After an offseason which saw the likes of Chris Sale move to the Red Sox, Edwin Encarnacion depart from the American League East, Jose Bautista stay with the Blue Jays and Big Papi finally retiring, the Tampa Bay Rays are set to bounce back from a very disappointing 2016. Unfortunately for the Rays however (and Rays fans know all too well), Sale joining the team in Boston spells trouble. Of the current hitters on Tampa Bay’s roster that have faced Sale, Evan Longoria has tallied the most at bats against the lefty and has hit to the tune of a .048 average (1-for-21) with 8 punch outs. Altogether, Rays hitters are hitting a combined .113 against Sale, according to Baseball-Reference. It will be interesting to see what adjustments Tampa Bay hitting will make, having more opportunities to see the deceptive and hard-throwing lefty.
The Red Sox, with Sale’s help, are the clear favorites in the AL East as Ari pointed out in his AL East season Preview. With Jackie Bradley finally breaking out, Mookie Betts arguably becoming one of the best players in the league, and Andrew Benintendi looking to continue his electric start of his career, the Red Sox outfield is talented. Xander Bogaerts is a top-five hitting shortstop and the Sox’s rotation is leaps and bounds better than what it has been in recent years with Sale, David Price and reigning AL Cy Young winner Rick Porcello at the top of the rotation and Drew Pomeranz (whom they acquired from the Padres for a promising, young pitcher by the name of Anderson Espinoza), Eduardo Rodriguez and Steven Wright (among others) battling it out for the final two spots in the rotation.
But you’re here for a Rays season preview. As for the guys in St. Pete, the Rays are starting to look better and better to me. Around the halfway point of the offseason, I tweeted that I thought that the Rays were going to be “historically bad” this year but I really don’t feel that way sitting just a week from Opening Day. Here are some of the biggest transactions from the 2016-17 offfseason:
- Sign injured C Wilson Ramos to a 2-year, $12.5M deal, which is a bargain for a player that teams saw as damaged goods. In 2016, before having his season prematurely ended by a torn ACL, Ramos was named a National League All-Star and even won the Silver Slugger. In 128 games, he slashed .307/.354/.850 with 22 home runs and 80 RBIs. Look for Ramos to start seeing action at designated hitter sometime around the end of May, but they aren’t going to push the catcher heading into his 29-year old season.
- Traded 2B Logan Forsythe to the Dodgers for RHP José de León. This was my favorite move off the offseason for the Rays, even though it ruffled the feathers of my dumber brethren. It’s okay, they will learn. De León was drafted in the 24th round by Los Angeles out of a small D1 school in Baton Rouge, Southern University, in 2013. After refining some command issues in his first season of pro-ball, de Leòn carved opposing hitters in 2014-16 in the minors. In 2016, the then 23-year old pitched for AAA Oklahoma City for a majority of the season and registered a 11.57 K/9, 2.08 BB/9, 0.94 HR/9 in 16 starts for the OKC Dodgers. In the spring, de León will be battling for a spot in the big league rotation (he threw 17 innings for the MLB Dodgers in September), but I would not be shocked to see him start the season at Durham before a breakout rookie campaign. I also have him in both of my dynasty baseball leagues so that’s cool too.
- Signed free agent OF Colby Rasmus to a one-year deal, $5M deal. Here’s the deal with Rasmus: he’s going to strike out a lot (29% in 2016) but he’s going to hit around 20 home runs if he stays healthy. The Rays were desperately looking for a bat to put in left field, and Rasmus may be in line for a bounce back year.
- Brought back Logan Morrison on a one-year deal worth $2.5M. Personally, I would have loved to see the Rays go after Chris Carter to man first, but after the Yankees snatched him up on a one-year deal, Morrison was the best option available in the eyes of the Rays front office, who are hoping he will bounce back from a down year in which his strikeout total went up, and his home run total dropped to just 14. Waiting behind Morrison is prospect Jake Bauers who had a stellar year in AA Montgomery and was acquired in the Wil Myers trade with the Padres. He will likely crack the majors at some point in 2017.
- Traded LHP Drew Smyly to the Mariners for OF Mallex Smith, SS Carlos Vargas and LHP Ryan Yarborough (the 2016 Southern League Pitcher of the Year). The Mariners needed a starter and Tampa Bay had the depth and were looking to move an arm. Injuries kept Smith off the field for Atlanta in 2016, but in 72 games he batted .238 (45-for-189), with 3 home runs, 4 triples and went 16-for-24 in stolen base attempts. The potential is there for the young outfielder, but it’s just a matter of him staying healthy and putting the ball in play more (22.3 K%).
Like I said before, I wasn’t crazy about the Rays this year, but I don’t think they will be all that bad. After a stellar 2016 for star Evan Longoria who hit a career-high 36 home runs, and a down-year for ace Chris Archer, the Rays will look to put it all together in 2017. In my opinion, the team is a fringy-playoff team. If Steven Souza Jr. stays healthy and puts the together the kind of numbers the Rays saw in him when they traded for him, he could be a force in
If Steven Souza Jr. stays healthy and puts the together the kind of numbers the Rays saw in him when they traded for him, he could be a force in right field. Kevin Kiermaier looks to improve offensively as well (his fly ball percent skyrocketed to 37.8% from 29.3% in 2015), but will also seek a third-consecutive Gold Glove in centerfield. Blake Snell, the Rays coveted left-hander will shore up his command and have an even better sophomore campaign (he seemed to fatigue late in 2016). Also look for top prospects Willy Adames, Brent Honeywell, Casey Gillaspie and Bauers to make their MLB debuts in 2017.
Projected lineups and statistics (according to Fangraphs):
- CF – Kevin Kiermaier –.260/15 HR/73 RBI/21 SB
- SS – Matt Duffy – .264/10 HR/52 RBI
- 3B – Evan Longoria – .265/27 HR/76 RBI/32 2B
- DH – Corey Dickerson – .251/24 HR/67 RBI
- LF – Colby Rasmus – .221/20 HR
- 2B – Brad Miller – .250/22 HR/73 RBI/25 2B
- 1B – Logan Morrison – .244/15 HR
- RF – Steven Souza Jr. – .238/20 HR/66 RBI/21 2B
- C – Curt Casali (Ramos injured)
- SP – Chris Archer – 14-10/3.40 ERA/219 K
- SP – Alex Cobb – 8-8/3.92 ERA/104 K (132 inn.)
- SP – Jake Odorizzi – 9-9/3,90 ERA/147 K
- SP – Blake Snell – 10-9/3.69 ERA/154 K
- SP – Jose de León – 8-7/3.66 ERA/135 K (120 inn.)
- CP – Alex Colomé – 36 Saves/3.13 ERA/72 K (65 inn.)
If the Rays are not in a playoff run in July, expect to see a starting pitcher named Cobb, Archer or Odorizzi traded to a contender in need of pitching depth. In order for the Rays to deal Archer however, they are looking for a Chris Sale-esque return. With talented starting pitching waiting in the farm, the Rays should bite at any chance they can in improving their system with position players ready to contribute in return for one of those names.
All in all, I have the Rays once gain playing .500 or better baseball for the first time since 2013 when they won 92 games and earned a wild card berth, but will likely miss out on the playoffs in the tough American League East. Moving forward, with a plethora of prospects on the rise, and room for improvement via trading, the Tampa Bay Rays are finally becoming a team that’s fun to watch again. However, if this team struggles once again, expect third-year manager Kevin Cash take a place in the managerial hot seat.
This is Jordan’s first post for OTBB. You can give him a follow on the Twitter machine @jordlindz.