The soundtrack to the 2014-15 offseason for the Tampa Bay Rays would probably include David Bowie and Tupac. Major changes took place as Rays GM Andrew Friedman took his dream job as the President of Baseball Operations for a team with an unlimited payroll and Rays manager Joe Maddon opted out of his contract with one year left. Sensing a great opportunity, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer scooped up Maddon and made him the new manager of the Chicago Cubs. In Friedman’s place, the Rays named their President of Baseball Operations, Matthew Silverman, the GM. The Rays interviewed a handful of managerial candidates and decided on former Major League catcher Kevin Cash.
Prior to their 77-85 season in 2014, the Rays had won at least 90 games in each of the last four seasons while operating with a payroll well below what their divisional rivals were spending. In fact, it was Tampa Bay’s first losing season since 2007. In that span, the Rays made the playoffs four times, including a World Series appearance in 2008. The Rays set a franchise low in runs scored even though they used a franchise low of 36 batters. Considering the Rays were 18 games under .500 on June 10, finishing just eight games under was a tremendous accomplishment.
Regardless of what happened in 2014, and the seasons before that, it’s a new chapter of Rays baseball. The departures of Maddon and Friedman should not hurt the organization because it was full of smart baseball people, but public perception will be much different towards the Rays until they can prove the naysayers wrong. It was assumed that the Rays would just find a way to compete, despite strict payroll constraints, an eyesore of a stadium, and a place among the financial giants in New York and Boston.
That public perception, coupled with some of the offseason transactions is reflected in Tampa Bay’s 2015 season win total. The lines at all three sportsbooks for the Rays really surprised me. BetOnline has a number of 79.5, following Westgate Superbook with their line of 79.5, two wins higher than what Atlantis set the market with at 77.5
Key additions: Asdrubal Cabrera, Burch Smith, Kevin Jepsen, Ernesto Frieri, Rene Rivera, John Jaso, Daniel Robertson, Ronald Belisario, Steven Souza
Key losses: Wil Myers, Cesar Ramos, Jeremy Hellickson, Joel Peralta, Jose Molina, Matt Joyce, Ben Zobrist, Yunel Escobar
It was a certainly an interesting offseason for the Rays. One look at the transactions completed this offseason and it’s clear to see that the Friedman ideology is still in play. The Rays acquired flawed players and shipped out some that had simply run their course in the organization.
The biggest splash was the Wil Myers trade with San Diego that netted the Rays Steven Souza, Burch Smith and Rene Rivera. Myers is the most recognizable name as a top prospect and the centerpiece of the James Shields trade with Kansas City back in 2013. The organization had soured on Myers because of his work ethic and attitude, so the Rays moved him for a collection of young players. Souza is a converted infielder playing the outfield with good bat-to-ball skills and a patient approach. Smith is an inconsistent right hander with swing-and-miss upside, and Rivera is a quality defensive catcher with a knack for framing pitches.
The Rays added some bullpen arms to the mix and Kevin Cash was the bullpen coach for the Cleveland Indians before the Rays hired him away. He had a lot of success in that capacity for the Indians, so he should be an asset here as well. The Ben Zobrist trade was a bit of a surprise, but the Rays weren’t going to retain him at season’s end, so they opted to get what they could for him.
This offseason screams Tampa Bay Rays and there’s always more than meets the eye about a player acquired by this organization. There’s a method to the madness in every situations.
Why bet the over?
Play on the perception of the Rays. The big market Yankees won 84 games last season, the Red Sox had one of the biggest offseason hauls of the season with some big names like Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval, and the Baltimore Orioles won 96 games last season. The Rays are going to finish last, right? Not so fast, my friend. This isn’t a team devoid of talent and the transactions that were made really didn’t take away any core players outside of Zobrist. Any time you doubt the Rays, you’re playing with fire.
Evan Longoria is basically the only “household name” left in the Rays everyday lineup, but he’s a good one. Longoria had the worst season of his career in 2014. For frame of reference, the worst season for Longoria is a .253/.320/.404 slash line with 22 home runs and 91 RBI. Longoria was still seven percent above league average. His wOBA fell 44 points from his 2013 season and Longoria wasn’t as patient. But, his BABIP was 16 points below his career average and he won’t turn 30 until after the season. He’s as good of a bounce back candidate as there is for the 2015 campaign.
