Despite a last-place finish and their third straight losing season, the Rays are looking to reload rather than rebuild for 2017.
- Evan Longoria, 3B: $94MM through 2022 ($13MM club option for 2023, $5MM buyout)
- Chris Archer, SP: $20.25MM through 2019 (plus club options for 2020-21)
- Logan Forsythe, 2B: $5.75MM through 2017 ($8.5MM club option for 2018, $1MM buyout)
Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via MLB Trade Rumors)
- Alex Cobb (5.061) – $4.0MM
- Bobby Wilson (5.057) – $1.1MM
- Drew Smyly (4.154) – $6.9MM
- Erasmo Ramirez (3.158) – $3.5MM
- Brad Boxberger (3.109) – $1.5MM
- Corey Dickerson (3.101) – $3.4MM
- Brad Miller (3.094) – $3.8MM
- Xavier Cedeno (3.060) – $1.2MM
- Jake Odorizzi (3.042) – $4.6MM
- Danny Farquhar (2.168) – $1.1MM
- Kevin Kiermaier (2.131) – $2.1MM
- Non-tender candidates: Wilson
The Rays’ 68-94 record marked the first time the club had failed to crack the 70-win plateau since the 2007 season, which was also the last year that Tampa finished last in the AL East. There’s an argument to be made that a low-payroll team in a tough division should consider starting from scratch after such a rough season, yet the Rays certainly seem to have more talent than your usual last-place team. With so many interesting players on hand, it isn’t surprising that Rays president of baseball ops Matt Silverman and his front office is “hellbent on getting this team back into contention.”
That being said, Silverman and company have quite a bit of work to do in figuring out how to fix their roster’s flaws. Pretty much every unit on the team is a “yeah, but…” situation. The lineup finished with the sixth-most homers of any team in baseball, but only 13th of 30 teams in slugging percentage, 24th in runs scored, 27th in OBP and 28th in batting average. The bullpen had Alex Colome enjoy a breakout season as closer, but the relief corps as a whole ranked in the bottom half of the league in ERA, K/9, BB/9 and HR/9. The Rays’ rotation has long been touted for their collection of young arms, but they finished middle-of-the-pack in most starting pitching categories, and lost one of their young arms when Matt Moore was traded to the Giants at the deadline.
Let’s begin with the rotation, which stands as Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Blake Snell, Alex Cobb and Drew Smyly. Archer is looking to bounce back from something of a hard-luck year that saw a big spike in his home run totals, though most of his issues came only in the first half of the season. Smyly is also looking for a rebound year, Snell will enter his first full year in the bigs and Cobb will be looking for a full campaign after making just five starts in 2016 as he returned from Tommy John surgery.
Tampa’s starting five has a lot of talent, though on the whole is still weighed more towards promise than proven MLB results. Matt Andriese is also on hand as a rotation candidate, and I could be underrating his shot at a starting job. He posted the same 2.0 fWAR as Odorizzi and Smyly despite pitching significantly fewer innings, and Andriese topped them both in BB/9, home run rate, grounder rate, FIP, xXIP and SIERA. These stats aside, Andriese pitched quite a bit better in his 22 2/3 relief innings than he did in 105 IP as a starter, so the Rays could feel the righty is needed in the bullpen. He could easily slide back into the rotation for a spot start or perhaps a more permanent role change if Smyly, Cobb or Snell struggle.
With some starting depth available, could the Rays deal another arm? Archer and Odorizzi generated a lot of attention at the trade deadline before Moore was shipped out, and Smyly could also draw interest given his potential and two remaining years of control. This offseason’s free agent starting pitching market is painfully thin, so Silverman could demand an even larger return for one of his top starters now than he did at the deadline. Barring a blockbuster offer, I’d guess it would still be surprising to see the Rays deal Archer given his team-friendly contract (plus, most teams planning to contend don’t trade their ace). Odorizzi and Smyly, however, could be shopped given their rising arbitration costs.
In the event of a starting pitching trade, Andriese could be elevated to the rotation or the Rays could pursue a veteran on a minor league deal to provide depth or compete for the fifth starter’s job. Tampa Bay could also look to its farm system (i.e. Dylan Floro, Taylor Guerrieri or Brent Honeywell) for added starting or relief depth.
Any of these young arms could see work in relief anyway, as there is certainly room for improvement in the bullpen. The Rays will be building from the back of the bullpen outwards, as while Colome got a bit of peripheral luck (namely a whopping 93% strand rate), the Rays probably feel pretty good about their ninth-inning situation. Beyond Colome, southpaw Xavier Cedeno and righty Danny Farquhar had good seasons, long reliever Erasmo Ramirez was at least able to eat innings, and former closer Brad Boxberger is hoping to bounce back from an injury-ravaged year. Boxberger will look for better health and better control (as per his ungainly 7.03 BB/9 over 24 1/3 innings), and while the Rays would hope Boxberger is able to serve as a setup man, they can’t be counting on much in the wake of his lost season.
If Tampa looks to free agency to bolster the pen, expect the team to pursue veterans on inexpensive one-year deals in the hopes of finding a reclamation project. One option could be to re-sign a familiar face in Kevin Jepsen, who struggled badly last year but posted strong relief numbers in 2014-15.
As always, don’t expect the Rays to be big spenders this winter. After pushing payroll into the $74-75MM range in 2014 and 2015 in hopes of making a pennant run, the 2016 Opening Day payroll dropped to roughly $66.68MM. Tampa already has approximately $58.2MM committed to 14 players for 2017, between the slightly more than $25MM guaranteed to Archer, Logan Forsythe and Evan Longoria and the $33.2MM projected to the club’s large arbitration class.
