Like the thousands of snowbirds that dot Florida's gulf coast every year, the Tampa Bay Rays were expecting to have a relaxing winter. This seems odd to say after a disappointing fourth-place finish in the AL East, but the Rays' roster, which featured no free agents, was already set for 2015. Sure, there would be some tinkering, but resurgent seasons from Evan Longoria and Wil Myers were expected to vault the Rays' league-worst offense back to a respectable level.
That all went to hell on October 14.
Andrew Friedman, who had served as the Rays' general manager since 2006, signed a big contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He departed immediately, and began remodeling the Dodgers in a gold-plated version of his saber-savvy image. Joe Maddon fled through the still-open door thanks to a newly-trigged opt-out clause in his contract, and his Chicago Cubs are baseball's trendiest preseason sleeper pick.
Back in Florida, the Rays' new regime made a splash by trading Myers and three others to the San Diego Padres in a three-team trade that netted the Rays five new players in return. As Adam Sobsey put it in this year's Baseball Prospectus annual, new GM Matt Silverman's first move was to undo the biggest trade of the Friedman era.
Where does this leave the Rays on the field? It's difficult to say, given how many things plagued last year's club, a trendy preseason pick to win the AL East (note another Maddon team getting plenty of love from the media). However, it's difficult to see this team scoring enough runs to stay competitive in the AL East. Myers, Matt Joyce, and positional swiss army knife Ben Zobrist are gone. Replacements Steven Souza, John Jaso, and Asdrubal Cabrera are solid, but not quite as talented as their predecessors. Add in David Price's departure last July and an early onset of pitcher injuries -- Alex Cobb, Drew Smyly, and Alex Colome will all probably begin the season on the disabled list -- and it's tough to see the Rays cracking the top half of their division in 2015.
While one player doesn't make a lineup, Evan Longoria's subpar 2014 season was a big reason why the Rays finished dead last in the American League with just 612 runs scored. Longoria hit .253/.320/.404 in 700 plate appearances. While he hit 22 home runs and piled on 91 RBI, the lowest on-base percentage, slugging average, and isolated power (ISO) of his career resulted in his worst offensive season to date. He was far more aggressive than usual, swinging at nearly 48 percent of the pitches he saw. Whether he was pressing at the plate or simply out of whack, there's little reason to believe he's already starting to decline at age 29. On Longoria's left will be shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, who spent eight years with the Cleveland Indians before a two-month stint in Washington last summer. He has always been a subpar defender at short, but was an above average hitter with a career .757 OPS before two consecutive years with a 96 OPS+. His plate discipline has taken a turn for the worse over the past few seasons, but a season in Tampa's system may be enough to get him back on track.
One of the pieces the Rays received in exchange for trading David Price to the Tigers was former Mariners second baseman Nick Franklin. The 24-year-old switch-hitter was expected to be the team's starting second baseman before he suffered a "severe" oblique injury last week. Logan Forsythe, another trade acquisition, will be the starter in Franklin's absence. Forsythe hit .223/.287/.329 in 336 plate appearances for the Rays last season. His real value to the team is his ability to play every infield position, something he did in 2014. DRaysBay speculated on potential bench replacements, among them former No. 1 overall pick Tim Beckham.
First baseman James Loney saw his power dip in 2014 after a return to career norms the year before, but still hit .290 with a .336 on-base percentage. He will only hit 10-15 home runs, but a few more doubles behind Longoria in the lineup would be much appreciated. John Jaso, whose 2014 season was ended early by a concussion, will follow the Victor Martinez career path and become a full-time designated hitter. Jaso isn't the elite hitter that Martinez is, but a stellar walk rate and some gap power make him a solid option towards the top of the lineup.
The Rays will need all of the offensive production from Jaso and company that they can get, because they're not likely to get much from their actual catchers. Rene Rivera hit a surprising .252/.319/.432 with 11 home runs for the San Diego Padres last year, and was worth 3.0 WAR. Both Steamer and ZiPS predict a significant amount of regression for him. Backup Curt Casali hit just .167/.268/.208 in 84 plate appearances with the Rays last year, but that was still better than starter Jose Molina's .417 OPS. Both Rivera and Casali are great defenders, while the former ranked second among all MLB catchers in pitch framing runs added last season. Veteran Bobby Wilson, who is also reported to be an excellent pitch framer, is still battling for a job in camp.
The Rays' outfield could be a bit of a project offensively, but it is sure to be one of the best defensive units in baseball. Centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier took the Rays' fanbase by storm in Quintin Berry-like fashion last season, hitting .263/.315/.450 with eight triples and 10 home runs in 364 plate appearances. He was also a Gold Glove finalist despite only playing in 108 games. Kiermaier's move to center displaces Desmond Jennings, who will shift over to left field. The 28-year-old has never lived up to his considerable hype, but has still put up three consecutive seasons with 3.0 WAR or more. His .244/.319/.378 batting line seems unimpressive, but considering today's offensively-starved era and the home ballpark he plays in, he was actually above average (105) according to wRC+. Steven Souza will be Wil Myers' replacement in right field this year, which should provide a convenient storyline for national writers should either of the outfielders break out in their new homes. Souza had a 1.022 OPS in Triple-A last year, but wasn't able to crack the Nationals' loaded outfield until late in the season. His MLB service time reads like a beer commercial: "I don't always play, but when I do, I preserve no-hitters."