Do you know who Kevin Kiermaier is? Perhaps you should. Kiermaier accumulated 3.8 fWAR in just 384 plate appearances and 108 games. That 3.8 fWAR figure was higher than Matt Holliday, J.D. Martinez, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Yoenis Cespedes. Kiermaier doesn’t have any eye-popping stats, but he’s just a solid player that will provide above average value both offensively and defensively. For his first full season in the bigs, the 24-year-old made an impact.
Speaking of impact outfielders, did you know that Desmond Jennings was 27th among qualified outfielders in fWAR? At this point, it’s important to understand something about the WAR statistic. It’s not meant to be the definitive way to rank a player, but it is designed to quantify a player’s value. Jennings created value on the bases and in the field. All of that gets factored in and complicated formulas spit out player values. It’s a hard concept to wrap your head around, but there is a lot of context that goes into it. For one thing, most outfielders are not good defensively. For another thing, Jennings had 42 extra base hits and stole 15 bases, while being an above average outfielder. One of the nice things about WAR is that it can be a way to even out players like Nelson Cruz, that put up big offensive totals, but also hurt their teams defensively and on the bases.
Also, if you’re reading this and thinking “who cares?”, well, the Tampa Bay Rays care. They have to find value in the advanced metrics because it’s increasingly difficult for them to acquire guys that will bash 30 home runs and hit .320. Part of the reason why is because players like that don’t really exist anymore and the other reason is because they simply can’t afford players like that. Small market teams need to close the gap any way they can and that’s why you’ll see more low average, low slugging percentage hitters that excel defensively on those teams. They win by preventing runs instead of scoring them. It doesn’t always work, but the imbalanced financial system in Major League Baseball necessitates that type of philosophy.
Personally, I think it’s easier to find both win totals value and futures value on these teams because you can go deeper than the oddsmakers. You can find that inefficiency that the team is trying to exploit. You can apply the factors that oddsmakers won’t. Oddsmakers rely heavily on projection systems like Steamer and PECOTA to come up with their numbers. Steamer and PECOTA aren’t always going to see the same things you can see by studying the teams. That’s not to say that those systems are wrong, but nothing will ever be completely accurate in predicting the future.
Apologies for going off on a tangent. Let’s get back to the Rays and their lineup. There’s one particularly interesting player to focus on and that’s Nick Franklin. The Rays added Franklin in the three-team David Price deal from Seattle last season. Franklin fits the Rays MO as a guy that works counts and puts bat to ball. He played well in the upper minors even though he was advanced for his age and it hasn’t translated to the minor leagues. It may not. If it does, however, this is another example of the Rays getting cheap value on a player that had fallen out of favor with his previous organization based on a small sample of struggles against the best pitchers in the world. On one hand, Franklin’s upside is cause for optimism. On the other hand, the fact that Franklin is the starting second baseman for the Rays and will be allowed to try and fail on the job is a sign that the Rays don’t expect a surprise playoff run.
The biggest reason to play the Rays over their win total is the starting rotation. It has the potential to be outstanding. Alex Cobb is a dark horse Cy Young candidate once again this season. Injury once again limited Cobb’s starts, as he made 27 one year after making 22. The injuries should not concern bettors because one was a line drive back up the middle that hit Cobb in the head and the other was an oblique strain. They were not arm-related and that’s an important distinction. Cobb has one of the game’s elite changeups and he has excellent control and command. If he can stay away from injury, he will, in all likelihood, post 33 starts with a sub-3.00 ERA and be worth over three wins.
Chris Archer is a special pitcher that could have a coming out party this season. Archer was 10-9 with a 3.33 ERA and a 3.39 FIP last season. He has an arsenal of tremendous stuff with a mid-90s fastball, a devastating slider, and he added a two-seamer/sinker to keep left-handed hitters at bay. At 26, Archer is entering the prime of his pitching career and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him take another big step forward.
A trio of intriguing arms wraps up the rest of the Rays rotation. Drew Smyly got away from Detroit’s terrible defense and had some good early returns with the Rays. His strikeout to walk ratio jumped with better catchers and a different organization and he started to fare better against righties. He’ll continue to be a guy with platoon problems against righties in all likelihood, but he has middle of the rotation upside.
The same can be said for Jake Odorizzi, whose changeup is a weapon that the Rays will gladly embrace. The difference is that Odorizzi will have the platoon problems against lefties, but he cut down the use of his slider and threw more changeups last season. As a flyball pitcher, his entire arsenal is about keeping hitters off balance and inducing weak aerial contact. Odorizzi produced two wins above replacement player over 31 starts last season and that’s outstanding production from a back-end starter.