Smyly and Odorizzi have the highest price tags of those 11 arb-eligible players, and as I noted earlier, the Rays could free up some payroll space by trading either. Ramirez’s $3.5MM projected salary could make him a trade chip as well. Despite his interesting usage as an old-school fireman type of reliever, Ramirez’s numbers weren’t much more than average, so he could be seen as expendable.
Trading Longoria would free up the most money, of course, though there isn’t any sign that the Rays would deal their franchise player. This is another case where, if the Rays are serious about contending, they’re pretty unlikely to deal an established star, especially since Tampa still has quite a few question marks around the diamond. Third base is a position the Rays don’t have to worry about thanks to Longoria, with second base (Forsythe) and center (Kevin Kiermaier) also not positions of need.
The Rays believe they have an answer at shortstop in the form of Matt Duffy, acquired in the Moore trade. Duffy was an outstanding third base defender over two seasons in San Francisco though he has only played 28 games at short in the big leagues. Duffy recently underwent surgery to fix an Achilles tendon issue that bothered him all season and quite likely contributed to his poor year at the plate. It could be that Duffy’s eventual future is as a utilityman given that top shortstop prospects Daniel Robertson and Willy Adames are both in the pipeline, but for now, Tampa Bay hopes Duffy can solidify a position that has been an issue.
Steven Souza is still the incumbent right fielder, though the Rays are still looking for a breakout from the 27-year-old. Brad Miller and Corey Dickerson are penciled in at first base and left field, respectively, with Dickerson stepping up as defender last year after a few subpar years in left with the Rockies. Miller has struggled with the glove pretty much everywhere he’s played around the diamond, though the Rays can live with some defensive issues at the less-critical position of first as long as Miller keeps slugging. Acquired in a six-player deal with the Mariners last winter, Miller delivered just the 11th 30-homer season in Rays history.
Miller and Dickerson are both left-handed hitters who haven’t shown much against left-handed pitching, so the Rays could use a right-handed bat or two to platoon at first or in left field. Richie Shaffer and Mikie Mahtook are internal options for these role, though Shaffer has actually hit righties much better over his brief career, while Mahtook couldn’t hit anything (39 wRC+) over 196 plate appearances last season. Mahtook is at least ticketed for the fourth outfielder job given his ability to handle all three outfield spots. First baseman Casey Gillaspie, the Rays’ first-round pick in the 2014 draft, hit very well in his first taste of Triple-A action last season and could earn himself a big league platoon role with a big Spring Training.
Looking at the 2016-17 free agent list for lefty-mashing bats in the Rays’ price range, players like Dae-Ho Lee or Franklin Gutierrez could be considered to join the 1B/DH/LF mix. Sean Rodriguez, a former Ray, would also fit as a right-handed bat though his big 2016 numbers and defensive versatility may earn him a bigger contract than Tampa can afford.
One free agent name that jumps out is the guy the Rays signed last winter as a lefty-masher. Steve Pearce posted an outstanding .908 OPS over 232 PA for the Rays before being dealt to Baltimore at the trade deadline. Unfortunately for Pearce, a flexor mass injury in his right forearm limited his time with the O’s and he underwent surgery to fix the problem in late September. Pearce will be sidelined until late January at the earliest and late March in a worst-case scenario, so until his diagnosis becomes clear, it’s hard to see him netting more than a one-year deal. The Rays could offer Pearce a chance to return to a familiar surrounding and potentially pick up there he left off in 2016, playing either at first or in left when a southpaw is on the mound. To sweeten the deal, the Rays could perhaps even take a flier on Pearce on a low-cost two-year deal to offer the veteran more long-term security.
Speaking of fliers, and this is purely speculation on my part, the Rays could use their unsettled catcher and DH spots as a way of looking into the Wilson Ramos market. Such a scenario would’ve been unthinkable a few weeks ago, when Ramos was on pace to score perhaps as much as a five-year deal as the top free agent catcher on the market. Then, unfortunately, Ramos suffered a torn right ACL for the second time in his career, ending his season and throwing his near-future into total uncertainty. It won’t be known how much time Ramos will miss until he actually has his surgery, though he himself speculated that if he can’t physically handle regular catching duties, he could be limited to playing for AL teams due to the designated hitter rule.
As MLBTR’s Steve Adams noted in that previous link, the Tropicana Field turf may not be an ideal landing spot for a catcher with bad knees, plus the Rays might still not be able to afford Ramos even if he ends up taking some type of prorated or incentive-heavy contract. It would behoove the Rays to explore all options behind the plate, however, given how catcher has been such a problem area for years. None of the catchers in the mix last year (Wilson, Curt Casali, Luke Maile, Hank Conger) did much to solve that problem, either offensively or defensively.
The Rays can’t afford Matt Wieters, but second-tier free agent catchers like Nick Hundley or Jason Castro could potentially be options if the Rays are willing to splurge (by their standards) on a notable multi-year contract. The likes of Carlos Ruiz, Alex Avila or Chris Iannetta would be even cheaper and maybe more realistic options. This offseason’s class is about as wide as a free agent catching market gets, so Tampa Bay can go in many directions for a sorely-needed upgrade.
Since free agency is something of a luxury for the Rays, expect Silverman to continue mining the trade market, as he did in his first two offseasons running Tampa’s front office. The baseball operations head has done a good job of adding new building blocks for expendable parts, though clearly Silverman hasn’t been able to find the ideal mix for plugging all the holes on the roster. This winter could go a long way towards determining the Rays’ future direction, as if they can’t get back on the winning track in 2017, hard questions may need to be asked about whether this core group of players are viable cornerstones for a contender or if a full rebuild could finally be necessary.