In year five of johnpielli.com's 30-1 MLB countdown previews, I take pride in the fact that I look at not only what the team did last season, but whether the team is on the rise or in decline. I also look at each team's previous off season and judge whether they improved or got worse. I study the minor league system and look at which players will come up this season and in the future. Will the team have players emerge as being better than they are? What injured players will either impact the team or be expected to and not back it up? In the end, I use the Las Vegas over/ under number to decide whether I think the team will finish above or below that number. And finally, I come up with 30 different win/ loss records, which if you add up all the teams wins and losses, the difference will be zero.
I have made it to team number 24 and the first one that should be a little controversial. The Tampa Bay Rays were picked using the PECOTA system to win 91 games this season. Fangraphs also had them winning the American League East. The Rays of 2015 finished at 80-82 under first year manager Kevin Cash. They made a couple of trades, dealing left hand pitcher Jake McGee to the Colorado Rockies to get outfielder Corey Dickerson. They also added shortstop Brad Miller and designated hitter Logan Morrison from the Mariners, sending right hander Nate Karns to Seattle in the process. Outside of signing free agent first baseman/ outfielder Steve Pearce as a free agent from the Baltimore Orioles, the off season was relatively quiet.
The Rays have one big strength and perhaps this is the reason the other outlets have the Rays doing so well. The Rays starting pitching staff is very good and when it is all completely assembled, they have the makings of one of the best in all of baseball. Chris Archer had 252 strikeouts and made the American League All Star team last season. Right hander Jake Odorizzi pitched to a 3.35 earned run average and averaged nearly a strikeout an inning. Left hander Drew Smyly, acquired in the trade that sent David Price to the Detroit Tigers, has pitched to a 2.52 ERA in 19 starts since joining the Rays. Left hander Matt Moore, winner of 17 games and made the All Star team in 2013, is in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery. Right hander Alex Cobb, who was an emerging star through the 2013 and 2014 seasons, will likely be out until August as he recovers from the same operation.
Adding to their strength will be left hander Blake Snell, who won 15 games, lost just 4 and pitched to a 1.41 ERA in 2015 in minor league action. Snell could break through and give the Rays an even bigger strength at the top of their starting rotation. Right handers Erasmo Ramirez (11-6, 3.75) and Alex Colome (8-5, 3.94) will round out the rotation until Cobb and Snell are ready.
While I understand why the Rays are getting a lot of respect, starting pitching has turned into a six inning game. Any team that has a great set of starting pitchers needs to have a dependable bullpen to back them up. The trade of McGee to the Rockies has weakened a weakness. The thought that teams not expecting to contend do not need a closer applies to the Rays, who in 2015 used Brad Boxberger (4-10, 3.71, 41 saves, 74 strikeouts in 63 innings pitched) in that role. Boxberger has proven to be a dependable relief pitcher, but is not a major league closer. Right hander Danny Farquhar (1-8, 5.12 in 43 games) comes over from Seattle in the Morrison/ Miller trade and is hoping to return to his 2014 form (3-1, 2.66, 81 K, 71 IP). The emergence of left hander Xavier Cedeno (4-1, 2.09, 63 games) allowed for the Rays to trade McGee, a fellow left hander. In order for the Rays to have a top bullpen, three things need to happen. Boxberger has to pitch to a level he has never pitched to before. Farquhar needs to repeat his 2014 and Cedeno needs to repeat his 2015. Unfortunately, the chance of all three of those happening is about the same chance that Ohio Governor John Kasich or retired neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson will become the next President of the United States. Sadly, the drop off after Boxberger, Farquhar and Cedeno is very steep with Colome and former Indians right hander Ryan Webb (1-0, 3.20, 40 games) the next in line.
