longoria

After a solid six year run as perennial playoff/divisional contenders from 2008 to 2013, the Tampa Bay Rays have since been on the outside looking in. A team that once seemed to get the most out of so little, the Rays bottomed out last year and look to improve on their worst season in a decade.

The Players

Any conversation about the Rays has to begin with all-star third basemen, Evan Longoria. Since debuting in 2008, Longoria has consistently and quietly put together above average to all-star caliber seasons. As I eluded in the intro, the Rays are a budget team and Longoria has been their saviour both on the field and on the books.

The Rays were able to build and maintain a solid squad around Longoria as he was signed under market value during what would have been his arbitration years. Being paid 17.5 million dollar contract over those 6 years gave the Rays much needed financial flexibility, but Longoria was clearly paid way under value. Once his contract came up in 2013, he was extended to the tune of 135 million over 8 years and should remain a Ray until 2022. This contract is likely still below market value and gives the Rays some much needed flexibility but it’s unlikely they will be able to buy free agents to solidify their lineup, and that money will be needed to sign cost controlled prospects within the Rays organization in furture years to come.

In 2016 and at the age of 30, Longoria posted some his best power numbers with 36 home runs. In the two previous seasons his power greatly diminished and his walk rate had tumbled year after year for the past three seasons. His defense still remains above average but it has also taken a bit of a decline during the same time period. What is very fortunate for the Tays is that Longoria has played in 160+ games during that same time frame whereas he had fought various ailments in 2012 to 2013. At this point in his career, Longoria is who he is. He’s an often forgotten and somewhat under rated star who provides solid contact, pop and above average defense to a franchise that desperately needs offense. Longoria remains the heart and soul of the Rays and should produce another above average season at the hot corner.

At shortstop, the Rays will get a full season of former San Francisco Giant, Matt Duffy who plays superb defense. In typical Tampa Rays shrewdness, Duffy was acquired late last season in the Matt Moore trade and he now provides some cost control to the Rays, as he has yet to enter his arbitration years. Although his bat will not carry a team, his defense will save plenty of runs. He posted a positive 4.8 WAR in 2015 for the Giants mainly due to superb d and some good luck with an above average BABIP. That batting average luck crashed in 2016 in an injury shortened season, but a slight improvement can be expected as he enters his first full season as a Ray. Don’t expect a lot of power or speed from the young shortstop as defense is his weapon. Duffy isn’t someone to target in fantasy drafts as he will likely hit in the bottom third of the Rays order and won’t provide any plus value to offensive counting stats, but in the real game he will be a valuable defensive piece for the Rays.

At second base, Brad Miller will have a new full time job now that Logan Forsythe was traded to the Dodgers. Brad Miller quietly hit 30 home runs in his first season with the Rays. He had previously shown he had power in his previous stint with the Mariners, but that power was very streaky at best. Miller was miscast at shortstop hence the move to second base, but he should be adequate enough at second and may even see a bit of playing time at first base and DH. I’m not sold that Miller is

a lock for 30 home runs but I believe he can safely hit in the 25 home run range. If anything it appears Miller will improve his batting average due to a low BABIP mark in 2016, and this run production will increase in addition to hitting in the heart of the Rays order.

At first base, the Rays will likely have a rotation cast of players but it appears Logan Morrison will be the starter for the time being. He doesn’t profile as a typical first basemen as the power is mediocre at best and his defense is average to slightly below average. The rays can and need to improve here in the future.

In the outfield, center field is patrolled by two time defending Gold Glove winner, Kevin Kiermaier, who was responsible for 25 defensive runs saved last year. The former 31st round pick (yes that is correct as amateur baseball drafts go on forever) has been a steal for the Rays during his young career. His bat is serviceable and he may now serves as the team’s lead off man with Forsythe out of the picture. He previously was hitting as low as the 8 hole in 2016, but from August onward he was slotting in the two hole. If manager Kevin Cash continues to stick him in the upper half of the lineup, Kiermaier’s run production will see a dramatic increase and he could be a sneaky source of steals as evidenced by his 2016 late summer production.

Incorner outfield, the Rays will use a combination of Colby “I want me some mo’ Cornbread” Rasmus, Steven Souza Jr. and Corey Dickerson. All three players have decent pop in their bat. Rasmus at times has shown that he can be one of the best in baseball when he’s on a heater, but when he goes cold (which is often) he is an auto-out at the plate. Rasmus has several years of plus defense at centre field under his belt, but that is no longer required with Kiermaier in the fold.

