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The Rays Aren’t Acting Like Contenders

Tampa Bay has cornerstone talent and a path in the AL East. So why didn’t the Rays do more to firm up their roster this offseason?

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Life is full of mysteries, and so is baseball. This week, as part of The Ringer’s 2017 MLB Preview, we’ll be taking a closer look at some of the most intriguing people and teams entering the season. Some excite us, some confound us, but they all leave us asking the same question: What’s Your Plan?

With one exception, last season’s last-place teams are likely to repeat their bottom-feeding feat in 2017. That makes sense — they were bad last year, they haven’t changed much since, and another quiet October will beckon.

Then there’s Tampa Bay, which certainly seemed bad last season: Not since they exorcised the Devil from their names before the 2008 season had the Rays finished so low in the standings, with their 68–94 record tying for the second-worst mark in the majors in 2016. The Rays have reasons to be encouraged about their 2017 playoff hopes, though — which makes their offseason all the more frustrating. Had they acted more proactively in solidifying their roster for this year, they would have made even greater strides to return to the postseason, but as currently constructed, it’s unclear how they will emerge from a crowded field of AL contenders.

Before examining the 2017 roster, it’s important to understand that last year’s Rays weren’t as uncompetitive as their final record indicates. By both BaseRuns (which estimates a team’s record using its underlying hitting and pitching stats) and third-order record (which adjusts for opponent quality) Tampa Bay rated an even 81–81 last year. On Friday, Ben Lindbergh wrote about Texas, which overperformed its expected win total thanks to unsustainable performances in one-run games and clutch situations; the Rays were the Rangers’ foil, faring so poorly in those contexts that simple regression dictates they will improve in 2017.

The 2016 Rays posted the majors’ worst record in one-run games, at 13–27, but are unlikely to remain an outlier this season: Sixty-one other teams since 1901 won one-third or less of their one-run games, and those teams boosted their collective one-run winning percentage by 15 points the following year.

The clutchness math is more complicated, but the takeaway is similar. FanGraphs tracks a stat called Clutch score, which bases its calculations on how much better or worse players perform in high-leverage situations than they do overall. Last year’s Rays were the third-least clutch offense in FanGraphs’ index, which dates back to 1974, costing themselves eight wins just due to inopportune timing at the plate. (Their pitching also earned a negative Clutch score, albeit not to such an extreme margin.)

Leaguewide, offenses didn’t fare much worse as the leverage increased, nor did their strikeout rates edge higher. Yet in low-leverage situations, the Rays hit as well as the Cubs and Orioles, while in high-leverage situations, they fell to Alexei Ramírez’s equivalent.

The good news for the Rays is that clutchness doesn’t carry over from year to year, so they’re unlikely to repeat such a dour showing: The only team with a worse offensive Clutch score than Tampa Bay last year was Minnesota, which was second-best in the category in 2015, while Cincinnati reversed the Twins’ trajectory, going from 30th in 2015 to second last year.

The projection systems know that these factors make Tampa Bay ripe for a regressive bounce up the standings. That’s why PECOTA pegs the 2017 Rays as an 84–78 team, second in the AL East and only a game out of a wild-card spot, and FanGraphs has them in contention at 82–80.

Regression isn’t the only element fueling optimism this year. Third baseman Evan Longoria is still churning out four-WAR seasons, and Kevin Kiermaier has emerged as a popular breakout pick, which says something given that he has already been worth 5.8 WAR per 162 games in his career. Kiermaier is best known for his defense: The starry-eyed center fielder tallied 42 defensive runs saved in 2015, which represents the highest single-season total since 2002 (when DRS data begins), and despite missing nearly two months with a broken hand last year, he amassed the second-most DRS of any player.

Last season was additionally encouraging because of the strides Kiermaier made at the plate, where he now profiles as a promising power bat. From 2015 to 2016, he followed every step outlined in the Power Hitter Starter Kit manual, more than doubling his walk rate while not adding any strikeouts and increasing his pull, fly ball, and hard-hit rates by significant margins.

The starting rotation also boasts considerable potential, with youngsters Blake Snell and offseason trade acquisition Jose De Leon both flashing top-of-the-rotation upside, even if the latter might start the season in Triple-A. The group is led by Chris Archer, whose disastrous start to last season obscured a second-half rebound that occurred once Tampa Bay had faded from the national consciousness. Overall, Archer ran an ERA above 4 and tied for the MLB lead with 19 losses, but following the All-Star break, he posted a 3.25 ERA and top-five strikeout-minus-walk rate, where he fell between the late José Fernández and former White Sox ace Chris Sale.

Archer, like outside observers, knows the team has promise. A week after the World Series ended last November, the staff ace said in a radio interview: “A couple added pieces with the starting pitching that we have can change everything. We can get back to the winning franchise that we were.’’ Yet everything … hasn’t changed. Since Archer talked about adding pieces to supplement the solid starting staff, Tampa Bay has engaged in the following notable transactions:

  • Signed injured catcher Wilson Ramos, giving the team a bargain, but also a player who won’t reach the field until July, or thereabouts.
  • Traded starter Drew Smyly, who was about to get expensive, for a package headlined by Mallex Smith, a young outfielder who most resembles a lesser version of Billy Hamilton, banjo bat and all. Smith likely will start the season in Triple-A.
  • Traded second baseman Logan Forsythe for De Leon, thus exchanging a 30-year-old with two years of team control for a 24-year-old with six years of control.
  • Signed Colby Rasmus following a season in which the then-Astro suffered from vertigo and dizziness that might have contributed to one of the worst seasons at the plate for any outfielder in 2016.
  • Re-signed Logan Morrison, whom Tampa Bay lauds as a leader in the clubhouse, yet who has been worth negative wins above replacement almost as often in his career (three times) as he has been worth positive WAR (four).