The Rays will, as usual, have a difficult time scoring runs. However, it was the performance of one player on the defensive side of the ball that got more attention than has even been seen for a defender. Kevin Kiermaier hit an average .263, 10 HR, 40 RBI but did have 12 triples and 18 stolen bases. It was his defensive metrics that were off the charts as he was responsible for an unbelievable 42 defensive runs saved for the 2015 season. He led the American League with a Defensive Wins Above Replacement of 5.0, a total zone rating of 24 as well as 15 outfield assists. However, similar to a player winning the triple crown, hitting .400 or any other statistic that is not commonly reached, it cannot be expected that Kiermaier repeats those same numbers going forward. Outside of other reasons, players generally depreciate each season as a defensive player, making it very hard to repeat those defensive stats. And many will agree that Kiermaier is a borderline starting offensive player, meaning if it was not for his defense, his offensive stats may not be quality enough to continue to be in the everyday lineup.
Center fielder Desmond Jennings could do a lot to close the gap in the quality of the Rays offense. However, Jennings has battled through a series of injuries and under performing play over the past five seasons that has puzzled the organization. If Jennings can prove to be a late bloomer, than he stands to take starting time away from right fielder Steven Souza (.225, 16, 40, .717 on base plus slugging) and even the immortal Kiermaier. He has to step his game up though. Dickerson (.312, 24, 76, .931) had a huge 2014 season for the Rockies and hit over .300 with 10 HR in 65 games last season. Third baseman Evan Longoria (.270, 21, 73, .764) and breakout second baseman Logan Forsythe (.281, 17, 68, .804) will lead a very top heavy offense. Dickerson could be an ideal lead off batter, but in Tampa Bay will need to bat towards the middle of the order. Shortstop Miller (.258, 11, 46, .740) is a younger, strictly left hand batting version of the 2015 Asdrubal Cabrera (.265, 15, 58, .744), who is off to the New York Mets. Morrison has struggled to become the power hitter the Florida Marlins though he would be when he came up as a top prospect in 2010. Perhaps the Rays can point to the fact that he hit the most home runs in a season for Seattle in 2015 (17) since his 2011 total of 23 with the Marlins. First baseman James Loney did hit .280, but his slugging percentage of .357 was almost lower than any regular player in the American League and was only higher than teammate Rene Rivera, whose .178, .213, .275 slash line was as atrocious as could be imagined. The Rays did bring in catcher Hank Conger (.229, 11, 33, .729) from the Astros. Curt Casali (.238, 10, 18 in 101 at bats) is the backup and will battle with Rivera and Conger for a spot on the team.
The lineup I would go with is Kiermaier/ Jennings CF, Forsythe 2B, Dickerson LF, Longoria 3B, Morrison DH, Loney 1B, Souza/ Jennings RF, Conger C, Miller SS. The Rays do have some depth on their bench with infielder Richie Shafer and shortstop Tim Beckham ready to make an impact at the big league level. Perhaps both can take some playing time away from Loney and Miller. Outfielder Brandon Guyer (.265, 8, 28) is a solid forth outfielder, but will be the Rays fifth outfielder. Pearce is likely to make the team with former prospect Nick Franklin trying to make a case for the Rays.
Snell and right hander Brent Honeywell are two top strikeout pitchers ready to make an impact in the big leagues. Snell will be up after he passes the Stupor, I mean Super Two eligibility. Honeywell could possibly be a September call up. Actually, because of the way the Rays run their business, we will not see Honeywell until 2017. Shortstops Daniel Robertson (acquired in the Ben Zobrist trade of a year ago) and Wily Adames (acquired in the Price trade) look to both be solid future infielders. Both need at least another season or two in the minors though. Right hander Jake Guerrieri is about another year away, but looks to be a plus pitcher as well.
Las Vegas put Tampa's over under at 78, below their 2015 win total of 80. When I look at the young pitching the Tampa Bay Rays possess, I think of the 2015 New York Mets. When I think of the potential woes I foresee with this team as hitters, I also think of the 2015 Mets. The Tampa Bay Rays will not get themselves a Carlos Gonzalez to help their offense out, even if they were a Car-Go away. And while I will not assume that the Rays will trade Archer, Moore and/ or Odorizzi, I also cannot assume they will add a bat. It is obvious they would not do it anyways, as it may keep the owner from reporting a profit in his business. I have the Rays at 73-89, last place in the American League East division.