Righthander Alex Cobb was originally slated to be the team's Opening Day starter, but the team shut him down earlier this month due to forearm tendinitis. He started throwing again over the weekend, but it looks like he could be out for a little while. Cobb was the Rays' best starter not named David Price last season, allowing a 2.87 ERA and 3.23 FIP in 166 1/3 innings. He missed time with an oblique strain, but hit his stride after the All-Star break, allowing a 1.79 ERA and 1.04 WHIP in 14 starts. In Cobb's place on Opening Day will be Chris Archer, who got the nod from manager Kevin Cash over the weekend. Archer allowed a 3.33 ERA and 3.39 FIP in 194 2/3 innings last season, his second full campaign at the major league level.
Nathan Karns and Jake Odorizzi will be the team's second and third starters to open the season, in part because of the injuries ravaging the rest of the rotation. Karns only made two starts for the Rays last year, allowing six runs (including three home runs) in 12 innings. He struggled in his first full season of Triple-A, giving up a 5.04 ERA and 4.03 FIP in 145 1/3 innings. He struck out over a batter per inning, but his command was a bit suspect. Odorizzi did more to earn his spot in 2014, striking out nearly three hitters for every walk while holding opposing hitters to a .242 batting average. He allowed a 4.15 ERA, but his 3.75 FIP and 3.66 SIERA suggest that better days are ahead. Nearly half of the batted balls he allowed were in the air, a tendency that should play well in a large park with three rangy outfielders behind him.
Lefthander Matt Moore is the ace of the staff, but the 25-year-old is coming off Tommy John surgery and won't be ready for action until June. Former Tiger Drew Smyly was shut down in early September after topping the 150-inning barrier for the first time in his career. His upcoming trip to the disabled list for shoulder tendinitis isn't a first -- he had a pair of DL stints in 2012 -- but he's still a few weeks away from returning. He is scheduled to throw live batting practice this week. Righthander Alex Colome has a big fastball that averages 95 miles per hour, but he has already been placed on the DL with a bout of pneumonia that has affected him for the past couple of weeks. Colome's numbers at Triple-A have been up and down, but he's out of minor league options and is expected to be on the team in some role in 2015.
The Rays made an uncharacteristically splashy bullpen signing last offseason, inking righthander Grant Balfour to a two-year, $12 million deal. Balfour began the year as the team's closer, but didn't last long. Lefthander Jake McGee was cutting into Balfour's save opportunities in June, and the 37-year-old Australian found himself in mop-up duty throughout most of the second half. Balfour is still around in 2015, but will pitch in low-leverage situations until he can be trusted again. McGee, like practically every other good pitcher in the organization, is hurt; he's hoping for a May return. Brad Boxberger will be the team's closer to begin the year, while former Angels Kevin Jepsen and Ernesto Frieri are also in the late-inning mix.
Down on the farm
After a run of top picks when the franchise was in the doldrums, the Rays' once-impressive minor league depth has been largely depleted. There are no Evan Longorias or David Prices to be had in a system that ranks in the bottom third of baseball. Nearly all of their best prospects were playing with other organizations last season, including former Tigers farmhand Willy Adames. Shortstop Daniel Robertson, who came over from the A's, is widely considered the team's best prospect, but has yet to reach the Double-A level. Karns and Colome are two of the top arms in the system, along with small college draftee Brent Honeywell.
Player to watch: Evan Longoria
Prior to 2014, Longoria was worth watching because he was one of the best two-way players in baseball. Third basemen with elite bats and gloves don't come around often, and Longoria has been one of those rare breeds since he hit the big leagues in 2008. While last season's 3.5 WAR wasn't a career low -- he has an injury-shortened 2012 season to thank for that -- it was certainly the worst overall performance of his career. Longoria drew fewer walks, hit for less power, and even played poorer defense than ever. The most puzzling part of all was that it came in his age 28 season, smack in the middle of his prime. He should bounce back, but this situation is worth keeping an eye on.
As you might expect, computer projection systems like the Rays' chances of contention a bit more than your average baseball fan. These systems rely on formulas that weigh certain factors of past performance as more important than others, and there's a good chance that the statistically savvy Rays base their player evaluation on some of those same factors. In short, the computers like the Rays because the Rays were (somewhat) made by computers. Fangraphs projects the Rays for 81 wins (though a fourth-place finish), while Baseball Prospectus has the Rays winning 87 games, the third-highest total in the American League.
Unfortunately, computers can't project things like injuries and random poor performance. The injuries have already started piling up for the Rays, especially on a pitching staff that will be expected to carry the team. With an already undermanned offense expected to shoulder an even greater load at the start of the season and a rookie manager at the helm, it's not difficult to see the Rays falling behind the pack early. They weren't able to claw all the way back after a slow start in 2014, and it's hard to see them doing so with a weaker roster in 2015.