With less than five weeks before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we're checking in to see how each team has fared thus far this off-season while acknowledging that there's still time for that evaluation to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2015. Now up: the Tampa Bay Rays. You can find all previously published Winter Report Cards here.
80–82 (.494), fourth place in American League East (Hot Stove Preview)
(*free agent, still unsigned)
Off-Season In Review
The Rays have yet to sign a free agent to a major league contract this off-season, and of the three trades they have made, only one saw players heading in both directions. One of those deals was the dumping of lefty reliever Kirby Yates (7.97 ERA in 20 games last year) on the Indians after he had been designated for assignment in late November to make room for minor leaguers the team wanted to protect from the Rule 5 draft. Tampa Bay received cash in that deal, and cash was all they gave the Astros for catcher Hank Conger in early December.
Conger, who will turn 28 later this month, has two team-controlled seasons remaining, is coming off a nice bounce-back season at the plate in 2015 (.229/.311/.448 and a 106 OPS+, better than league average for a catcher) and ostensibly addresses one of the team’s positional needs. I say ostensibly because Conger threw out just one of the 43 runners who attempted to steal a base against him last year. That resulting 2.3% caught-stealing rate is, based on the available data, the lowest ever by a catcher who faced 25 or more steal attempts. The Rays—whose catchers, led by 31-year-old journeyman Rene Rivera, hit .201/.239/.362 last year—are hoping that was a fluke and that their coaching staff, led by catcher-turned-manager Kevin Cash, can improve Conger’s throwing enough that he’s playable behind the plate. They also know that throwing is overrated and that Conger is a good pitch framer and a positive force in the clubhouse on a team which could use a few laughs, which makes it worth the relatively tiny financial gamble for the potential upgrade in their catching corps.
Which brings us to the one significant move Tampa made this winter—one likely instigated by new Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto, who was as active this off-season as the Rays’ front office was quiet. In that move, which came way back on Nov. 5, the Rays traded righty starter Nathan Karns, centerfield prospect Boog Powell and lefty reliever C.J. Riefenhauser to Seattle for shortstop Brad Miller, first baseman Logan Morrison and righty reliever Danny Farquhar.
The 26-year-old Miller, an Orlando native, has four team-controlled years remaining and could hold down the shortstop position for the Rays in that time. A competent fielder (his poor cumulative defensive ratings last year are due to his abysmal play in centerfield after Ketel Marte pushed him off his natural position), Miller has a bit of pop and remaining potential at the plate. A former second-round pick out of Clemson, he hit .334/.409/.516 in 219 minor-league games, putting up outstanding numbers at every level, and he has been a better-than-league-average hitter (not just for a shortstop) in two of his three major league seasons. Miller hit .261/.324/.409 in 832 plate appearances in 2013 and '15 combined and has hit .256/.327/.429 in 908 PA against righties over his entire career. He could find himself in a platoon with Tim Beckham or perhaps even Nick Franklin, who was Miller's double-play partner in Seattle in 2013.
Farquhar, who will turn 25 in March, impressed out of Seattle's bullpen in 2013 and ’14 and has four team-controlled years remaining, but his strikeout and home-run rates took big steps in the wrong direction last year. The 5’9” Farquhar is an inventive pitcher who alters his arm angle and adds and subtracts from a fastball that can reach the upper 90s, all of which suggests he has the intelligence and creativity to recover from a down season. But he’ll have to fight his way into high-leverage situations in the Rays’ well-stocked bullpen.
Morrison is a lefthanded first baseman coming off a lousy age-27 season and heading into his walk year. It’s certainly possible that he could out-hit incumbent first baseman James Loney in the coming season, but he’d have to do so by a significant margin to make up for the discrepancy in their fielding. Either way, the loser of that job may not see much playing time, as starting Morrison at designated hitter would effectively give the Rays two Loneys in the lineup when one is too many.
Given the quality of the Rays’ rotation and remaining pitching prospects, Karns, a 28-year-old sophomore with a mid-rotation ceiling, was an easy piece to surrender. The 23-year-old Powell, a small centerfielder with little power and awful stolen base percentages but good on-base ability, isn’t a prospect they’re likely to regret losing, either. Riefenhauser, meanwhile, is now an Oriole, having been thrown into Seattle's trade of Mark Trumbo.
Unfinished Business: At least one impact bat
Despite their lack of activity, the Rays did manage to address their needs at shortstop and catcher. What they failed to do with those moves, however, was acquire the kind of impact bat their lineup has lacked ever since Evan Longoria’s last good season in 2013. Need proof? Here's Tampa's current list of candidates to start at DH: Morrison, Franklin, Brandon Guyer, Mikie Mahtook and perhaps even Conger if his throwing issues can’t be fixed.
Only the White Sox scored fewer runs than the Rays in the AL last year, and Chicago went out and got slugging third baseman Todd Frazier this off-season. The best bat the Rays acquired was Miller’s, and he isn’t terribly likely to out-hit what Asdrubal Cabrera did last year (.265/.315/.430). Nor are the players listed above likely to beat or even match the .277/.340/.453 line from Tampa's DHs in 2015: John Jaso, Joey Butler and David DeJesus, all departed.
Preliminary Grade: D+
I like the Rays’ side of the Miller trade, which gives them security at an up-the-middle position for the remainder of the decade, and Conger is worth the negligible gamble. But it’s hard to avoid the impression that both of those deals fell into their laps. Dipoto was clearly determined to act and to unload Miller, who no longer fit on a Mariners team that has Marte at shortstop. The Conger “trade,” meanwhile, happened as the deadline to offer him a contract, and thus arbitration, was bearing down on Houston. It’s not clear the Rays have improved at all for the coming season, and their off-season as a whole reeks of lack of effort.