Winter Report Card: Rays eschew rebuild, though Smyly trade confounds

Friday January 13th, 2017

Before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we’re checking in to see how each team has fared thus far this off-season, acknowledging that there’s still time for that evaluation to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2016. Next up: the Tampa Bay Rays.

2016 Results

68–94 (.420), fifth place in American League East

Key Departures

RHP Kevin Jepsen*, 1B Logan Morrison*, SS Alexei Ramirez*, LHP Drew Smyly

Key Arrivals

C Wilson Ramos, OF Colby Rasmus, OF Mallex Smith

(*free agent, still unsigned)

Off-season In Review

After bottoming out with the franchise’s worst record since 2007, there was some expectation that the Rays would deal away pitcher Chris Archer or third baseman Evan Longoria as the start of a full-blown rebuild. But Tampa Bay has eschewed a teardown, instead adding a pair of veteran bats off the free-agent market on short-term deals and moving only one starter from its crowded rotation.

Looking at last year’s Rays, it’s easy to see what area needed the most improvement: the offense. Tampa Bay finished with 672 runs scored last year, second worst in the AL, with a team on-base percentage of just .307. Ramos and Rasmus arrive to try to plug two of the more persistent holes in that lineup—catcher and leftfield—but their impact may be muted. The 30-year-old Rasmus has never matched the 132 OPS+ he put up in his age-23 season of 2010, bouncing from St. Louis to Toronto to Houston as a hacker with tons of power but little patience. But even the home runs deserted him last season with the Astros, as he went deep just 15 times in 417 plate appearances en route to an awful .206/.286/.355 line and a 76 OPS+. He’s no lock to be an improvement on Corey Dickerson in left, though on a reported one-year, $5 million deal, he’s not breaking the Rays’ tiny bank.

More interesting (and likely to help) is Ramos. The 29-year-old was a key part of the Nationals’ NL East-winning lineup last year, hitting .307/.354/.496 with 22 home runs, but a late-September ACL tear ruined both his season and his upcoming free agency. Likely to be sidelined until May, Ramos agreed to a two-year, $12.5 million deal with Tampa Bay, which took advantage of his injury to snag a terrific hitter for a bargain price. It’s a smart deal for the Rays, who have long suffered through a string of awful catchers and got virtually zero production out of the position last year (a collective .202/.265/.349 line). It’s a low-risk, high-reward addition that could pay off nicely down the line if Ramos returns to full health.

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But with the Rays limited to those kinds of buy-low additions and with recent drafts producing little major league help (not one player they’ve picked in the last four years has reached the big leagues), they need to nail their trades if they truly want to get back into contention. That’s why it hurts all the more that the return for Smyly is so underwhelming. In exchange for sending the 27-year-old lefty to the Mariners, Tampa Bay received Smith, lefthander Ryan Yarbrough and shortstop Carlos Vargas. The 23-year-old Smith is the headliner as a speedy outfielder who plays sterling defense, but he lacks power (he slugged just .365 for the Braves last year and .389 in the minors over five seasons). Yarbrough put up a 2.95 ERA in 25 starts at Double A last year, but that was at the ripe old age of 25; he projects as a back-end starter. Vargas was a highly touted international signing out of the Dominican Republic and has lots of upside, but at 17, he’s worlds away from the majors.

It’s tough to look at that return and feel that the Rays got enough back for a pitcher who, while he struggled in 2016 (4.88 ERA, 83 ERA+, 1.6 home runs per nine) is still under 30, has good strikeout rates (8.6 per nine last year, 8.7 for his career) and is under team control for the next two seasons. In an off-season where pitching was so scarce that the likes of Charlie Morton and Edinson Volquez were getting multi-year contracts, you would think the Rays could have gotten more for Smyly.

Gone along with Smyly are veteran reliever Jepsen, Cuban shortstop Ramirez and former top prospect Morrison. The first two were midseason additions who did little good in their brief stint with the Rays: Jepsen posted a horrid 5.68 ERA and gave up five home runs in just 19 innings out of the bullpen, and Ramirez hit a meager .246/.295/.351 in 17 games. Morrison started the season as the regular first baseman but hit just .236/.309/.382 in the first half and subsequently lost his job to shortstop Brad Miller (!). Suffice to say no one in that trio—all of whom are still lingering on the free-agent market—will be missed.

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Unfinished Business: Bullpen help, righthanded power

Tampa's bullpen was quietly a disaster last season, with Rays relievers posting a collective 4.09 ERA, striking out just 8.35 per nine innings and giving up 1.3 home runs per nine. To that group, the Rays' front office added ... well, no one. Instead, manager Kevin Cash will forge ahead with a group led by Alex Colome, who emerged as a shutdown closer (37 saves and 71 strikeouts in 56 2/3 innings) in 2016, and with a whole lot of question marks behind him. The return of former closer Brad Boxberger to full health—he threw just 24 1/3 innings last year thanks to a thigh injury and an oblique strain—should help, but no one will mistake the combo of Erasmo Ramirez, Enny Romero, Xavier Cedeno and Ryan Garton for the second coming of the Nasty Boys.

There are a few intriguing names still out on the market, led by former closers Sergio Romo, Greg Holland and Neftali Feliz, as well as surprising setup ace Joe Blanton and solid swingman Travis Wood. Holland would be a good buy-low candidate ala Ramos; the ex-Royals closer is coming off 2015 Tommy John surgery that cost him all of last season and is reportedly looking for a two-year deal, with Tampa Bay among a number of teams interested in him.

While they're looking for bullpen help, the Rays should also consider finding a righthanded bat to add to their outfield/DH mix. As it stands, the only righty swinger in that group right now is Steven Souza, who hit just .247/.303/.409 with 159 strikeouts in 468 plate appearances last season. Souza is still young (he'll turn 28 in April) and offers decent power, but Tampa can do better. One option that likely won't come to fruition but would give the fans something to look forward to: Jose Bautista. The 36-year-old slugger isn't much in the field and has battled injury issues, but if he's willing to take a one-year deal, he'd make a perfect regular DH.

Preliminary Grade: B-

Ramos is as good a pickup as any team has made this off-season, but the disappointing return for Smyly is unlikely to help Tampa get out of the AL East basement in 2017. Saddled with their meager resources and playing in arguably the toughest division in baseball, the Rays can’t afford to settle on their next trade, be it Archer, Longoria or anyone else.

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