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National Baseball Writers: Your Rays Hot Takes are Bad

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Pre-Moneyball intellectually dishonest articles make their (triumphant?) return

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Today, Tampa Bay Times beat writer Marc Topkin published a column that reviewed some of the most noteworthy pre-season “predictions” about the 2018 Rays. To his credit he included his own pessimistic assessment:

We thought this would be a good moment to revisit our look at the anti-Rays backlash from offseason/spring, in particular this column by Darby Robinson. Just to be clear, we are not saying that the Rays current position — well out of the division race and most likely out of the wild card chase as well — is by any means a strong or satisfying season. But is a team playing .500 ball in baseball’s hardest division while providing playing opportunities to young guys “awful”, or “the least interesting team in baseball?”

Here’s what Darby wrote this winter:

I was a huge fan of the site FireJoeMorgan.com. It was funny, biting snark criticism of terrible sports writing and broadcasting. It was the perfect place to go in a time when “Moneyball” and “SABERmetrics” were starting to hit the mainstream, and old timers were not happy about it.

Countless articles were decrying teams like the Oakland A’s and Billy Beane for how stupid he was and how cheap they were, and how they couldn’t possible hope to win by getting rid of all their big name players. The arguments revolved around conventional wisdom, stats like Batting Average and RBI, and a whole lot of terms like “grit”, “the will to win”, and “intangibles”.

I thought we were done with that time.

Sure, you still had folks out there making their poorly researched out school arguments for why the stat nerds don’t know everything. But I honestly thought those were pushed to the outskirts where they belonged. That was until the Rays broke everybody’s brains.

Here’s a sample of headlines that have come out since the Rays have traded Jake Odorizzi and Steven Souza, and DFA’d Corey Dickerson:

Those are some red hot takes right there.

And these weren’t just from the big mainstream news outlets either. We have analytics driven sites like Beyond the Box Score joining in on the dump parade. It’s astounding.

I want to be crystal clear here: you don’t have to like what the Rays are doing.

I’m a massive Steven Souza fan, and a defender when he was not exactly a guy many commenters here at DRaysBay were fond of. These moves have come as a shock, later in the offseason than normal due in large part to a very strange, very slow MLB offseason.

But at no point do I assume the Rays ownership or front office is operating in bad faith, so I take particular issue with the bad faith arguments being written in response.

MLB: San Francisco Giants-Media Day Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

I have read that the Rays should be open and honest about what they are doing. That they are lying to the fans by saying that are not truly tanking and in full scale firesale mode. That the Astros and Cubs did things the “right” way by being transparent about their actions. These hot take articles assume the worst, that the Rays are just trying to drive up revenue before the team is sold or leaves town.

Except, the Rays Front Office have been fairly open about what is happening here. In an article titled, “What Rays Did is Consistent With What They Said in December,” Rays Radio host Neil Solondz laid out how the Rays brass predicted what we are seeing today:

Question: Do opportunities that present themselves dictate the path that you proceed down:

Sr VP Chaim Bloom: In terms of specific moves yes, but I think in a larger sense, we feel good about a lot of the young talent that we have here. And in a larger sense, we’re trying to do whatever we can to create that championship core … It’s just really a question of how you get there. How you get to having that club that we feel allows us to take that next step, and be in that upper echelon of the American League.

Question: Is there a chance you take a step back? Is all of that on the table?

Bloom: I think so. The goal is to win a World Series. Ideally you do that as soon as possible. We need to keep open mind. We have a lot of different plans laid out …. That depending on the way the market unfolds and how things progress will dictate our path.

The Rays Front Office have stated that they need to scale back in payroll. That they need to retool for the next youth movement. That the window is just opening and that they need to be ready for this next wave. The Rays even traded franchise cornerstone Evan Longoria to the Giants because the Rays were gearing up for a new generation of talent.

No player so far, aside from maybe Steven Souza, has been traded that comes as that big of a shock. Not if you have been paying attention.

You can argue about the quality of returns and the maximizing of surplus value. But that’s not the arguments these articles have been making, and heaven forbid these articles dwell on how different this off-season market has been.

Instead of focusing on how the Rays are planning on replacing the “value” of these supposed losses, or what the Rays are doing to build around their future, the arguments have been on how the Rays replace these “names” asking, “How can the Rays replace All Star Corey Dickerson?”, or “Number 2 starter Jake Odorizzi?” and instead of “how can the Rays replace that production?” or “that value?”

Some of the articles I have read have made note that some of the players the Rays have lost this off-season are still available. Dickerson’s trade value seems incredibly low, since a guy like Seth Smith is sitting on the Free Agent pool ready to pretty much equal Dickerson’s production. Alex Cobb and Logan Morrison are still unsigned.

The players that the Rays have traded are names that people know. But their projections, their value, and their production might not equal real world value. Jake Odorizzi was a pitcher who recorded 0.1 fWAR last year with rising BB% and a propensity to induce flyballs in a league where batters have becoming more and more focused on getting the ball airborne. The Rays are embodying the basic tenants behind the Moneyball movement: don’t pay for names, pay for runs.

There are arguments to be made, and analysis to be done, concerning whether the 2018 Rays should have kept their team intact from 2017.

Teams that are projected near .500 may not be super sexy for the fans, but with some breakouts and good luck, that team could easily be in a Wild Card race come September. That’s what the Rays were, with Odo, with Souza, with Dickerson, and with Longo. And the idea that the Rays could have kept the team intact and added the highly prized prospects as the season went on is an interesting argument to make.

But that’s not what these hot take articles have done.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Toronto Blue Jays
Tampa Bay Rays first baseman Logan Morrison (7) is congratulated by designated hitter Corey Dickerson (10) and right fielder Steven Souza Jr. (20) after hitting a three-run home run
John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Each one of these arguments have been made with a conclusion already in mind: Florida baseball is terrible, the Rays are trying to pocket cash, and are just lying to the fans about competing while every good player is sent away.

Writers are scoffing at the idea that this team could compete without the names they had last year. They are scoffing at the idea of a front office that says they are not tanking, while making big changes. They are really scoffing at the idea that the Rays aren’t going to be competing with the Marlins for the 1st overall pick.

This conclusion had been reached while the Rays are still making moves, still making calls, and still shaping what the 2018 team will look like. As the dust settles on a Steven Souza trade, the ink is starting to dry on a Carlos Gomez signing.

The Rays traded a key piece at perhaps the peak of his value for really good prospects, and then turned around to spend that money (plus a bit more) to sign a guy to pretty close to the present value lost. That’s the Rays way that we are well aware of (and sometimes fond of).

I thought the era of scoffing at analytics and process based analysis was over. That writing from the hip, with your emotions and pre-determined narratives leading the way, was a novelty among professionals. With the Rays recent moves, that era has come roaring back.

And all of these takes ignore that the Rays may be able to complete their rebuild without dropping to a mere 60-wins per season like the World Series winning Cubs and Astros shamefully required.

What I have read in these sizzling hot “Rays are disgrace to Abner Doubleday’s great game” articles are at best lazy, and at worst intellectually dishonest. We all deserve better from the so-called professionals.