Alex Colome is the final arm slated for the Opening Day rotation. Colome is out of options and will probably find a home in the bullpen, but his minor league strikeout rates have not translated to the bigs. Some better pitch sequencing can keep him in the rotation as a serviceable fifth, at least until Matt Moore returns from Tommy John in the summer.
Jake McGee is slated to close later in the season, but an elbow injury will keep him out at the start of the season. Brad Boxberger will likely get the first chance to close after an impressive 42 percent strikeout rate and a 2.37 ERA over 63 appearances. Former closers Grant Balfour and Ernesto Frieri will work in a setup capacity along with Kevin Jepsen and LOOGY Jeff Beliveau. Boxberger’s fastball-cutter-change arsenal was incredibly effective and this bullpen should be good enough to get by until McGee comes back and pushes it up a couple notches.
Why bet the under?
It’s hard to state how big of a loss Ben Zobrist is for the Rays. Zobrist was above average defensively at several positions and was a pretty good hitter during his Rays tenure. From 2012-14, the top 10 list in fWAR goes: Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen, Miguel Cabrera, Robinson Cano, Buster Posey, Adrian Beltre, Ben Zobrist, Carlos Gomez, Alex Gordon, Josh Donaldson. Only Gomez was more valuable defensively than Zobrist in that span. Zobrist accumulated 17 wins above replacement player over those three seasons. Counting on somebody like Nick Franklin or the unproven Steven Souza is tough to do. Zobrist will be missed in a big way.
Even though we had a discussion about WAR above, there’s also a practical element that’s missing from the guys that were discussed. They’re not very good offensively. They are technically “above average”, but league average continues to drop and the Rays don’t hit many home runs. Walking is great and not making outs is great, but teams like the Rays also need to string hits and walks together to score runs, because the Rays were 18th in doubles and 26th in home runs.
The Moneyball ideology is great and as somebody that buys into advanced metrics, I completely understand their value and application. I also understand that hitting is getting harder, pitchers are recording more strikeouts than ever before, and teams that lack power and hit for a low average are going to struggle to score, no matter how much they walk and work counts. Somebody outside of Evan Longoria needs to be able to drive somebody in and that doesn’t appear to be the case.
With Matt Moore already on the shelf, there’s not a lot of starting pitching depth for the Rays. Replacing David Price’s quality innings will be a group effort and pitchers like Archer and Odorizzi with developing arsenals can probably do that, but there’s a very thin margin for error with this group. The Rays are not going to score many runs and that puts a lot of pressure on the starting rotation.
Speaking of pressure on the starting rotation, the Rays have two elite relievers in McGee and Boxberger, but there have to be concerns about guys like Frieri, Jepsen, and Balfour, who was terrible last season. The Rays are going to lose some games in the sixth and seventh innings until they get things squared away. There’s going to be a lot of high-leverage activity from this bullpen given the team’s lack of offense. Blowing leads before getting the opportunity to get the ball to Boxberger or McGee could get old very quickly.
Kevin Cash seems like a smart baseball man and he came with praise from several different baseball people, but there’s always an uncertainty about rookie managers. Cash played and Cash worked closely with Terry Francona in Cleveland, but nothing can truly prepare a coach for being the manager. Given all of the transition in Tampa and the lack of expectations, Cash is walking into a pretty good situation, but there’s always that uncertainty about his ability to perform.
Pick: Under 79.5
This number opened higher than I expected and I believe there’s some good value in going under the total. The Rays have the opportunity to have a fantastic starting rotation and they are an above average defensive team for the most part, but there are a lot of offensive concerns and the AL East is a division with a lot of parity. In terms of win totals, the 6.5-win gap between top and bottom was the smallest spread of any division and that means that somebody has to lose games. That somebody is probably the Tampa Bay Rays.
It seems to have gotten to the point where people just expect the Rays to magically remain in contention. It doesn’t matter what the roster looks like, they’re going to overachieve. They certainly have a reputation for that, but I think they have a true lack of position player talent to do that this season. Joe Maddon didn’t spread pixie dust on his team to make them win, so I don’t think there’s a big drop-off to Kevin Cash, but I do think that Cash will take some time to get to know his players and that could include putting players into some difficult spots. Stuff like pushing starting pitchers a bit too long or testing out certain relievers in the bullpen.
That’s going to lead to some struggles and this is a spot where I think the Rays are just overmatched by the other teams in their division. Take the under here and plan on a transition year for the Rays with some guys that still have a lot of developing left to do in the starting rotation.
-END OF 2015 PREDICTION-
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.
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.