Winter Report Card: Tampa Bay Rays
With little less than four weeks before pitchers and catchers report, we're checking in on how each team has fared in conducting its offseason business while acknowledging that there's still time for its prognosis to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2014. You can find all previously published Winter Report Cards here.
2014 Results: 77-85 (.469), fourth place in AL East (Hot Stove Preview)
It was bound to happen at some point. After six straight seasons above .500, five of at least 90 wins, and a run that included four postseason appearances, two division titles and a pennant, the Rays got roughed up in 2014, and it was enough to break up the band. Gone are executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and manager Joe Maddon, the most visible members of an analytically-minded braintrust that enabled the team to compete on a shoestring budget year after year. In their place are Matthew Silverman, who shifts over from team president to president of baseball operations, and Kevin Cash, a 37-year-old former major league catcher who spent the last two years as the Indians' bullpen coach.
As inexperienced as Cash may be, his experience in Cleveland and his interviews for the Rangers and Rays openings generated considerable buzz within the industry, suggesting that he's a good fit for the role. But the reality is that he'll inherit a drastically remade roster, a smaller payroll than last year's $76.8 million, and a minor league system whose reinforcement has become the organization's priority after years of graduations and poor drafting, not to mention a plethora of drug suspensions.
Toward that end, Cash will inherit a team that’s not only without long-gone staples James Shields and David Price, but also Ben Zobrist, who was traded to Oakland on Jan. 10 along with Yunel Escobar in exchange for prospects Daniel Robertson and Herschel "Boog" Powell (no relation to the Orioles' slugger of yore), as well as old friend John Jaso. While the 33-year-old Zobrist's power has gradually eroded, he was still not only an above-average hitter (his .272/.354/.395 was good for a 116 OPS+) but also an outstanding two-way player; his 4.9 WAR 2014 season was his sixth straight year of at least 4.5.
Zobrist's versatility and low price ($7.5 million via a club option that was a no-brainer to pick up) helped bring back a nice haul. The 20-year-old Robertson, a 2012 supplemental first-round pick, hit .310/.402/.471 at High A last year and becomes the one of the team's top prospects, though he's a couple of years away from the majors. Powell, who just turned 22, is a centerfielder who hit .343/.451/.435 at two A-ball stops, so likewise, he's for the future. Jaso, who spent 2003 to 2011 in the Rays' organization, is now 31 and coming off a strong season with the bat (.264/.337/.430/117 OPS+) that was curtailed by post-concussion syndrome. He's likely to see more time as a platoon designated hitter than behind the plate due to his defensive woes and trouble with lefties (.169/.289/.221 career).
As for the 32-year-old Escobar, multiple defensive metrics showed his glovework as crashing through the floor (-22 Defensive Runs Saved, -17 Ultimate Zone Rating) to the point of neutralizing his modest offensive value (.258/.324/.340, 92 OPS+). Even with an affordable $13 million remaining on his contract over the next two years, the Rays decided they were better off without him — as did the Athletics, who flipped him to the Nationals in less than a week. Also no longer in the picture is utilityman Sean Rodriguez, whose career-high 12 homers will be missed. He was sent to the Pirates for 22-year-old righty Buddy Borden, a seventh-round 2013 pick who spent last year starting in A-ball.
The leading candidates to take over the middle infield will be Asdrubal Cabrera and Nick Franklin, though their positions are up in the air, and both former No. 1 pick Tim Beckham and holdover Logan Forsythe could be part of the mix at the keystone as well. The 29-year-old Cabrera, who’s coming off his second straight subpar showing at the plate (.241/.307/.387, 96 OPS+ split between the Indians and Nationals) as well as abysmal defense at both middle infield positions (-17 DRS, -9 UZR), is no bargain via his one-year, $7.5 million deal, but he likely won't be staying long.
The outfield has been shaken up rather drastically as well, with both Matt Joyce and Wil Myers traded. The 30-year-old Joyce, who hit .254/.349/.383 (111 OPS+), was sent to the Angels in a straight-up deal that brought back hard-throwing 30-year-old reliever Kevin Jepsen (more on whom below). As for Myers, after a disastrous season that included a .222/.294/.320 line with six homers in 361 PA, as well as a 70-game absence due to a broken wrist, he was shipped to the Padres in a three-way, 11-player blockbuster that also sent out 19-year-old lefty Jose Castillo (who has spent two seasons in Rookie ball), 21-year-old righty Gerardo Reyes (who spent 2014 in Low A as a reliever) and 34-year-old backstop Ryan Hanigan, who hit just .218/.318/.324 and added 6.5 framing runs to his meager 1.2 WAR in his lone year in Tampa Bay.
