Already ranking near the bottom in terms of financial ability, the Tampa Bay Rays took a hit on the field with the loss of several key players this offseason. On the other hand, having a smart baseball operations department, a talented major league roster, and a loaded farm system will go a long way in offsetting the mass exodus from Tampa Bay this winter.
Present Talent – 89.17 (4th)
Future Talent – 95.00 (T-1st)
Financial Resources – 72.69 (T-22nd)
Baseball Operations -91.67 (1st)
Overall Ranking – 85.72 (4th)
At the winter meetings, Andrew Friedman said the challenge of competing in the American League East was becoming nearly impossible. This was said before he traded his starting shortstop, number three starter, and saw several more key members of his bullpen cash bigger checks elsewhere. Right after Friedman spoke about the almost impossible task of repeating as division champions, the Rays’ VP of Baseball Operations added these three simple words: “But it’s doable.”
And that’s why the Rays, despite losing nearly half their roster and shedding around $30 million in payroll, are still ranked within the top five of these organizational rankings. Whatever ground the Rays lose in terms of dollars and cents, they gain in terms of brains and common sense. According to the rankings, Friedman leads the best staff in the game. This eclectic group includes baseball lifers like Gerry Hunsicker and R.J. Harrison, but also employs former cellar dwellers like Peter Bendix, Josh Kalk, and James Click.
With a progressive on-field general in Joe Maddon, the theories and analysis done behind the scenes by this group are put in motion during real game settings. Whether it be loading your lineup with like-handed batters against changeup artists or walking Miguel Cabrera three straight games to load the bases late in a one-run game, Maddon embraces the hard work and numbers given to him from above. Without the deep pockets of their closest competitors, gaining any advantage possible is not just a catch phrase for Tampa Bay; it is the only way they can survive. While embracing statistical analysis appeals to the fangraphs bunch, crunching the numbers can only take a team so far. In order to execute these ideas and ideals, you need talent on the field. This is where the scouting side of the Rays blends with the statistics.
Friedman –with good reason- gets the bulk of the credit, but as my colleague Jonah Keri explained in the Extra 2%, he understands that he is only as strong as the men he surrounds himself with. Whether it’s Dan Feinstein saving a few hundred thousand dollars in arbitration cases or Matt Arnold (Director of Pro Scouting) remembering a young Joaquin Benoit from his days as a scout with the Rangers, Friedman makes up for the financial deficit with a strong decision making team. For every Carlos Pena picked up by the Rays, there will be a Hee-Seop Choi. But continued search for the next low-risk gem remains essential to the team’s ability to survive.
As part of the dumpster diving mentality, the Rays are always looking for other avenues to gather talent that they cannot freely acquire on the open market. In 2008, the Rays needed a shortstop and another starting pitcher. They traded former top prospect Delmon Young to acquire both. This offseason, the Rays could not compete with the multi-year, multi-million dollar contracts handed to relief pitchers. Instead of panicking and overpaying, the Rays simply went another way. They acquired three relief arms in exchange for Jason Bartlett and made several low-risk signings as well. In the process, the team collected a handful of young, cheap, controllable bullpen options for 2011 and beyond.
Finding cheap, major league ready talent is a key part of the Rays’ plan. That said, player development is paramount to the organization’s future success. With a top five talent at the major league level, Tampa Bay tied the Kansas City Royals in our future talent rankings.
The Rays have identified starting pitching as another area where they cannot compete in terms of dollars. Recognizing that, the team has compiled several high-upside arms through the draft (David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore), trades (Chris Archer, Alex Torres), and international signings (Alex Colome, Wilking Rodriguez, Enny Romero). Not all the names will pan out, but if just one or two of them become a big league starter that is extremely important considering the cost for starting pitching on the open market.
One of common themes during the Rays rise to the top was that they stockpiled high draft picks for years, meaning they would suffer once they were out of the top five of the draft. While it’s true that several of the team’s stars (Evan Longoria, B.J. Upton, David Price) are top picks, the scouting department has found some late round gems along the way. Looking at the top five prospects that were drafted by the Rays according to Marc Hulet, four of the five were drafted in round four or later.
As a result of all the free agent losses, the Rays will have an unprecedented 12 selections in the first 89 picks of the upcoming draft. The task for farm system director R.J. Harrison will be to hit on as many picks as possible. A bad draft could set the team back in the future- so no pressure there.
Having smart people running the team and a strong farm system is great, but the Rays are also looking to be competitive in present day as well. Even with the losses of Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, and others, the core of the Rays remains strong. The back bone of the team is the starting rotation. Anchored by lefty ace David Price, the team’s starting five is among the better groups in the AL.
Behind Price, the Rays will need a bounce-back from James Shields. Shields posted the lowest xFIP of his career in 2010 (3.72), but also his highest ERA (5.18). Looking at his career numbers, Shields has never posted a season with an xFIP above 4.00 so the chance for him rebounding is strong.
In the field, the Rays have one of the best players in the game signed to the best contract in team sports. With Evan Longoria leading the pack, the will need strong years by B.J Upton and Ben Zobrist (each posting sub .340 wOBA’s last year) to help offset the loss of Crawford and Pena. Tampa Bay also signed a pair of veterans in Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon to bolster an offense that scored the third most runs in the AL last year. Even though they are well past their prime, Marcel pegs both with above-average wOBA for 2011 with Manny going over .370. In addition to the hired guns, Matt Joyce, Dan Johnson, Sean Rodriguez, John Jaso, and Reid Brignac could all be above-average offensive performers.
The lead story line of the offseason was Tampa Bay’s bullpen. The home of one of the league’s best unit in 2010, the pen will feature six new faces on opening day 2011. The lone holdover is long man Andy Sonnanstine, who should continue his role as the low-leverage man. Acquired in exchange for Bartlett, Adam Russell and Cesar Ramos give Joe Maddon a lefty-righty tandem in the middle innings. Ramos is a likely lefty specialist, while Russell has the potential to get some high-leverage work and be asked to get some double-play balls.
With limited dollars to spend, the Rays signed a few veteran arms to one-year deals. Kyle Farnsworth received the biggest bounty ($3.25 million) while surprise non-tender Joel Peralta will make under a million. Both could see work as closer to start the season with the hope that their recent success can continue in 2011.
Rounding out the pen is a pair of question marks who quite possibly possess the top arms of the group. Fresh off shoulder surgery, the Rays are hoping Juan Cruz and his 95-mph fastball can become the next bargain basement steal for the team. Meanwhile, former starting prospect turned reliever Jake McGee could become the team’s relief ace with a high 90’s fastball and the ability to get lefties and rights out. A relief ace in 2008 and 2009, J.P. Howell could be a fantastic addition to the bullpen once he fully recovers from arm surgery.
For all obstacles faced off the field with attendance and stadium issues that greatly impact the bottom line, Tampa Bay continues to make the best out of what they have. With a solid group of major leaguers, a bunch of high-upside youngsters, and arguably the best management in the game, there process remains in clear focus. It’s unlikely that they can overcome the Red Sox and the Yankees in 2011, but, if you ask around, some would say it’s doable.