The Tampa Bay Rays continue to be a beacon of hope for all small and mid-market teams across the league with their continued run of success. This upcoming season, the Rays are projected to have the smallest payroll in the American League East by over $30M yet have the highest win total of the division’s five teams. Their progressive, statistically-minded front office and eccentric, yet wildly successful, manager are proof that cautious spending and analytics do work in Major League Baseball.
For years, General Manager Andrew Friedman and the Rays have done it the right way. Sure, a string of terrible seasons from 1998’s inaugural campaign through 2007 helped the Rays stock their farm system with top-level talent, but minor league development coaches and instructors still have to turn that talent in bona fide Major League talent. What has also helped the Rays is their foresight and their ability to sign quality Major League players to team-friendly contract extensions before the arbitration process begins to raise salaries. Among others, the Rays have done that with James Shields, Evan Longoria, David Price, Ben Zobrist, and Matt Moore. Their use of club options to control arbitration and free agent years helps to limit cost and risk. It’s a brilliant way to run a ballclub and has kept salaries down, while allowing the Rays to spend on complementary free agent pieces to make contention a reality.
For the sixth straight season, the Rays had a winning record in 2013. For five out of those six seasons, the Rays, in a division with the big payroll Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, and Toronto Blue Jays, the Rays won at least 90 games. The magic usually stops in the ALDS, where the Rays have been eliminated in three of the last four seasons, but it should not downplay any achievements by the organization.
The Rays win with pitching and defense. Over the last three seasons, the high watermark for runs scored is just 707. The American League three-year average in that time is 715 runs. The Rays have averaged 612 runs allowed in that span. The American League average is 709. Consider that three of the other four AL East teams scored an above average amount of runs in 2011 and 2013 and two of the four were above average in 2012 and it makes the Rays’ accomplishments that much more impressive.
In an ever-changing market, the Rays are always looking for the next inefficiency. As was discussed in the Oakland A’s win total piece, the A’s and Rays, two of baseball’s most progressive front offices, partially out of necessity, but primarily because they have proved that it works, the latest inefficiency may be bullpen spending, as those two teams have allocated the highest percentage of their financial resources to the bullpen. The Rays are truly a fascinating case study in baseball economics and theory.
Last season’s team won both the tiebreaker for the wild card and the one-game wild card playoff round en route to a 92-71 record. The Rays fell in four games to the Boston Red Sox, which became an inevitable conclusion after the two pre-ALDS games forced the Rays to go with Matt Moore, who was shelled in Game 1, and David Price had to labor through seven difficult innings in Game 2. Regardless of the outcome, the Rays again proved what a tremendous front office and a well-coached team can accomplish in a land of financial giants.
Oddsmakers expect contention from the Rays again this season BetDSI.eu and Bovada.lv currently showing the highest win total at 88.5, with plus money on the over at DSI. 5Dimes.eu and BetOnline.ag are both showing 88 with 5D at -110 and BOL at -115 on both sides.
Key additions: Grant Balfour, Heath Bell, Ryan Hanigan
Key losses: Alex Torres, Wesley Wright, Fernando Rodney, Kelly Johnson, Jamey Wright, Luke Scott, Delmon Young
There weren’t many big moves for the Rays this offseason, which is what happens when the core group of players is locked into contracts. The Rays swapped closers by letting Fernando Rodney walk via free agency and signed Grant Balfour after a strange series of physical-related problems with the Orioles. In a three-team trade with the Diamondbacks, the Rays acquired former closer Heath Bell and solid defensive catcher Ryan Hanigan.
The Rays losses are largely in the bullpen, which explains some of their willingness to acquire high-priced items like Balfour and Bell. The Rays traded Alex Torres to the Padres for some depth and lost two Wrights with Wesley and Jamey both leaving via free agency.
Why bet the over?
There’s certainly a lot to like about the Rays for this season and their recent track record has a lot to do with it. Regardless of the circumstances, this team almost always seems to cobble together 90-win seasons. It’s rather incredible when you think about it. But it all comes down to pitching for the Rays and this group could easily be one of the best rotations in the Major Leagues.
It begins with David Price, who missed time with an ominous triceps injury last season. He should be healthy now and there were some interesting developments from last season that could carry over. Price saw a drop in velocity and strikeouts, likely due to the injury, but he made up for it with control and an increased number of pop ups, which are effectively strikeouts. A three percent increase in pop ups helped to mitigate a four percent drop in strikeouts and by nearly halving his walk rate, Price put together another strong season. If the strikeouts return and the other trends continue, Price may be in line for the best season of his career as he approaches his final year of arbitration.
Alex Cobb is my somewhat darkhorse pick to win the Cy Young. Cobb might have the best assortment of breaking stuff among all starting pitchers with a tremendous change-up to neutralize lefties, a tight slider to righties, and a high ground ball rate with a fastball that has some sink. Cobb threw his fastball just 45 percent of the time according to PITCHf/x data last season, which makes him very difficult to barrel up. A line drive to the head took away part of Cobb’s season, but his peripherals are tremendous and he’s an ace-in-training for this Rays staff.
Matt Moore’s 17-4 record and 3.29 ERA over 150.1 innings were rather impressive last season. Moore limited home runs and induced a lot of weak contact for the Rays. His 12.1 percent pop up rate to go along with a strikeout rate over 22 percent means that over one-third of the plate appearances for Moore ended very innocently. Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi are two very promising arms for the Rays at the back end of their rotation Archer is a guy who sits in the mid-90s with a very good slider and Odorizzi is an extreme fly ball guy with good minor league strikeout rates. The average age of the Rays rotation will be slightly over 25 years old.
