%)
- 13th in xFIP (4.21) and 15th in WAR (11.9)
Team pitching statistics: Relievers
- 13th in K/9 (8.35) and 10th worse in BB/9 (3.57)
- 3rd worse in HR/9 (1.30) and T-2nd worse in HR/FB (14.4%)
- 4th best in LOB% (76.9%)
- 11th worse in GB% (44.5%)
- 10th worse in xFIP (4.24) and 2nd worse in WAR (0.1)
As you can see, there were some highlights, particularly when it comes to power and slugging, but when your pitching doesn’t come through as expected and you have serious deficiencies in all areas, it’s hard to keep a team near .500. Most worrisome were the number of HRs given up by the entire staff and the inability to induce GB, both of which are connected.
How did the Rays address the deficiencies?
Situation: Entering the New Season
First, the Rays needed to roster some key minor league players to protect them from the Rule 5 draft, including the following:
SS Willy Adames, INF Daniel Robertson, P Ryne Stanek, P Jaime Schultz, P Chih-Wei Hu
Those players alone could be of impact in key areas listed above. Among them, we have two high caliber, high OBP infielders (.368 through 5 seasons for Robertson and .366 for Adames) and could also help in the speed department (13 SB for Adames).
On the pitching side, Stanek could impact the pen with his low HR/9 (0.69 in AA and 1.11 in AAA), 1.181 whip and .205/.302/.305 line against as a reliever. Schultz, meanwhile, has many intrigued with his pen potential after managing a 11.2 K/9 and 0.83 HR/9 as a starter. Finally, Hu has them both beat as a starting prospect, posting some outstanding numbers for the Biscuits, including a 1.150 whip and .4 HR/9.
These are the improvements made possible through internal moves, so what about external additions?
- Arguably a top 5-7 catcher in MLB (Wilson Ramos)
- High defensive caliber outfielder with power (Colby Rasmus)
- Relief pitching with closing experience (Shawn Tolleson and Tommy Hunter)
- Pitching with high ceiling for end-year and 2018 (Nathan Eovaldi)
- Retained a 1B (Logan Morrison)
- Minors: added depth in the outfield that can play all 3 OF positions (Rickie Weeks and Shane Peterson), added pitching depth (David Carpenter, Cory Rasmus and Diego Moreno), catching experience (Michael McKenry), and retained 2B Ryan Brett
- International investments: RHP Janick Lopez, RHP Wilson Garcia, RHP Marquito Casilla, 1B Freddvil Chevez and RHP Rafael Prensa
Traded away in trade ($13.85M plus 5 at approx league min): 2B Logan Forsythe ($7M 2017, opt $8.5M 2018) LHP Drew Smyly ($6.85M 2017, Arb 4 2018) OF Mikie Mahtook (Arb 1 in 2019) UT Taylor Motter and 1B Richie Shaffer (waived and claimed twice, most recently by CLE) LHP Enny Romero (Arb 1 in 2019) RHP Eddie Gamboa
Making these trades was beneficial in three ways. First, they added a lot of talent with tools the Rays need (high-end arms, speed, and power). Secondly, they freed up money to chase and sign others. Finally, they freed up roster spots for cheaper and still capable options.
- De Leon is expected to be able to step in at any point in 2017 and provide the Rays with an outstanding arm at the back-end of the rotation after being ranked within the top 30 prospects in MLB by most outlets.
- Smith has the ability to play all OF positions - like Mahtook - but adds something that was missing on the team in 2016, high OBP and plus-plus speed (rated as 80 on the 20/80 scale). Smith’s game-changing speed should help the Rays score runs in more versatile ways in 2017.
- Yarbrough, meanwhile, could either help out the pen (joining Cedeno as a LH relief option) or the rotation (joining Snell as one of two LH starters). In either case, he provides the Rays with outstanding depth from the left side.
So now we know the Rays have added talent in key areas and have re-tooled some key positions. What does it mean for the budget?
As noted above, the Rays spent $14.5M in free agency and traded away $13.85M, making their off season a success financially speaking. As it stands, the Rays have $58,358,334 in commitments plus 8 others who are expected to approximately receive league min for an approx total of $62,358,224 for the Opening day 25-man roster.
Recently, the Rays have spent as much as $76,872,384 (2014) and $75,794,234 (2015) on the Opening day 25-man roster. If the same budget is allowed in 2017, there should be approximately $12M to $13M available to improve the roster.
As we saw with the Ramos and Eovaldi signings, the Rays are willing to spend money on high-end players with the hope they’ll be ready for the second half of 2017, or even 2018. That’s a statement for such a financially conscious franchise, one that shouldn’t be overlooked.
The Rays Way: Compete, Always
Cardinals fans love to talk about “The Cardinals Way”, a franchise wide commitment to fielding competitive teams year after year. “The Rays Way” seeks similar consistency, but with half the payroll (and no one from the front office serving a prison sentence).
Look around MLB and ask yourself how many franchises have dealt two of their top 4 starting pitchers and still have a rotation that rates as well-above-average overall?
It’s the Rays Way: an overall willingness to be the David vs Goliaths and take them on year-after-year.
There is always room to criticize specific moves, but you can’t knock their overall effort and the position it has placed them in pre-2017. With so many issues to resolve and the need to re-tool the budget and add to the system (the Rays way), the front office of this franchise acted effectively and efficiently with the result being an exciting and competitive season to look forward to.
By no means can any of these moves be viewed as rebuilds or “tanking” as they continue to defy the odds and place the Rays in an envious position with strength on the mound and burgeoning talent that should improve how the bats support their efforts.
Promising 2017 and 2018 Seasons
With a more mature lineup and the promise of incoming young prospects, this team could well be in the hunt in 2017 and even more so in 2018 when their most recent additions are all healthy. They have high ceiling players in the minors, such as Casey Gillaspie, Willy Adames, Mallex Smith and Jake Bauers set to help out in some areas of greatest need. And we haven’t even looked at the addition of Alex Cobb for a full season, adding much needed experience and stability to the rotation.
At the very least we have a very intriguing season to look forward to, and that’s not something that all MLB franchises can boast right now. As the PECOTA ratings show (84 wins for Rays), the Rays have a ton of potential this season, and if you’re a Rays fan, you can thank your relentless Front Office for that.