Five questions: Tampa Bay Rays

Since 2008, the Tampa Bay Rays have seemingly embraced the art of winning on a smaller budget in one of the toughest divisions in all of team sports. After losing a number of key players to free agency this offseason, the Rays will go into opening day with one of baseball’s lowest payrolls this year. Some believe the Rays still have enough to compete while other opinions vary. Who’s right, who’s wrong, and do we really have to wait until October to find out?

How will their bullpen shape up?

After losing Rafael Soriano, Joaquin Benoit, Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler, Chad Qualls and Randy Choate to free agency, the team responded by signing Kyle Farnsworth and Joel Peralta while also acquiring Adam Russell and Cesar Ramos in the Jason Bartlett deal. With everyone in the bullpen exchanged and signed, the Rays cut over 10 million dollars from their 2011 payroll, but do these replacements have a chance to measure up to last season’s model?

Farnsworth will be bringing home the most pay among this corps, but is he a true closer? Despite a season and a half of quality in Kansas City, Farnsworth will always find it tough to shake off his Yankee years.

Joel Peralta looks like a great cheap option with an increasing strikeout-per-nine and pinpoint control, but he will be 35 years old on Opening Day, and his career splits against left-handed hitters (.271/.345/.525) could limit his role. However, he did show some improvement against lefties last season, albeit with a very small sample size of 72 plate appearances. Over the past few seasons, Peralta has shown more confidence in his curveball, while his split-finger fastball looked like his best weapon against southpaws.

Adam Russell has a lot of promise along with a big fastball that can reach 96 mph. The knock against Russell has been his command, which stems from mechanical issues. Last season’s small sample looked promising, as Russell showed good command without losing any velocity. He also excelled at getting opposing hitters to swing more outside of the strike zone, a problem that plagued him in his previous call ups with San Diego.

Besides the three right-handers mentioned above, the rest of the pen should include lefty-specialist Cesar Ramos, Mike Ekstrom and left-handed rookie Jake McGee, with Andy Sonnanstine pulling long-relief duty.

McGee seems to be the favorite among the group to assume ninth-inning duty sometime this season. This spring he has been working on his slider, and Maddon has praised his mound demeanor.

Another important development is the return of J.P. Howell. According to reports, Howell has reported no set-backs after some early bullpen sessions. If he can make a full recovery from shoulder surgery by early May, he should slot in nicely as a high-leverage option.

If Howell makes a full recovery, this unit should have enough pieces for Maddon to work with. Sure, this group is full of projects and question marks, but it wasn’t long ago that Balfour, Benoit and Soriano were also tagged as injury risks.

What kind of production can we expect from their big free agents?

After losing one of the offseason’s biggest free agents to a division rival, the Rays held a press conference on Feb. 1 to introduce Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon as the newest Rays. Last season, Ramirez put up a decent line of .298/.406/.460 with a .382 wOBA in only 320 plate appearances, while occasionally being hobbled by hamstring and calf injuries.

Looking over the numbers, Ramirez was successful in maintaining his walk and strikeout rates last season, but overall his 2010 season was regarded as a disappointment. Ramirez will be 39 years old at the end of May and with a discernible drop in his isolated power (ISO) of nearly 80 points (.241 in 2009; .162 in 2010), it will be very tough to read this signing with any kind of general optimism.

In the Rays defense, finding a capable hitter to fill their DH position was necessary. Last season, the Rays failed to get any stable production from Pat Burrell in this spot, and the team was forced to sift through the proverbial scrap heap before finally receiving a line on .218/.312/.357 with .301 wOBA and a 0.7 WAR. Obviously, it wouldn’t take much to improve upon those numbers.

Manny Ramirez’s 2011 Oliver projection

The “R” in WAR
How a person can be a hero by being a zero.

589 77 23 82 .283 .385 .481 .379 2.9

The Rays are hoping Ramirez can pull in numbers close to that projection. If he can perform like a two-WAR player, then this will be very good news for the Rays’ return on investment, since a two-win player is worth about $9 million in today’s market.

Looking at Johnny Damon, last season’s power outage was pretty much predicted by many analysts. In 2010, Damon hit .271/.355/.401 with a .340 wOBA. Moving away from left-handed-friendly Yankee Stadium certainly did him no favors in the power department, but his other skills were stable, especially his walk and strikeout rates of 11.3 and 16.7 percent, respectively, that rated above average.

Johnny Damon’s 2011 Oliver projection

623 75 13 68 .269 .345 .416 .336 0.9

Damon will be 37 years old next season. He’s not going to lead the team in any offensive categories, but he should be capable of providing some decent outfield depth.