Rasmus just came off one of his worst offensive seasons as his Isolated power was at a career low. His batting average for balls in play well below average and his 29% strike out rate continues to be a recipe for disaster. The good news for the Rays is that Rasmus is still fairly young at 30 years old, but it seems he has been around forever. He will never achieve his prospect hype that followed him through his Cardinals and early Blue Jays career, but he is still a slightly above average ball player when he’s healthy and on. I expect a slight rebound for Rasmus and his power and batting average should bounce back to his career norms.

Steven Souza Jr. profiles fairly similar to Colby Rasmus just without the defensive upside. As Souza enters his fourth major league season he has continued to strike out at an almost league leading clip. It’s one thing to strike out at a horrendous rate if you are going to hit 40 bombs, but Souza has never hit more than 17 in a season yet strikes out 34% of the time. What’s also worrisome is that Souza’s mediocre batting average is severally propped up by high batting average luck. I would expect a decline toward a 0.230 batting average to be realistic. The biggest thing to ponder is if Souza can drastically cut down his strike outs? I think a major improvement here is unlikely and he could be at risk of losing playing time if his plate approach and discipline do not improve.

Corey Dickerson is an interesting player who left Colorado and disappointed in his first season in Tampa. While only 27 years old, Dickerson is slotting in as DH and part time outfielder for the Rays. Dickerson claims to have lost 25 pounds this off season which he hopes will improve his flexibility and range of motion. He has the most raw power on the team next to Longoria, but a large part of his hitting success in Colorado was due to luck and the Coors field effect. Dickerson is too good of a hitter to accept that 2016 is his new norm but a return to his .300+ batting average is unlikely. Dickerson could be a sneaky pick on draft day and if everything bounces the right way he could pay off, but do not bank on the Dickerson of 2014 to be back.

At catcher the Rays will likely start Curtis Casali to start the season who is not expected to contribute much offensively. His defensive acumen is slightly above average but he is likely a stop gap until a better option becomes available. In the off-season Wilson Ramos parlayed a career year into a decent one year contract and was signed as a free agent even with a serious ACL injury. He is expected to miss at least the first two months of the season and best case scenario will serve as a DH until he healthy enough to play the demanding catcher position. When healthy Ramos can be one of the better hitting catchers in baseball but it’s to be seen how the ACL injury will impact his performance once off the IR.

Starting Pitching

For the past decade the Rays have consistently boasted one of the better pitching staffs in the American League. David Price is now long gone but a new crop of young pitchers have proven more than capable.

Chris Archer had a somewhat disappointing season in 2016 after his phenomenal breakout in 2015. He had some home run issues early on in the 2016 season but managed to get those home run rates to fall as the season progressed. Chris Archer is one of the better strike out starting pitchers in the game as he possesses a wicked slider that he used 40% of the time. His fastball and change up could use some improvement, but he has become an ace due to that killer slider. The downside to throwing so many sliders is the fear of injury. Archer has not had any significant injury issues in his young career but the amount of stress placed on the elbow from throwing such a violent pitch is concerning in the long run. However, in lieu of injury, Archer is likely to repeat his 2nd half 2016 performance where he was very effective, struck out batters with ease and limited home runs.

Jake Odorizzi begins his fourth full season with the Rays as a starter and expectations are high for the young righty. Odorizzi is a traditional fastball and change up pitcher who is good at generating weak contact. Some regression from his 2016 performance is likely but Odorizzi should be a more than serviceable inning eater for the Rays.

Alex Cobb is coming back to the Rays hopefully with a full season of health in the cards. After missing most of 2016 he came back in September and was not very good in his return from missing nearly two seasons after Tommy John surgery. From 2012 to 2014 he was a very good pitcher although he would miss several starts per season leading up to his Tommy John surgery. Similar to Odorizzi he keeps his hitters off balance by mixing up his fastball and excellent change up and induces slightly above average weak and medium contact. Projecting a players performance coming back after essentially two years off is very difficult. Just look at former Rays starter, Matt Moore who has yet to find his game after his own Tommy John surgery. Cobb had a decent track record prior to his surgery and is in his final year prior to free agency, so needless to say a lot is at stake. He’s a good bet to out perform expectations but those expectations should be tempered at best.

