Devil Rays. May ye now rest as Angel Rays.
PECOTA darlings, the Rays failed to live up to projections and were taken from us too soon. Picked to win 91 games and win the AL East by Baseball Prospectus’ projection systems, the Rays will likely wrap up the 2016 campaign more than 20 games back of first place and with 90 losses.
In this way, the Rays are the latest lesson in trusting projection systems; in trusting hope. However, in other ways, we are also here to celebrate their life. For all was not lost where playoff odds were.
When was it over:
On May 21, the Rays sat smack-dab in the middle of their division and exactly at .500 through the first 40 games. They had just wrapped up a four-game win streak that included a three-game sweep of the division rival Blue Jays in Toronto.
Both Boston and Baltimore were off to torrid starts at this point, but there was no reason the Rays couldn’t keep pace. After all, the Jays were in last place at this time but have since battled back and are holding—though tenuously—a playoff spot.
On that day, the Rays’ win-streak ended with a loss to the Tigers. A single loss in the standings wasn’t the worst news the Rays were given that day though; not by a long shot. The Rays also lost star centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier to the disabled list with a broken hand.
At face value, a defense-first centerfielder maybe wouldn’t be that big of a loss to some teams. After all, many teams are much more concerned with run creation, not run prevention. Not the Rays though. Run prevention is largely how they win games. Paying for offense can get pricy and cost money that the Rays don’t have. Meanwhile, elite defenders can prevent runs while being league average hitters. And league average hitters make substantially less in arbitration and in free agency.
Over the next 12 games, the Rays would win just two. By the time Kiermaier was able to come back on July 15, the Rays had won an additional 12 games. That’s right. In Kiermaier’s absence, the Rays went 14-35. Losing your best player can be a heck of a thing.
What went well:
The biggest thing that went well for the Rays was franchise player Evan Longoria returning to All-Star form. He’s hit 36 home runs so far this season, which is surprisingly the most he’s ever hit in a single season. Subsequently, his .527 slugging percentage is the best mark of his career. Longoria has been reborn into a bonafide slugger and, though it seems to have come at the expense of some walks, the 30-year old appears to have substantial value left.
The offseason signing of Steve Pearce also broke the right way for them. In fact, among hitters with at least 300 plate appearances, Pearce ranks 24th in wRC+, sandwiched between Mookie Betts and Jung-Ho Kang. On a one-year deal, Pearce was flipped at the trade deadline to his former team—the Baltimore Orioles—for catching prospect Jonah Heim.
Though he started slowly, Chris Archer seemed to have ironed out his control issues down the stretch. In the first half of the season, Archer gave up 48 walks and had a walk rate just under 10 percent. Since the All-Star break however, Archer has walked just 15 batters and allowed them at a rate of 4.8 percent; almost exactly half. Definitely a good sign heading into the 2017 season.
Lastly, Blake Snell proved his worth at the major league level in his rookie season. In 81.1 innings, Snell struck out 88 batters and allowed 35 earned runs. While his walk rate is high at 12.7 percent, and the youngster did manage to throw six wild pitches, Snell’s growth as a major leaguer has just begun and the promise is apparent.
A second opinion:
“The Tampa Bay Rays are built on pitching and defense, and in 2016 the Rays had neither in the month of May, dooming what otherwise could have been a competitive season in the AL East.
Kevin Kiermaier and Logan Forsythe were both lost to injury for a significant chunk of the season heading into the All-Star break and the pitching couldn't keep the Rays afloat. If you take that really weird tailspin out, the Rays could have been a super competitive team right now.
Through August and September, the team's run differential is +18. By Pythagorean record, that's an expected win percentage around .540, and that's while they experiment with a rebuilding roster.
The Rays have been, and will continue to be, in a position to succeed. Everything just has to click at the same time.”
What’s in the future:
Aside from the team finding out how to protect Kiermaier from literally any injury, there’s a lot of hope coming out of St. Petersburg.
Despite two consecutive losing seasons—and 2015 was just barely under .500—the Rays aren’t truly in dire shape. No more than they normally are at least. Since Matthew Silverman took the helm from Andrew Friedman, the Rays are 221-254. While that’s not ideal, that largely coincides with losing key on-field contributors like David Price, James Shields, and Ben Zobrist. Two of whom have gone on to make more money than the Rays could commit to a player, and the other has collapsed as a top of the rotation arm.
Furthermore, this can’t be pinned on Kevin Cash either, who is in just his second season as Joe Maddon’s successor. While fans may want to reflexively blame the manager, and while Maddon’s shoes were big enough to fill without his current team being the best in all of baseball, Cash’s managerial acumen is largely still undecided.
For building blocks, the Rays have three of the top 100 prospects in all of baseball according to MLB’s 2016 Prospect Watch. And their roster is already young to begin with. Archer is 27 years old and under team control through 2021. Kiermaier is 26 years old and arbitration eligible through 2020. Same goes for the 27-year old Steven Souza Jr. and the newly-acquired 25-year old Matt Duffy. Brad Boxberger is arbitration eligible through 2019 and Alex Colome won’t be free agent eligible until 2021.
In fact, the only pending free agents on the Rays’ roster are Kevin Jepsen, Logan Morrison, and Alexei Ramirez; players the team would likely be able to retain if need-be but could just as easily elect not to.
To wrap it all up, the AL East seems to be in a time of flux. The Blue Jays look like contenders now, but with pending free agents and an aging roster, that may not last. The Red Sox looked built for longer-lasting prowess, but the roster still has some issues. The Yankees appear to be ready to begin contending again, but that doesn’t always turn out. And the Orioles have been great on offense but have made an impressive run on the back of one of the worst starting rotations the division has ever seen.
If the Rays are capable of recapturing some 2013 magic, it may take some good luck and good health. But what team doesn’t need that?