Tampa Bay Rays
2008: 97-65 (1st AL East, League Champions)
Runs Scored: 774
Runs Allowed: 671
What a ride! A team that had never before approached .500 made a series of impressive moves, getting younger and more talented, adding a key veteran as necessary, and getting skilled guidance from a manager who looks like a science teacher and believes in winning.
At the outset, many people predicted that they would be improved. A few people, including me, thought they would be above .500 and possibly competitive – and the Rays went further than that. They held down the high powered offenses of the AL East, held off Boston not only for the division crown but also for a trip to the World Series, and look to be a team that might be among the best teams in the AL for the foreseeable future.
Looking Back on 2008
To anyone who really studied what the Rays did, you really have to start with the defense. In 2007, there were a TON of holes. You had two outfielders who couldn’t find their way to the ball in Delmon Young and Elijah Dukes. You had weak play at second and short, especially Brendan Harris – who really is better than he played in 2007, but wasn’t very good that year. The bullpen was atrocious and a few starters were not long term solutions but just warm bodies, which meant that there were too many people on base. Batters would walk or the ball would find holes or even leave the park. The 2007 Rays allowed more than 900 runs.
The trade of Harris and Young to Minnesota for Jason Bartlett and Matt Garza immediately improved the team by 70 runs. Bartlett is an amazing shortstop, acrobatic and sure. Garza is a legitimate starter – an upgrade over Casey Fossum. Getting Evan Longoria to the big leagues and moving Akinori Iwamura to second put a tremendous defender at the hot corner, and Iwamura was solid at second. Not especially rangy, but good on the double play and not prone to errors.
What this did, of course, by strengthening the infield defense (Strengthen? It was air tight!) was give the Rays pitchers confidence that no matter where the ball was put in play, it was going to be turned into an out. So, pitchers just needed to throw strikes. If they did that, they would strike a few more people out and the fielders would turn batted balls into outs. Stress free pitching.
When it was all over, the Rays pitchers were near the top of the league in strikeouts. They cut the walks down – they allowed fewer free passes than the league average. The high strikeout count meant fewer balls in play, but even there it didn’t matter because no team in the American League was even CLOSE to the efficiency of the Rays defense. Nobody turned more balls in play into outs than Tampa. And, those that got on base were removed by double plays at a well above league average rate. Oh, and the catching was above average against the run, and with hardly anyone on base anyway, nobody allowed fewer stolen bases than Tampa.
Oh yeah. The offense wasn’t horrible either. About as good as the Yankees last year.
One other quick thing before we talk about the specifics – the pitching staff was remarkably healthy. Scott Kazmir was out a little early in the year, but after that you had four guys make at least 30 starts and Kazmir had 27 starts. Troy Percival injured his hamstring at the end of the season, but the rest of the staff was pretty stable. And that didn’t hurt either.
Tell me about that offense
Looking up and down the lineup, what you see are no superstars, but no weak sisters either. The average hitter can be expected to put about 4.7 runs per 27 outs on the scoreboard, no regular on the Rays was below that.
Evan Longoria and Carlos Pena serve as the power bookends. Pena dropped a bit from 2007’s peak season numbers, but still hit 32 homers and knocked in 102. He strikes out a lot (166 times), but he draws walks. Longoria, for a rookie, hit like Mike Lowell in his early years – good power, RBIs, and a decent .272 batting average. Had he played a full season of games, he would have cleared 30 – 100 himself. In between, Iwamura and Bartlett weren’t huge run producers, but slapped the ball around enough to contribute. Backup Willy Aybar had a decent season – mid range power, a few walks, and above league average production in 300-plus at bats.
In the outfield, B. J. Upton’s power numbers were down – he and Carl Crawford had similar power numbers – but both contributed offensively. In Upton’s case, he’s still young and the Up(ton) side is scary high. A collection of helpers played in right and the designated hitter role, all being productive when called upon. Cliff Floyd, Rocco Baldelli, Ben Zobrist, Gabe Gross, and Eric Hinske all contributed – giving the Rays a variety of options for the daily scorecard.
Behind the plate, Dioner Navarro just missed .300 by a couple of hits – and had a number of game changing hits. His backup, Shawn Riggans, was one of only two players with at least 80 at bats who was a below average run producer (Johnny Gomes was the other). However, neither was WAY below average – they just didn’t have big seasons in about 150 at bats.