In return for Myers, the Rays received 19-year-old A-ball first baseman Jake Bauers, 19-year-old righty Travis Ott (who split last year at two A-ball stops), 24-year-old righty Burch Smith (who made 10 appearances for the Padres in 2013 but missed most of 2014 due to forearm woes), 31-year-old catcher Rene Rivera (more on whom below) and 25-year-old outfielder Steven Souza. Best known for making a spectacular final-out catch to preserve Jordan Zimmermann's Sept. 28 no-hitter, Souza went just 3-for-23, albeit with a pair of homers, in his brief major league trial, but he tore up Triple-A Syracuse with a .350/.432/.590 showing with 18 homers in 407 PA, his third straight season with at least a .548 slugging percentage and .938 OPS. He figures to slot into leftfield, with Desmond Jennings in center and Kevin Kiermaier in right, and both David DeJesus and Brandon Guyer also in the picture barring a trade.
The rotation did not go untouched, though the trade of former AL Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson to the Diamondbacks was small potatoes compared to the earlier ones of Shields and Price. After being rocked for a 5.17 ERA in 2013, the 27-year-old Hellickson was limited to 13 starts with a 4.52 ERA due to offseason surgery to remove loose bodies from his elbow. With Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, Drew Smyly, Jake Odorizzi, Alex Colome and eventually Matt Moore (who's working his way back from May Tommy John surgery) in the mix, the Rays took advantage of Hellickson's two remaining years of club control and received a pair of prospects in return. Switch-hitting 20-year-old middle infielder Andrew Velazquez is a 2012 seventh-round pick who hit .290/.367/.428 with 50 steals at A-level South Bend, and 19-year-old leftfielder Justin Williams is a 2013 second-round pick who hit .351/.403/.467 in a season split between Rookie League Missoula and South Bend.
The bullpen will have a different look, too. Jepsen, who posted a 2.63 ERA with 10.4 strikeouts per nine in 65 innings last year, could get a shot at the ninth inning despite having just five career saves under his belt, given that closer Jake McGee underwent surgery to remove loose bodies from his elbow. Jepsen has one more year of arbitration eligibility after this one, so if he does close regularly, that could push up his 2016 cost considerably.
Jepsen will be joined by fellow ex-Angel Ernesto Frieri. After saving 60 games in 2012-13, Frieri was torched for a 7.34 ERA in 41 2/3 innings between the Halos and Pirates, the latter of whom released him in September. The 29-year-old righty signed a deal for $800,000 plus incentives and could set up or close. Meanwhile, after having his $2.5 million option picked up, Joel Peralta — who made 69 appearances for the team in 2014 and has averaged 67 over the last four years — was dealt to the Dodgers along with 27-year-old Triple-A reliever Adam Liberatore in exchange for 20-year-old righty Greg Harris (another A-ball starter in 2014) and 24-year-old heat-throwing reliever Jose Dominguez, who struck out more than a batter per frame but was limited to just 41 innings between the minors and majors due to shoulder inflammation.
Unfinished Business: Catcher, more cost-cutting
With Hanigan traded and Jose Molina released despite being owed $2.75 million for 2015 — there's only so much pitch framing one can do to offset a dead bat (.178/.230/.187 in 247 PA) — Rivera is slated to be the regular catcher, with Jaso likely the No. 3 so as to take full advantage of his bat. Thus, the team could use another backstop, in part to mitigate the risk of Rivera's regression; having hit .206/.241/.290 (45 OPS+) in 461 PA through his age-29 season, he broke out to bat .252/.319/.432 with 11 homers and a 117 OPS+, numbers that won’t be easy to sustain. Less likely to fall off is his pitch framing, which ranked second in the majors in pitch framing at +26.5 runs via Baseball Prospectus' metrics. Still, Silverman will need to scare up somebody to for a job share, and you can bet he'll be an above-average framer if not a plus with the bat.
Given the team's stated intention to pare payroll, it's likely that further cuts are in order given that the team has $67.9 million committed to 16 roster spots, thereby pushing them into the $73 million range via their pre-arbitration players, a minimal savings from last year. Most likely to be traded is DeJesus, who is slated to earn $5 million, with a $1 million buyout on his 2016 club option attached as well. The 35-year-old was solid in a part-time role in 2014 (.248/.344/.403, 115 OPS+ in 273 PA), but as a lefty, he's redundant with Jaso, and he's not about to play more leftfield at the expense of the righty-swinging Souza. Trading him would likely give the team a bit more breathing room, as would a time machine to prevent signing James Loney to a three-year, $21 million deal last winter; he still has another $15 million remaining after hitting a tepid .290/.336/.380 in 2014.
Preliminary Grade: C-
Even in an AL East that looks considerably weaker than in years past, the Rays don't look primed to contend, nor have they cut costs as substantially as you'd expect given their turnover. Their flurry of moves has restocked their farm system, but aside from Souza, they're lacking in immediate help and still have a shortage of impact players down the road. That said, they still possess a young, high-upside rotation, so they won't be pushovers in 2015.