The Tampa Bay Rays have a standard operating procedure for every off-season: let the market come to you.
As a small market club — one of the four teams requiring revenue sharing to stay competitive — the Rays do not have the luxury of signing a top free agent to a lucrative multi-year deal. They instead must sign promising players coming off an injury, like Wilson Ramos, or wait out the market to land a Carlos Gomez at a third of his usual cost.
This year the Rays blew it all up, ditching any players with multiple years of arbitration making more than $5 million, while also dealing the face of the franchise to the San Francisco Giants in a deal that still has folks scratching their heads.
Of course, it didn’t have to be this way.
What would the Tampa Bay Rays 2018 offseason look like if the team were not in a rebuild?
The moves that still happen
Tampa Bay made a couple trades this offseason that still make good baseball sense regardless of whether the Rays were in a rebuild.
Starting with the trade of Jake Odorizzi to the Minnesota Twins for a shortstop prospect. Let’s keep market forces the same and assume this was the deal the Rays liked the most in an ideal setting as much as the hellscape we’re living in. Odorizzi was not a multi-win player and only getting more expensive, and Durham is loaded with arms. He’s gone.
Then continuing the cost cutting maneuvers, the Rays still sell high on Steven Souza Jr. to acquire LHP Anthony Banda and change, because they will want an easy Odorizzi replacement on the depth chart, and there’s a complimentary move on the horizon: Carlos Gomez, for a mere $4.5 million.
Tampa Bay also takes the low cost route at first base, letting Logan Morrison walk and acquiring C.J. Cron from the Angels, who were making room for Shohei Ohtani’s plate appearances.
Oh, and lets say the Rays still trade Brad Boxberger to clear room for the kids in the bullpen, and that Sergio Romo is re-signed in his stead.
The moves that never happen
For starters, the Rays don’t trade the face of the franchise. Evan Longoria remains a Tampa Bay Rays player and Matt Duffy shuffles to second base.
With Duffy entrenched and Adeiny Hechavarria with one year remaining on his deal, the clock will have to tick a little longer for top short stop prospect Willy Adames, but if Hech is really the elite defender the Rays staff proclaim he is, the team could flip him anytime to make room on the roster mid-year.
Brad Miller likely returns as well regardless of the rebuild, and becomes the primary DH, pushing Corey Dickerson permanently into left field. That’s right, All-Star Corey Dickerson remains a Tampa Bay Rays player without ever suffering a humiliating DFA and subsequent trade while his wife is in labor.
As a consequence of these non-deals, the Rays never acquire left fielder Denard Span, relief pitcher Daniel Hudson, or infield prospect Christian Arroyo.
Here’s what the non-rebuilding Rays look like
Assuming the above to be what occurred, here’s what the Rays would look like both in payroll and projected wins above replacement, via Steamer:
The Non-Rebuilding 2018 Rays
|SP||Jose De Leon||$550,000||0.9|
What that WAR total is missing is the replacement players who invariably help along the way. Starting rotation promotions should provide around two more wins above replacement, and you can probably add a third win from the position player side. Steamer currently projects the Rays to 32 WAR in 2018 with that same holistic viewpoint.
Applying that rule of thumb, with the Rays following the more traditional off-season, we see Tampa Bay field a more competitive team, with something like 35-36 WAR projected.
Here’s how that compares to the rest of the American League projections (Team - Steamer WAR projection for 2018):
- Astros - 55.2 WAR
- Yankees - 50.6 WAR
- Indians - 48.8 WAR
- Red Sox - 47.7 WAR
- Angels - 41.2 WAR
- Blue Jays - 40.8 WAR
- Twins - 36.7 WAR
- Fake Rays ~ 35.5 WAR
- Mariners - 34.4 WAR
- Rebuilding Rays - 32.0 WAR
PECOTA might have faith in the Rays style of roster building, but by Steamer’s projections that’s not a good look, rebuilding or not.
There are still upgrades that could be made around baseball that impact these projections, given the free agents remaining. Even the Rays could make some changes, like should they choose to upgrade Brad Miller to Neil Walker, but these are marginal improvements.
So perhaps the Rays saw the writing on the wall this winter, accepted their fate of not being a playoff-bound team based on their own internal projections, and tore it all down because they knew they could approximate the 2018 roster’s wins without the majority of their players on expensive multiyear deals.
In truth, the Opening Day payroll in 2018 will be the highest the Rays have ever produced with $77 million in payroll commitments. The Fake Rays above are almost exactly the same cost, but with more costly pieces committed beyond 2018.
Tampa Bay’s cadre of trades leaves the team with only $30 million committed beyond this season, so perhaps the Rays are bankrolling for future seasons when the prospects come to the majors and rack up their own expensive arbitration salaries.
The Rays will also have a shiny new television deal worth $1.2 billion, and a $50 million windfall coming from MLB’s sale of BAM. There’s plenty of cash that will soon be on hand. Tampa Bay will surely be allocating much of that to the new stadium, yes, but there’s also room on the field for that revenue to be reinvested.
Tampa Bay lost respect in the baseball industry through its litany of trades, foremost the Longoria deal, despite the club consistently spending its share of revenue in line with the major league average.
You can talk yourself into and out of any of the baseball moves above, but what ownership and the front office does with their increase in revenue beyond 2018 will be the real test of character.
Then again, should the Rays try to meet the standards set by the industry? If they can defy the projections and win, few will remember the Rays rebuild in a poor light.