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Rays’ 2017 results could define their choices next season

The Rays were finally buyers in 2017 and it backfired. What happens next?

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The 2017 season has been anything but easy to digest for the Tampa Bay Rays. The season began as one without muted hope. The team was fresh off a 94-loss season that was their highest loss total since their “Devil Days.” However, the percentage of the fanbase that subscribes to the analytics of the sport — which seems to be a higher percent among Rays fans than just about any other team — knew the team was incredibly unlucky.

First-order winning percentage had the Rays as a 77-win club; second-order winning percentage had them as a 79-win side; third-order winning percentage had them at 81 wins. The deeper one went into the analytics, the better it seemed 2017 could be.

And for the first half of 2017, that was at times the case. They won five of the first seven and led the AL East for one glorious day. By the end of May, they sat in fourth in the division, but they were over .500 (29-27) and only four games out of first in the stacked AL East. As the summer wore on, the team only improved. They moved into second place by mid-July, reaching seven games over .500 (51-44) and just two games out of first on July 18. Due to this success, the front office went ahead and became buyers in the trade deadline market.

Thanks in part to Alex Colome’s roughest stretch of 2017, it became clear the bullpen needed an overhaul. Given that relievers are often among the cheapest options (asset-wise) at the deadline, it seemed like the smartest decision for the Rays. Unfortunately, the offense went missing down the stretch:

Rays Monthly Offensive Output

Month wRC+
Month wRC+
April 98
May 110
June 112
July 87
August 88
September 77

Although the acquisitions made at the deadline — most notably Steve Cishek, Sergio Romo, and Lucas Duda — ended up working out, the team simply fell short of their goal of reaching the postseason for the first time since 2013. The only positive to come out of the collapse was this tweet from DRB writer Adam Sanford:

It is the impact of that last paragraph that I am most interested in with regards to the Rays future. Will the front office view the Buyer Mode (with the weird exception of Tim Beckham) of the 2017 trade deadline as a success because the players they targeted and acquired all thrived with the Rays? Or will they use the fact that the Rays missed the playoffs as a potentially unwarranted excuse as to why a budget-tight team shouldn’t be buyers in the current MLB landscape.

One has to hope it is the former. Once again, it appears the Rays have been unlucky in regards to their place in the standings. They are a 76-win team in reality, but by second-order (83 wins) and third-order (85 wins) winning percentages, they are a playoff team. Of course, a portion of that gap is due to the brutal division in which the Rays play. This is far from breaking news, but competing in a division with a pair of teams with the resources of the Yankees and Red Sox is always going to be a stiff test for the Rays.

That being said, no fanbase wants to see their front office perpetually kicking the can down the road. At some point ownership will have to make a move, and as great as it is to see the success the Rays minor league teams had this season, that certainly doesn’t always translate to future success for the franchise at the MLB level.

The 2018 trade deadline will likely be dependent on how the team looks in that moment. If the team is once again in contention, one has to hope ownership won’t use the second half failure of 2017 as an excuse to not make a move, and I believe they are smarter than that. Doing so would alienate a fanbase thirsty for a winning season and would be imprudent regardless of fan interaction. The same can be said of the 2017 offseason as a whole. It is unlikely the Rays will go out and hand a nine-figure contract to any pending free agents, but it would be nice to see them bring back some of their more successful 2017 reclamation projects, while also not being afraid to spend a few bucks to bring in more arms and bats.

It’s always tricky making the dollars and cents work with a team like the Rays, but hopefully the success of the 2017 trade deadline, as well as the fact the underlying numbers behind the past two seasons have the Rays as a team right in the thick of the AL wild card race, will push ownership and the front office in the right direction.