Led by one of baseball's best rotations, the Rays should get back into contention, but their below-average offense will likely sink their World Series hopes.
This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams for the 2016 season, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 12: the Tampa Bay Rays.
2015 Record and Finish:
80–82 (.494), fourth place in American League East (17th overall)
2016 Projected Record and Finish:
84–78 (.518), third place in AL East
The Case For
Truth be told, this ranking—11th in the majors, third in the AL East, third in the wild card and missing the playoffs on both fronts—is as optimistic as I can manage to be about this year’s Rays. That optimism starts with their starting rotation and is led by Chris Archer, who finished fifth in the AL Cy Young voting last year and enters 2016, his age-27 season, as one of the best pitchers in baseball thanks to arguably the best slider in the game. Behind Archer, Matt Moore appears ready to reassert himself as a front-of-the-rotation starter. After losing much of the last two seasons to Tommy John surgery. he has been dominant this spring, showing improved mechanics and command. Moore, who will turn 27 in June, is nine months younger than Archer, and the two of them could form one of the most compelling young, righty/lefty combinations in baseball.
If Moore can be the No. 2, that would allow Jake Odorizzi and Drew Smyly to settle into the middle spots, giving the Rays another impressive righty/lefty combination. Erasmo Ramirez, who posted a 105 ERA+ in 163 1/3 innings last year in his age-25 season, rounds out the starting five, and top prospect Blake Snell, the 12th-best prospect in all of baseball this spring per Baseball America, looms in Triple A to fill any holes that might emerge as the season progresses. Factor in a pitching-friendly home ballpark and the fact that centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier graded out as the best defensive player in baseball at any position last year, and the Rays have an tremendous foundation for their first winning season since 2013.
To that, you can add Corey Dickerson’s bat, a healthy Desmond Jennings, a full season of catcher Curt Casali, potential improvement from fellow sophomore Steven Souza, Jr., a possible rebound from Evan Longoria after a pair of disappointing seasons, and the chance for improved production at first base from a platoon of new additions Logan Morrison and Steve Pearce and at shortstop from trade acquisition Brad Miller. But given the quality of the competition in the division, I still can’t quite see Tampa Bay being a playoff team in 2016.
The Case Against
It’s much easier to see the Rays collapsing than surging into the playoffs. Start with the possibility that Moore’s strong spring could give way to another disappointing regular season. Mix in the injury history of the team’s mid-rotation starters—Moore had Tommy John surgery in April 2014, Smyly had a torn labrum last spring that he rehabbed rather than getting surgically repaired, Odorizzi missed a month with a strained oblique last year—and that impressive young rotation appears to be far from a sure thing. Meanwhile, the team’s underwhelming bullpen, which has already lost incumbent closer Brad Boxberger until mid-May following core muscle surgery, will likely require manager Kevin Cash to rely more heavily on the young arms in his rotation than he may otherwise have done.
The biggest concern, however, is the offense. The Rays were 14th out of 15 AL teams in runs scored last year, besting only the White Sox with 3.98 runs scored per game. Dickerson is the biggest bat the team added this off-season, but he has had a quiet spring and is a .249/.286/.410 career hitter outside of Coors Field and a .246/.299/.377 career hitter against lefthanded pitching. Miller should improve the plate production of the team’s shortstops, but only if the throwing issues he has displayed this spring don’t force him off the position or into a bench role. Morrison and Pearce combined for 32 home runs in 2015, but the former's .225 batting average and .302 on-base percentage both bested the latter's marks. Speaking of on-base percentage: Casali had a .304 mark last year, Kiermaier was at .298, and Tim Beckham (the primary alternative to Miller at shortstop) finished at .274.
Then there’s the fact that playing Morrison and Pearce over James Loney at first base will downgrade the defense beyond whatever damage Miller does in the field. Similarly, off-season addition Hank Conger, who was brought in to help upgrade the plate production of the team’s catchers, has done nothing to suggest that his 1-for-43 performance in attempting to throw out attempting base stealers last year was a fluke. He may no longer be viable behind the plate.
As for the hope of a Longoria rebound in his age-30 season, it’s minimal. His power has been markedly down the last two years, from an isolated power of .238 in his first six seasons to .158 the last two. One scout I talked to this spring said that his bat has slowed noticeably.
X-Factor: Defensive shifts
Yes, defensive shifts are widespread in the game today, with the number of them having increased 752% from 2011 to '15. But even with the strategy having gained mainstream acceptance within the game, no team shifted more in 2015 than the Rays. Per John Dewan in The Bill James Handbook, Tampa Bay led the majors with 1,462 defensive shifts in 2015 and saved 23 runs as a result. In the current run-scoring climate (in which nine runs are roughly equal to one win), the Rays improved themselves by 2 1/2 wins last year via the shift alone.
Tampa Bay was not the most effective shifting team, however. Per Dewan, the Orioles saved a major league-best 29 runs with just 899 shifts. That suggests that the Rays, who are clearly dedicated to the strategy, could benefit even more from the shift in the coming season; a boost in excess of three wins from shifting alone is a clear possibility.
Number To Know: 12
That’s where Longoria ranked among third basemen in Wins Above Replacement last year. He wasn’t close to 11th, either: His 3.2 WAR was well shy of the 3.9 of the Cardinals' Matt Carpenter and the Dodgers' Justin Turner. In fact, Longoria was as close to 14th place (Trevor Plouffe, 2.5 WAR) as he was to 11th. Longoria ranked 12th in WAR among third basemen in 2014, as well, and both years, he was just 0.1 wins away from Martin Prado in terms of total value.
Entering his age-30 season, this appears to be who Longoria is now. He is still a capable and competent everyday third baseman, but he’s no longer a star, never mind a potential MVP candidate. Rather, he’s very nearly the perfect league-average third baseman. Over the last two years, Longoria has hit .261/.324/.419, and the average third baseman has hit .264/.324/.431; correcting for pitching-friendly Tropicana Field, both of those lines work out to a 109 OPS+.
Most Overrated: Evan Longoria, 3B
“It’s a huge contract, and he’s just not that player anymore. He has seven years left, $93 million, and he’s in a slight decline. He’s still a good fielder. At third base you don’t have to be the quickest or anything, his defense is still good, but just the bat, he’s just slowing down. It’s not the power or the same bat speed he had.”
Most Underrated: Kevin Kiermaier, CF
"Kiermaier has a chance to take off.... He’s a very aggressive hitter, but he’s an athletic kid. He’s got strength. He can hit. He just has to see more pitches. He’s just super-aggressive. He probably gets himself out a lot by swinging at pitchers’ pitches. That’s kind of the final piece, to walk more and get on base. But he definitely has strength. He has bat speed. He can steal bases, and he’s the best centerfielder I think I’ve ever seen.... He’s fast, but he is just a tremendous centerfielder, long strides to cover ground, it’s really fun to watch him go get balls in the gap. Great instincts, great athleticism. He’s got the whole package. Got the arm.... I just think he’s a guy who can really impact the game defensively, and he’s getting better offensively.”