Will the starting rotation hold up?

This does seem to be a legitimate fear for Joe Maddon based on his answers in recent interviews. Last season, the Rays had to deal some nagging injuries to starters Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann. However, with the departure of Matt Garza, some much needed stability near the top of the rotation could become an issue.

Despite where you stand on the trade that sent Garza to the Cubs, you have to admit it will be tough to expect another pitcher not named David Price to assume the job of making 30-plus starts and 200 innings.

This season, Maddon is hoping to increase everyone’s workload by about 20 percent. Here are the regular-season innings total of each Rays starter last season:

David Price 208 IP
James Shields 203 IP
Wade Davis 168 IP
Jeff Niemann 174 IP
Jeremy Hellickson 153 IP

It’s expected that Price and Shields should approach 200 innings again, but the hope is that the other three take a step forward in 2011.

Wade Davis throws mostly a four-seam fastball for contact. He does have a two-seamer that has induced a good share of ground balls (60.6 percent), but Davis doesn’t seem to trust this pitch and instead tries to push his four-seamer past opposing hitters. The only problem is this hasn’t worked too well, as opposing hitters had a contact rate of over 85 percent in 2010 (80.1 percent was the average).

Looking over the final two starters, the plan is to get Niemann close to the 200-inning mark, and if his shoulder stays healthy those could be 200 solid innings. Hellickson, on the other hand, will be treated much more carefully since his limit will be around 180 innings (although David Price was the same age as Hellickson (24) when he made his jump from 162 innings pitched in 2009 to 220 last season).

If a starter falls to injury, Andy Sonnanstine is the early-season insurance policy, but as the season progresses watch as Alexander Torres, Alex Cobb and Chris Archer perform. All three are expected to start in Triple-A and are likely candidates as late season call-ups.

Niemann’s injury history, which goes back to his days in college, is a concern. For me, he is the key if this rotation hopes to have any stability.

What’s going on?! I thought Desmond Jennings would be ready by now?

Maybe he’s as ready as he’ll ever be, but the Rays have decided to delay his full-season arrival. Of course, Jennings will never fully replace Carl Crawford since the former isn’t expected to develop much more power than 10-12 home runs per season.

It is curious that Jennings is expected to return to Triple-A before spring training ends. One could chalk it up to the organization believing he may need more seasoning as he focuses on his offensive skills. Another part of me thinks the team may be protecting him in some weird way by having him avoid the pressure of replacing a huge star during his rookie season. Not buying it? Okay, moving on.

What’s with all this fancy talk about extra two percents and Wall Street strategies, anyway?

If you haven’t heard, a new book just came out detailing the history of the Rays, and the book’s title, The Extra 2%, is indicative of the numerous strategies the Rays employ to grind out every advantage possible. According to the book’s author, Jonah Keri, the term “the extra two percent” refers to a statement that Rays owner Stuart Sternberg said about trying to gain any small advantage playing in the AL East.

To beat the Yankees and Red Sox, two loaded teams with smart management and tons of money, you need to do absolutely everything two percent better than the competition. Scouting, player development, promotions, lineup moves, everything.

In previous seasons, we all marveled at manager Joe Maddon’s intrepidness and curiosity. He has definitely grown into the perfect field manager for the brains behind this team. Maddon mentioned earlier this spring that the Rays have to “find another way to win.”

With Rays fans wondering where this next batch of extra two percent will come from, some are speculating on batted-ball platoon data. It’s a very possible scenario that would fit perfectly in a world where the Rays have already utilized reverse platoon splits and other advantages born from secret algorithms and other forms of top-secret data too mind-blowing to merely imagine!

It’s either that or Maddon may just fool us all and stick to his five-man infield he has been kicking around this spring.

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The Manny projection is odd – with an OBP of .335 – why would his BB% be cut in half of its usual? But then the wOBA doesn’t seem to match the OBP and SLG components (it’s way too high for an OBP that low). Not sure where the typo is, since an OBP of .(4)35 would seem way too high….

At the risk of turning the game into football, it would seem worth having at least one regular OF who takes grounders.  An aggressive mgr might put in the 5-man for other situations like 1 out, runner on 1st, pitcher up (esp. one who doesn’t whiff a lot and is not fast).  So if Zobrist is RF, pull him in for 5 inf at DP depth and 2 OF fairly deep.  Either the pitcher whiffs trying to elevate the ball, grounder in the hole becomes DP, or flyball out now becomes long single. It might have worked to the advantage… Read more »
David Gassko
David Gassko


.335 was a typo—I’ve changed it to the correct .385.