Stakeholders - Tampa Bay Rays
From now through the beginning of the regular season, we will not be posting in-depth round-tables previewing each division like we have in years past. Instead we will feature brief back-and-forths with "stakeholders" from all 30 teams. A collection of bloggers, analysts, mainstream writers and senior front office personnel will join us to discuss a specific team's hopes for 2010. Some will be in-depth, some light, some analytical, some less so but they should all be fun to read and we are thrilled about the lineup of guests we have teed up. Today it's R.J. Anderson on the Tampa Bay Rays.
Patrick Sullivan: I know it's a bit trite at this point but since we touched on it in the Yanks and Sox previews, I figure we might as well get it out of the way. Talk about the AL East and what it takes for a team like the Rays to compete.
R.J. Anderson: Luck is the most important factor besides talent. Look at the 2008 Rays and compare them to some of those teams the Blue Jays featured; that Rays team was better, but those Jays teams were nothing to sneeze at, and yet they only finished above third once in their entire run. Even the Yankees need some good luck in the sense that they need to avoid bad luck. Variability comes into play and -- if I may borrow a tired cliché – that’s why we play the games.
The most given answer is money. Not necessarily payroll, after all, the Rays are sporting a franchise high amount of it right now, but revenue. The truth is the Rays will never compete with the revenue streams that Boston and New York has. And part of that is natural. They don’t need a top five revenue stream to compete most years; they just need their market to come through for them. That leads to another often asked question: If the Tampa Bay area won’t back one of the best-ran organizations in all of sports producing a winning product in the toughest division in baseball, then what will they support?
PS: The Rays look excellent again in 2010, but to me that's because I think there are some real improvement candidates and some younger players who figure to be bigger impact guys. They also will probably play closer in line with their pythag. But with all that said, what did you think of their off-season? Did they leave an opportunity or two to make bigger improvements on the table? Or, Rafael Soriano aside, was more or less sitting tight a wise move given all the talent in the organization?
RA: It seems most previews dismiss the Rays’ off-season as a bunch of nothing. Their main non-Rafael Soriano addition was Kelly Shoppach. Not a sexy name, but he’s a league average hitter at catcher and turns into Albert Pujols against lefties. They also re-signed the ever useful Gabe Kapler, and added Hank Blalock and Joaquin Benoit on minor league deals.
There were talks with just about every left-handed designated hitter type on the market. From Johnny Damon to Russell Branyan to Jim Thome; Blalock won out, probably because he came on a minor league deal, but obviously they held interest in adding someone just in case Pat Burrell continued his exodus to the island of replacement level players.
Clearly the front office felt comfortable rolling with what they have. Why not? The 2009 team was better than their record suggests. There’ s also the depth that you reference. How many teams would be able to trade Scott Kazmir, Edwin Jackson, Jason Hammel, and Mitch Talbot within a calendar year and still have a well above average rotation?
PS: B.J. Upton and Pat Burrell. What do you expect of them in 2010?
RA: Boy, that’s a tough one.
Upton has looked fantastic in spring training, not statistically, but taking the ball the opposite way and avoiding pitchforks and hatchets from the locals. Really, people are concerned about whether he’s going to spend this season pouting about losing in arbitration and it’s ridiculous. After his outstanding 2007 season, the Rays actually lowered his salary and how did he respond? By posting his best career WAR, and doing it with a torn labrum. He’s become Tampa Bay’s version of J.D. Drew, only with “thug” undertones. Totally looking forward to when Upton signs a huge free agent deal and then gets slammed by the locals for being greedy and money hungry.
As for Burrell, you’d have to think he’s going to regress against lefties if not overall. He was also dealing with a neck injury for most of the season and boy, let’s hope that neck injury really took its toll. I guess the good news, is that even if he doesn’t, the Rays do have some alternative options. Blalock will pound righties, although he’s nothing special. There’s always the option of having someone like Matt Joyce DH while Ben Zobrist and Sean Rodriguez (or Kapler) play the field.
Plus they have players like Ryan Shealy and Dan Johnson sitting around in Durham. Make no mistake, these aren’t options of Frank Thomas or Edgar Martinez stature, but there’s enough of them laying around that someone might play the role of 2008’s Eric Hinske or, select your deity willing, 2007’s Carlos Pena. They might be run by Wall Street alumni, but they don’t follow the Black-Scholes model on risk assessment.
As for expectations, I think Upton returns to his four win self and gets chastised for not smiling enough. Conservatively, I’m just hoping Burrell turns into league average hitter.
PS: Understanding you can't know what will happen on the injury front, what will the starting rotation be on September 1st?
RA: Presumably the same as it will be on April 5th. Jeremy Hellickson will warrant a spot eventually, but who do you bump for him? Between Jeff Niemann injury history and unlikelihood to replicate 2009 he seems like the ugly duckling of the bunch. James Shields is going nowhere, maybe Matt Garza if he gets too expensive, but that seems a little ways out. Wade Davis and David Price seem unlikely to be dealt too. Plus Niemann makes Steve Trachsel look decisive and quick-paced on the mound. There’s a reason he’s called the Big Nyquil.
PS: Finally, talk about the near and long-term picture for the Rays. How much will their financial situation hurt them? Is there enough talent stockpiled so that it doesn't matter? Do you think a World Series window closes this year, or can they compete at a 95-win level - seemingly what it takes in the AL East, for years to come?
RA: The ludicrous thing about the Rays is that they’ll probably lose Rafael Soriano, Carlos Pena, and Carl Crawford this off-season. And when they do and replace them with Alex Torres, Matthew Sweeney (or whomever), and Desmond Jennings, they will project to be an above .500 team. Lots of things can change in a matter of 12 weeks, so trying to project what happens in 12 months is futile.
Even so, I think I can go on record and suggest that 95 wins is more likely to occur in 2010 than 2011, but I don’t know. They have $40 million coming off the books, and yeah, payroll will drop, but of course it will. They can take half of that freed cash and sign a first baseman who gets frozen out of the market and you might be looking at a 83-85 win team that still has upside and has enough cash to make a splash when they feel the time is right.
Even when this team is down, it won’t be in the cellar. The player development and scouting departments are simply too good to produce teams of that quality anytime soon.
PS: Thanks a lot, R.J.
R.J. Anderson writes for FanGraphs and Bloomberg Sports and can be found on Twitter @r_j_anderson. He endorses DRaysBay as the home to analysis of all things Rays.