The bullpen is full of hard throwers that miss bats and really help to shorten games. Grant Balfour will be the anchor and power lefty Jake McGee fares well against hitters from both sides of the plate. One of Maddon’s favorite players, Joel Peralta, has been an extremely steady, highly underrated setup man over the course of his career. Former closers Heath Bell and Juan Oviedo (Leo Nunez) will provide depth to a group that easily runs seven or eight deep.
Evan Longoria is not only a tremendous offensive player with 30+ HR potential and a lot of line drives, but his spectacular defense often gets overlooked. In seasons with 500 or more plate appearances, Longoria’s lowest fWAR is 5.5. He’s a constant for this team and a player that you can rely on for consistent top-level production.
Serving primarily as a second baseman, the versatile Ben Zobrist had another fine season for the Rays. He’ll open at second base again this season with Wil Myers in right and David DeJesus getting the bulk of the at bats in left field, but Zobrist’s versatility and skill set have made him exceptionally valuable during his Rays tenure. He puts the ball in play, has some speed, adds a little power, and plays great defense no matter what position is next to his name on the lineup card. Like Longoria, Zobrist can be relied upon for a strong season.
Desmond Jennings has not fulfilled all of the expectations that he came with when he was drafted, but back-to-back three-win seasons have given the Rays yet another above average player in the everyday lineup. Jennings chips in double-digit home run totals and 20 or more steals at a rather weak offensive position. Joining Jennings in the outfield is Wil Myers, who hit 13 home runs in half a season at the Major League level. With Myers, 30+ is a possibility and his ability to barrel up the ball could lead to higher-than-expected batting averages throughout his career.
David DeJesus is an intriguing player, with some sharp platoon splits against righties. Luckily, the average team faces a right-handed starter about 75 percent of the time, so DeJesus will carry his share of the load in left field with Matt Joyce likely getting some looks and possibly Zobrist as well.
Defensively, the Rays have Yunel Escobar at shortstop and a combination of Jose Molina and Ryan Hanigan behind the plate. Add in Zobrist and that’s some strong defense up the middle. The Rays also have James Loney at first base, who really performed above offensive expectations last season, but he’s also a very valuable defensive player.
The Rays have few, if any, weaknesses from a personnel standpoint with versatility, depth, starting pitchers with upside, and a creative manager that can get the most out of everybody.
Why bet the under?
While the rotation shows a lot of promise, there are some reasons to be concerned. Matt Moore had a 3.29 ERA but a 3.95 FIP and a 4.32 xFIP. His 4.24 SIERA points to regression coming this season, which makes sense with his high walk rate. Moreover, Moore saw a two miles per hour drop in his fastball velocity from 2012 to 2013. Not to mention, he missed a month with an elbow issue. There are a lot of red flags with Moore that need to be monitored.
While Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi show promise, there are some concerns in their peripherals as well. For Archer, he’s predominantly a two-pitch pitcher and those guys have historically had far more success in the bullpen than they have in the rotation. Really, Archer is more like a 2.5-pitch pitcher because of a couple of fastball variations, but a lack of a change-up makes him susceptible to platoon splits where lefties have a lot of success. Like Moore, his 3.22 ERA was nice, but his 4.07 FIP, 3.91 xFIP, and 3.88 SIERA do signal some regression. Odorizzi is an extreme fly ball pitcher, which can work at Tropicana Field, but the other AL East parks are good hitter’s parks. Ultimately, Odorizzi will be a good fifth starter, but there’s always concern with righties that don’t have big strikeout numbers or huge ground ball splits. He’s extreme enough as a fly ball pitcher to outpitch his advanced metrics, but the jury is still out.
Looking down the depth chart, Jeremy Hellickson is a fine sixth starter, but he had his issues last season. Alex Colome, who made three starts last season, is suspended for the first 50 games due to a substance abuse offense. With the Moore concerns and Archer and Odorizzi in line for some regression, a rotation that looks enticing on paper may be less so into the season.
Pick: Over 88 (-110, 5Dimes)
If Evan Longoria was out for a long period of time, this would be a hard number to reach, but other than that, the Rays have such a committee-based approach to winning games that the team has the depth to withstand any injuries that arise. It may be rather close to get to this number, but keep in mind that the Rays spent time without both Price and Cobb, lost Hellickson from the rotation as regression and injury hit him, and they still won 92 games last season. The losses and additions don’t really add or subtract from the team.
The pitching staff has concerns, but the Rays have always found pitching and have always been able to develop the necessary talent to compete among the big payrolls and this season should be no different. Not to mention, between Molina and Hanigan, the Rays staff is in great hands.
Young players like Jennings and Myers should continue to get better and the Rays have a perfect mix of youthful exuberance, veteran leadership, and elite talent. This team has a great chance to win the American League East and go over this win total with room to spare.
Previous team previews:
Arizona, Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Colorado, Detroit, Houston, Kansas City, Los Angeles Angels, Los Angeles Dodgers, Miami, Milwaukee, Minnesota, New York Mets, New York Yankees, Oakland, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis Cardinals
Adam Burke is a freelance writer and amateur handicapper with a knack for finding value through matchup analysis and a deep understanding of the sports betting market. His main area of expertise is baseball, with a background in sabermetrics and advanced statistics. He is the host of The Gridiron Gambling Report and our college football and college basketball BangTheBook.com podcasts on the BlogTalkRadio Network.