With Drew Smyly shipped off to the Mariners, rounding out the starting rotation is Matt Andriese and Blake Snell. Both pitchers showed lots of promise during their Major League debuts in 2016. Often sophomore seasons result in some regression but both hurlers have shown a nice floor and their ceilings have yet to be touched. Andriese is probably the guy I like the most in 2017 out of the duo. In 2016 he had shown better walk rates in his short tenure with the Rays whereas Snell has tons of strike out potential and over time could become the top flight pitcher of the two. Snell will have to limit his walks though to become fully effective though and that could take time. As number four and five starters, most MLB teams would be envious of this depth and either one are worthy of being drafted for upside depth on your fantasy draft day.

The Bullpen

For a budget team it makes little sense to spend oodles of dollars here, but the Rays bullpen is in unspectacular but solid shape as they head into the 2017 season.

Currently, Alex Colome is lining up to be the opening day closer. The hard throwing righty previously dabbled as a starter but has found a home out of the pen where he can throw harder in short spurts and rack up K’s with an above average slider. He will represent the Dominican Republic at the upcoming World Baseball Classic which says something about his talents.

Former Rays closer, Brad Boxburger is still in the mix for saves but will likely serve as the team’s set up man. After missing a lot of time in 2016 with oblique and abdominal issues, Boxburger will look to get his career back on track and the key will be to limit walks which haunted Boxburger in his last two seasons.

Veteran reliever, Xavior Cedeno had a very good season for the Rays and should continue to be a solid reliever.

Erasmo Ramirez’ starting pitching days are likely behind him as he does not possess the stuff needed to get through an order three times so he will likely serve as the long man out of the bullpen. He only made one start in 2016 but managed to be a part of 18 decisions (that’s a lot for a reliever) and have a 7-11 record (Member Slurpee’s?!).

Former Mariners closer, Danny Farquhar, will look to re-establish himself as a trusted bullpen arm. He had home run issues the past couple years and was event sent down to AAA for some time in 2016. However, when he’s on his game he has shown that he can be a valuable arm out of the pen. The good news for the Rays is he is likely to be the 5th option out of the pen so he can be eased into any high leverage situations.

Another traveled vet looking to re-establish value is former Rangers closer, Shawn Tolleson. To call Tolleson’s 2016 bad is an understatement. It was a dumpster fire disaster, but to be fair some bad luck and a few too many long balls killed him. Tolleson could be a sneaky bullpen add for the Rays and similar to Farquhar is far enough down the depth chart to not be a burden either if he falters.

Outlook

The Rays are a much better team then their 68 win showing last season. The Rays are unlikely to return to the post season but a push for a .500 record is attainable due to the strength of their pitching and defense. With improved defense in left field and at shortstop, the Rays should easily win a few extra games right there. Bounce back seasons from Corey Dickerson and Colby Rasmus are possible and will also contribute to the teams’ offensive needs. Ultimately the Rays will continue to struggle to produce runs at times and will lose a handful of winnable games due to the lack of middle of the order production. I anticipate the Rays will win 79 games in 2017 but this is a step in the right direction for a young squad.

Fantasy Studs

Chris Archer – He may come at a bit of a discount due to his slow start in 2016. His strike outs and quality start numbers will provide a nice floor for your fantasy pitching staff. A return to his 2015 ERA and WHIP ratios may not be realistic but somewhere in the middle of the 2015 and 2016 numbers is attainable.

Brad Miller – It’s hard to say that a 30 Home run shortstop is a sleeper but he isn’t being drafted as a top 10 SS or 2B in most pools. I believe 25 home runs is a more realistic power range for Miller and the batting average is average at best, but if he hits in the middle of the order he could be a solid pick up for run and RBI production as well.

Fantasy Dud

Wilson Ramos – The catcher position is not one of strength in fantasy baseball but banking on sustained production from an injured Ramos is foolish. He will be worth a waiver wire grab once he is close to returning to health but will not be worth taking up a roster spot for two to maybe three months. Let someone else in your league get excited by the May return timeline to avoid the headache. If he is available in late May he will be worth a waiver stash then.

Sleeper

Kevin Kiermaier – Kiermaier was often over drafted in 2016 and hitting in the 8 hole hindered his production substantially in an already offensively challenged Rays lineup. Now that he will have a chance to hit lead off I fully expect his run production and steal totals to greatly improve. Since he burned a few fantasy owners last year I don’t expect this upside to go as noticed in most drafts. Draft with confidence as a late round flier to round out your outfield depth.