Winter Report Card: Tampa Bay Rays
With only a few weeks remaining until pitchers and catchers report to spring training, 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 2013. To see the report cards already published, click here.
Tampa Bay Rays
2013 Results: 92-71 (.564), 2nd place AL East, lost Division Series (Hot Stove Preview)
Key departures: UT Kelly Johnson, DH Luke Scott, OF Sam Fuld*, DH Delmon Young, RHP Roberto Hernandez, RHP Fernando Rodney*, LHP Alex Torres, RHP Jamey Wright, LHP Wesley Wright, RHP Jeff Niemann* (* = free agent, still unsigned)
Despite the quantity of departing players above, the Rays did not shed an excess of quality this offseason. They do need to replace Delmon Young's lefty-maiming bat (see below), but he only appeared in 23 games for them after being reacquired in late August. Healthy seasons from starting pitchers David Price, Matt Moore and Alex Cobb and a full major league season from Chris Archer would both eat up and represent an upgrade over the 151 innings the team got from Roberto Hernandez in 2013, over which he posted a meager 78 ERA+. Similarly, full seasons from 2013 Rookie of the Year Wil Myers and late-August acquisition David DeJesus would replace and improve upon the 2013 contributions of Kelly Johnson, who got the bulk of his playing time in the outfield last year, and Luke Scott.
The biggest loses were in the bullpen, and that's where the Rays made the most effort to find replacements. They signed Grant Balfour for $12 million over two years to replace Fernando Rodney and brought in Heath Bell and Brad Boxberger as part of two larger trades to help replace the innings lost with the departures of Jamey Wright and Alex Torres. That swap seems destined to fall short, however, as Wright and Torres were a right-lefty pairing that combined for a 2.46 ERA over 128 innings in 2013, while Bell and Boxberger, both righties, have posted a 4.59 ERA and walked 5.6 men per nine innings, respectively, over the last two seasons.
That said, Bell and Boxberger were not the key players in their respective trades. The former All-Star Bell, now 36, came over in the three-team trade that netted catcher Ryan Hanigan from the Reds; Boxberger, who will be 26 in late May, arrived last week in a seven-player deal with the Padres that cost Tampa Bay pitcher Alex Torres but brought in two other young arms who could prove more valuable than Boxberger in the long run, as well as utility man Logan Forsythe.
In that deal with San Diego, the Rays received 24-year-old righthanded starter Matt Andriese, who excelled at Double A in the first half of last year before moving up to Triple A. Andriese overcame the struggles he had against lefties in 2012 and has posted a 3.61 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his brief minor league career since being drafted out of college in the third round in 2011. They also acquired 23-year-old righty Matt Lollis, is a 6-foot-9 behemoth who could be a relief weapon if the team can get him to harness his electric stuff.
As for the 33-year-old Hanigan, he is a star behind the plate, consistently rating above average in pitch framing while leading the majors in caught stealing percentage in each of the last two seasons -- nabbing 47 percent of would-be base thieves in 2012 and '13 combined. Offensively, he had bad luck on balls in play last season (.216 BABIP) but his career on-base percentage is still a healthy .359. Hanigan is arguably the most underrated catcher in baseball and could be a bargain over the course of the three-year, $10.75 million extension Tampa Bay signed him to in the wake of the trade.
That move would have been deserving of more praise had it not been preceded by the team re-signing Jose Molina. Molina will only cost the Rays $4.5 million over the next two years, but he'll be 39 in June and is made redundant by the addition of fellow righthanded-hitting catcher Hanigan. Switch-hitting Jose Lobaton, 29, can serve as the position's lefthanded foil.
Tampa Bay's biggest misstep this offseason, however, was re-signing first baseman James Loney. He was a nice surprise last year -- he hit .299/.348/.430 while making $2 million after being non-tendered by the Red Sox following a brutal 2012 season -- but he's a good bet to regress from that level of performance going forward and is now owed $21 million over the next three years. That's a bad investment for a team that is so cash strapped it made no secret of its desire to trade ace David Price this winter despite his having two years of team control remaining.
Unfinished business: Righthanded designated hitter and outfielder
Yes, the Rays have thus far failed to trade Price, but there are worse things for a perennial contender than being stuck with having one of the best lefthanded starting pitchers in baseball head-up their rotation at the relative bargain price of $14 million. It may make a certain amount of sense over the long term for the club to cash in Price for near-ready prospects now, but what it needs most for 2014 that it doesn't already have is a pair of righthanded bench bats to platoon in leftfield and at DH with lefties David DeJesus and Matt Joyce. Those two have hit just .161/.217/.250 over the last three seasons and .194/.270/.322 career, respectively, against southpaws.
The aforementioned Young completed the DH part of that puzzle nicely down the stretch after returning to the team that drafted him first overall in 2003, but he is now an Oriole. Among the remaining free agents, veteran righties Jeff Baker (.298/.353/.522 career against lefties), Reed Johnson (.311/.366/.456) and Matt Diaz (.322/.363/.495) would all be worth at least a non-roster invitation to camp. That's particularly true for the 32-year-old Baker, who hit .279/.360/.545 against all pitchers for the Rangers last year and, with the ability to play all four corners and second base, would be a good fit for the utility-minded Rays.
Preliminary grade: C For a team that was plenty active this offseason, Tampa Bay doesn't appear to have altered its 2014 outlook much. It shed some fat and upgraded its catching situation, but likely lost ground in the bullpen and has some significant unfinished business at two positions. Similarly, the Price situation remains unresolved. The Rays still look like contenders heading into 2014, and the two big trades they made this winter could look even better for them a year from now, but taking the temperature at this moment, this was a lukewarm winter in Tampa Bay.