The Tampa Bay Rays have been one of the most intelligent and innovative franchises in baseball over the past decade. That brought them a nice run of success followed by a recent three-year malaise. It certainly hasn’t been for the lack of trying new things to get an extra edge. The problem is, when you’re operating at such a major financial disadvantage relative to most of the rest of baseball, you can only make up so much of that by beating the market to valuing pitch framing, or attacking first-pitch strikes, or pulling mediocre-to-bad starters before the Times Through the Order Penalty claims their ERA. Limited financial resources mean that most worthwhile free agents, trade targets with a substantial salary, and even a team’s own arbitration-eligible players are options that get dropped from the roster construction process.
Back in 2014, the Rays payroll maxed out at $77 million. Let’s try a simple illustration to show just how hard it is to make a push with that constraint using a familiar example. The White Sox came off of a 2014 season in which they didn’t win a ton of games, but saw a core of Chris Sale, Jose Abreu, Adam Eaton, Jose Quintana, and possibly Avisail Garcia ready to take the next step. Those guys were just making $19 million combined and figured to be the stars of the team, so creating a competing roster for less than $77 million should be cake, right?
Well, hold on there. Jeff Keppinger’s dead $4.5 million is going to eat into that. Plus, you’re gonna keep around Tyler Flowers, Hector Noesi, Javy Guerra, and Nate Jones through arbitration, because they’re useful and at just $6 million combined, they’re pretty cheap. Alexei Ramirez is still here for $10 million, but hey, he’s at least earning his pay, right? And then...uh oh...John Danks isn’t that good anymore, but you’ve gotta pay him almost $16 million. Finally, you’ve gotta pay the remaining 14 guys at least $525 thousand, so add it all up and yikes, you’re at $63 million, so there’s just $14 million more left to spend. Your bullpen is a still-recovering Jones plus scraps, you’re short a credible starting pitcher, there’s no one to back up Flowers, your utility players don’t belong in the major leagues, you have no left fielder after dumping Dayan Viciedo for being terrible (not like you could afford to pay him anyway), you have no designated hitter, and your second and third base options are unproven at best and uninspiring at worst. Try fixing most of that with $14 million, and good luck on the whole “all-in” thing.
It’s quite common for a major league team to have a little dead money like Keppinger’s and a single bad contract like Danks’ on their books, but you could see how that rather mundane situation would create a no-win scenario for the Tampa Bay Rays. They have to avoid such mistakes like the plague while assembling a strong enough crop of pre-arb players to make up for the fact that they can’t actually purchase average players on the market. The Rays signed Colby Rasmus for $5 million over the offseason, and he’s their second-highest paid player after franchise cornerstone Evan Longoria. Yet, the Rays still have a team that’s probably a little above-average. Those two sentences in tandem should make absolutely no sense, but this is a reality brought about by the brilliant process at work in Tampa Bay and their ironically-named manager that buys into it all.
The situation is even more unbelievable when one considers that this is about as thin on young position-player talent as the Rays have been in recent memory. Not a single regular in the Rays’ lineup is under the age of 27, so they’ve been handing out at-bats to bounce-back candidates and reclamation projects. As it turns out, they’re taking a chance on a lot of the right guys. If you had to guess who was leading the major leagues in home runs right now, you’d probably think of guys like Aaron Judge (since no one can shut up about him) or Mike Trout (since he’s somehow outdoing himself). Those guys are both right up there, but would you believe that Logan Morrison is tied with Trout for third? LoMo has been a part-time platoon player for years, and not a great one at that, but he’s putting up unprecedented (for him) power numbers at age 29 in an extreme pitchers’ park.
Morrison isn’t the only guy stepping it up in the power department. Rasmus hit seven home runs in May after being hurt for all of April and fellow lefty Corey Dickerson has already put 13 out of the park while somehow leading the American League in hits, batting average, and total bases. Even former number-one overall pick and long-time futilityman Tim Beckham is breaking through, as he’s provided nine homers from the shortstop position while playing respectable defense. Add in a possible breakout campaign from Steven Souza, Longoria’s respectable power contributions, and seven dingers from otherworldly defensive center fielder Kevin Kiermaier and somehow, the tiny-budget Rays have hit the second-most home runs in baseball to this point. That’s nothing short of astonishing.
The Rays’ pitchers have been something of a mixed bag. Chris Archer is the top man on the pitching staff, and if you look at his 3.74 ERA, he’s been just a little above-average this year. If you look at Archer’s 2.73 FIP, though, he’s been a legitimate ace and if you look at his 1.83 DRA, he’s been one of the five best pitchers in the major leagues. Deserved Run Average takes into account quality of contact when assigning responsibility to the pitcher via Hit Runs, and the implication here is that Archer has allowed very soft contact. However, that information doesn’t jive with Barrel FIP, his hard-hit rate, or his line drive rate, so this one is a mystery. I spent a lot of time looking into a similar discrepancy for Archer last year, so if anyone can figure it out an explanation beyond “Archer sold his soul to Baseball Prospectus”, I’d greatly appreciate it.
We’ll also encounter Alex Cobb and Jake Odorizzi in this series. Cobb is a sinkerballer who missed all of 2015 due to Tommy John surgery and when he returned late last year, his wipeout pitch — the splitter — had greatly declined in effectiveness. The righty has compensated by throwing more curveballs instead, but the new approach hasn’t led him to rediscover the ace form he had in his mid-20s. Odorizzi is a flyball pitcher that has run into dinger problems this season. His rosy 3.53 ERA is helped by a very fortunate .225 BABIP. Unlike Archer, all of the contact metrics seem to be screaming in unison about what’s going on; Odorizzi’s been getting hammered. The rotation is rounded out by familiar swingman Erasmo Ramirez and the currently-disabled Matt Andriese, who’s apparently the most average pitcher of 2017, for whatever that’s worth.
No matter how this Rays team finishes, it’s commendable that such a competitive roster has been assembled by a team playing with one of the lowest budgets, the thinnest fan bases, the worst stadium, and a general lack of very high draft picks over the last decade. All you have to do to get into the playoffs in the American League is beat everyone that isn’t the Indians, Red Sox, Yankees, or Astros. When phrased that way, it’s not such a steep hill to climb, and the Rays just might find themselves on top of it by the end of the season. Even if they don’t, they’ll probably just keep doing Rays stuff and find a way to remain a borderline threat to the established order every year. No one hands out trophies for that, but it’s remarkable nonetheless.
Probable Starting Pitchers
Tuesday, June 6: Chris Archer vs. Jose Quintana
Wednesday, June 7: Jake Odorizzi vs. Mike Pelfrey
Thursday, June 8: Alex Cobb vs. Derek Holland
|1. Corey Dickerson - DH||SP1. Chris Archer - RHP|
|2. Kevin Kiermaier - CF||SP2. Jake Odorizzi - RHP|
|3. Evan Longoria - 3B||SP3. Alex Cobb - RHP|
|4. Logan Morrison - 1B||SP4. Erasmo Ramirez - RHP|
|5. Steven Souza - RF||SP5. Matt Andriese (DL) - RHP|
|6. Colby Rasmus - LF||CL. Alex Colome - RHP|
|7. Tim Beckham - SS||RP1. Chase Whitley - RHP|
|8. Daniel Robertson - 2B||RP2. Danny Farquhar - RHP|
|9. Derek Norris - C||RP3. Tommy Hunter - RHP|