There’s a pattern to those moves. In a vacuum, most are logical, but not one makes the club much more competitive this year. Given their resource disadvantage, the low-payroll Rays are smart to maintain a flexible, asset-based approach by trading for extra years of control and recycling pitchers once they reach arbitration age. But to compete in the AL East, they need to juggle that tactic with present-oriented moves, as well. Instead, the Rays acted with inverted myopia this offseason, focusing so intently on the future that they neglected the coming season — which, again, is an eminently winnable one, or at least would have been had the Rays acted with more urgency to firm up the 2017 roster.

Not reinforcing the bullpen that lost all those one-run games was one failure. Rays relievers combined for 0.1 WAR last year, placing them 29th in the league, and even though WAR misses some nuance when it measures bullpen performance, it’s a fair enough approximation of value that one-tenth of a win should have spurred change. Depth beyond Álex Colomé and Xavier Cedeño remains an issue, and the Rays’ only new reliever on the 40-man roster is Shawn Tolleson, who isn’t as flammable as his 7.68 ERA last season makes him look, but isn’t Mariano Rivera, either.

Even with its annual budget restrictions, Tampa Bay could have signed any of Joe Blanton, Sergio Romo, or even Matt Belisle (2.15 ERA in 79.2 innings over the past two years) for less than $5 million. Instead, the Rays are relying on Brad Boxberger to stay healthy and rediscover the strike zone and Tolleson to stop blowing leads.

Similar missed opportunities occurred on a larger scale with the lineup, which has multiple positions in need of improvement. Despite finishing sixth in home runs a year ago, the Rays placed only 24th in overall runs, and while some of that slide can be explained by the unlikely-to-repeat Clutch woes, a 27th-place on-base ranking didn’t help. Tampa Bay managed only a .307 team OBP last year, and its top three batters in the statistic — Steve Pearce, Brandon Guyer, and Forsythe — have all been traded since last July, without the team securing viable replacements.

While the Forsythe trade was shrewd and opportunistic, as De Leon is young and could become a star, Tampa Bay didn’t supplement it with the moves necessary to replace Forsythe’s bat and prevent a present drop-off in production. With its starting second baseman gone, the right side of the infield will involve some combination of Morrison, Brad Miller, Nick Franklin, and Tim Beckham. Miller just slugged 30 home runs, thanks to a pronounced leg kick that suggests his gains aren’t illusory, but he’s the only one of the bunch to scare opposing pitchers.

Even if Kiermaier and Miller continue their power surges, and even if Longoria staves off some worrisome trends to remain a potent hitter, the Rays’ lineup still maxes out with three formidable bats. Nobody else sparkles with any sort of upside. Morrison isn’t the answer. Neither is Franklin or Beckham — the former is about replacement level in all phases of the game, and the latter has a career .288 on-base percentage. Shortstop Matt Duffy is more of a defensive force than a run producer.

In the outfield, Steven Souza hits home runs, but not enough to offset his swing-and-miss problems: Over the past two seasons, he has the worst strikeout rate of anybody with as many plate appearances, which will prevent him from becoming anything more than an average player. (Don’t look at this page, Rays fans.) Corey Dickerson also struggled last year, with his prior Coors-fueled numbers cratering in the Trop, as expected. In nearly 1,500 career plate appearances, Dickerson has slashed .360/.414/.679 at Coors and .243/.287/.436 everywhere else, with a BABIP more than 100 points lower outside Colorado.

It didn’t have to be this way. For one, Tampa Bay could have signed the still-available Pedro Álvarez instead of Morrison, as the former outhit the latter in every meaningful statistic last season. The Rays also could have eased open their wallets a touch, even with their perpetual payroll problems. Archer agrees; in that same November interview, he opined, “In order for us to be successful, we’ve got to spend more money.”

Of the 10 highest-paid players on last year’s Opening Day roster, four have since been traded, a fifth (Desmond Jennings) released, and a sixth (Morrison) re-signed to a lower price. Even factoring in arbitration raises for their young players, the Rays’ payroll has fallen compared to recent seasons, from the mid-$70 millions in 2014 and 2015 to the low $60 million range this year. They might not have been able to ultimately afford José Bautista, but they reportedly had the funds available at least to pursue him. Surely they could have found sufficient budget space to reunite with offseason bargains Pearce or Matt Joyce or take a flier on Eric Thames, who drew interest from Tampa Bay before signing with Milwaukee. Instead, they chose Morrison, who was in on the joke, explaining “price point” for Tampa Bay’s decision to re-sign him.

The Rays’ underlying numbers, rotation, and pair of shining eyes in center field suggest they could contend in 2017, but they didn’t do enough this offseason to ensure it. When the lineup slumps in September and the bullpen falters in a key divisional game, the Rays will rue their missed opportunities to upgrade.