After four consecutive seasons of trying to be “competitive enough” in the AL East, the Rays have changed the way they approach typical offseasons.
The Rays will be sure to continue dealing a couple useful role players in the later stages of salary arbitration like Alex Colome or Jake Odorizzi, as they usually do, but the team has also traded away the face of the franchise in Evan Longoria, leaving only two players with long-term contracts: center fielder Kevin Kiermaier and starting pitcher Chris Archer.
That’s only two locks on a 25-man roster, and that is by design.
The rest of the team will be made up of players on expiring contracts and those playing out their rookie contracts, giving Tampa Bay a wide variety of prospects and inexpensive role players to sort out in 2018, but importantly, with an eye on 2019 for a full press back into playoff contention.
The temptation is to call that a rebuild, but 2018 is really more of a reset.
Trade of Longoria indicates #Rays open to anything, but does NOT necessarily mean Archer is next, sources tell The Athletic. Rays, given strength of farm system, not looking at five-year rebuild. Might compete as soon as 2019; Archer under control and affordable through ‘21.— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) December 21, 2017
The Post-Longoria Rays
Trading Longoria is, to be sure, a key piece of that reset. The Rays couldn't figure out how to win with Evan Longoria, so they’re going to figure out how to do it without him.
The 2017 Gold Glove winner is indeed aging, and older players have a higher risk of injury, particularly when playing on artificial turf, so we cannot say carrying Longoria was without risk. The Rays saw an opportunity to relieve themselves of this risk in acquiring Arroyo (et al.), and took it.
Instead of facing a future where Longoria’s contract - nearly 25% of the Rays annual payroll - could be dedicated to a player who cannot take the field or contribute at a high level, the Rays diversified their risk in acquiring a glut of possible infielders.
That is not to say that the Rays saw Longoria as fully replaceable, but they have some possibilities for filling the void he leaves behind (discussed further below) as the Rays enter this reset.
And it’s worth mentioning that allowing Longoria to compete elsewhere while the Rays get their ducks in a row is a sort of kindness to a veteran who no doubt wants to get back to the postseason sooner rather than later.
So what do those replacements look like? There are a lot of candidates and many come with question marks.
There are experienced infielders like Matt Duffy, Brad Miller, and Ryan Schimpf, all with multiple years of control, as well as utility infielders Daniel Robertson, Joey Wendle, and Micah Johnson who could contribute. The Rays also have top prospects Willy Adames, Jake Bauers, and now Christian Arroyo ready to graduate from Triple-A.
How many of these players are starters for the Rays in 2019?
It takes playing time to sort that out.
Tampa Bay’s uncertainty goes beyond the infield. Every piece of the roster not named Kiermaier or Archer is expendable. Likely trades of Odorizzi and/or Colome could bring even more major league-ready talent into the mix.
It’s time for the Rays to figure out exactly what they have and who they are.
And that self assessment has been a long time coming.
2014 was a Watershed Year
Consider what the Rays 40-man roster looked like on October 15th, 2014 when Andrew Friedman (and eventually Joe Maddon) flew the coop, leaving Matt Silverman and his crew to run the organization:
C Ryan Hanigan, Jose Molina, Curt Casali
1B James Loney, Jerry Sands
2B Logan Forsythe, Nick Franklin, Cole Figueroa
SS Yunel Escobar, Sean Rodriguez, Hak-Ju Lee, Tim Beckham
3B Evan Longoria, Vince Belnome
LF Brandon Guyer, Matt Joyce, David DeJesus
CF Desmond Jennings, Kevin Kiermaier
RF Wil Myers, Ben Zobrist
SP Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Alex Cobb, Jeremy Hellickson, Drew Smyly, Alex Colome, Nate Karns, Matt Moore*, Mike Montgomery, Enny Romero
RP Jake McGee, Joel Peralta, Grant Balfour, Brad Boxberger, Cesar Ramos, Steve Geltz, Brandon Gomes, C.J. Riefenhauser, Jeff Beliveau, Kirby Yates
* - 60 day DL
The Rays would eventually trade away (or release) every major league position player on that list, save Kiermaier. The bullpen was in shambles, and the starting core was full of injury risks and pitchers better suited to relief.
With the benefit of hindsight, if ever there was a time to enter a full rebuild, it was October 15th, 2014.
The Rays did not do that, instead slogging through the 2015, 2016, and 2017 seasons in attempts to compete, placing the inexperienced Kevin Cash atop the clubhouse, and installing Rays President Matt Silverman over Baseball Operations while preparing in-house GM candidate Erik Neander and VP Chaim Bloom to assume control, which they did at the end of 2016.
It was an imperfect approach to a difficult situation, with the Rays finishing fourth, fifth, and then third in the AL East over that last three seasons.
The team had too much pride to simply gut the roster all at once. Maybe they left too much meat on the bone by not dealing the likes of Alex Cobb or Jake Odorizzi when their value was high, but for the most part, the Rays have been in a slow rebuild since 2014, and as the Evan Longoria trade shows, it's time to pull the bandaid off.
2018 is going to hurt, but the Rays needed to become something new.
A reason for some optimism: the Rays might not have entered a Cubs/Astros style tank-and-rebuild, but they have nevertheless managed to build one of the top five minor league systems in all of baseball, in part through the trades of players above. Some quality draft picks after losing seasons and an aggressive investment in international scouting have helped too.
The Third Generation of the Rays Franchise Starts Here
The first generation of the Rays began in 1998, on the shoulders of Wade Boggs. The second generation began when Stuart Sternberg appointed Andrew Friedman to GM the new-look franchise. The third generation begins now, with the departure of Evan Longoria providing a clear way forward for a new-look front office and coaching staff to develop a top flight farm system into a competitive major league squad.
Yes, having gone through the five stages of grief on the Evan Longoria trade, I think I’ve finally reached acceptance. I may never feel that the Evan Longoria trade was fair or necessary, but at least it has a clear purpose.
The Rays rebuild has quietly been happening behind the scenes for three long seasons. It’s time we all embraced that and look forward to developing a new generation of talent in 2018 and beyond.