I discussed the net results before – but here are the details. Longoria had a positive range factor of 6.3 – meaning he made six plays more than the average third basemen for every 800 balls in play. He also started 26 double plays while making only 12 errors, which means that he helped save his pitchers some 15 runs over the course of the season. Iwamura was average in terms of range, but well above average in his double play ratio (109 DPs, only 7 errors), so he helped save another three or four runs. Bartlett’s range is slightly better than Longoria’s (6.5); he was saving his team twelve runs. Despite all three fielders making more plays than expected, Pena continued with his solid defensive play, making an above average number of plays after taking out the assists of his fielders.
Crawford and Upton were better than average fielders, each saving his team more than 10 runs with above average range. Hinske was great in right, not so good in left, but the net was okay. Gabe Gross came over and gave the team seven above average fielders behind the pitcher on a day-to-day basis. Johnny Gomes and Hinske were the only regulars to show below average defensive numbers. Willy Aybar and Ben Zobrist were decent fielding options.
Dioner Navarro was a pretty good catcher, though slightly mistake prone and not necessarily very mobile. Riggans is a solid number two, and even better than Navarro against the run.
Knowing how good the defense was, you have to look at the pitchers a bit differently. Both James Shields and Scott Kazmir are good pitchers – but they are not GREAT pitchers. They had a lot of help. Matt Garza was actually slightly below average once you remove the help of his defenders, and both Edwin Jackson and Andy Sonnestine were below average.
The average ERA in the AL last year was 4.34. For Tampa Bay, the team finished at 3.82. However, by my count, the team’s defense was 109 runs better than the average AL squad. That means that, on the whole, the Rays pitching was actually slightly WORSE than average.
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Looking at it this way, only the top two starters were better than league average (and Shields only barely), Garza was at league average (slightly below, actually), and Jackson and Sonnestine will be fighting for a job once David Price is moved into the rotation.
The bullpen had a couple of great performances from Grant Balfour and J.P Howell – but the rest were average to below average performances. (Okay, Dan Wheeler was above average, too.) The good news was that, with five guys logging more innings than any Rays staff before, the bullpen wasn’t usually exposed. And, they got help from the defense behind them. The weakest reliever in a key role was Troy Percival. Balfour’s season, even after taking the defense into consideration, was truly remarkable. Less than a hit allowed every HALF inning, 82 strikouts in 58.1 innings, only three homers allowed. One of the greatest seasons by a middle reliever/set up man ever. By the way, moving Price to the closer role in the playoffs was a necessity – the rest of the bullpen after Balfour and Howell weren’t all that good anyway.
Last year, the Rays scored 774 runs and allowed just 671. So, to remain at 90+ wins, they have to keep things the same – outscore their opponents by 100 runs.
The only real change on offense will be replacing Cliff Floyd and Johnny Gomes with Pat Burrell at the DH position. Burrell is a consistent hitter and if he can stay involved in games (and not have to play the field), that could be worth 10 or 15 more runs. The rest of the offense (and defense) is relatively unchanged. While the players might be a little better, the only ones who have a chance to be REALLY improved are B. J. Upton and Evan Longoria. Upton is coming off of shoulder surgery in November, so he might not be ready on opening day. Longoria could step up, too, but his replacement (Willie Aybar) had a good season last year anyway – so it might only net to about five runs. Longoria might have a sophomore slump for a short period of time and have to get his bearings. If he doesn’t, though, he could have a Matt Williams type season. Maybe a peak Troy Glaus season. If so, that’s a ten to fifteen run increase. Since so many bench players had solid seasons, it’s not unreasonable to think that one or two of them might not have a good run in 150 at bats – so that would negate that benefit. I think the Rays MIGHT get to 800 runs, but more realistically, they’ll be not too far off from where they are now.
Defensively, the team will remain solid if everyone remains healthy and Pat Burrell isn’t asked to play the field. If so, life is good and the pitchers will benefit. If not – especially if the lost player is Bartlett or Iwamura, or even Upton, that means trouble – ten to fifteen runs of trouble. The one real opportunity for immediate improvement is the addition of David Price to the rotation. Price will certainly be an upgrade on Edwin Jackson or Andy Sonnestine, so that could make up for 20 runs of potential decline in other areas. Howell, Wheeler, and Balfour were so good last year that they really can’t be expected to turn in the same seasons, and if Percival really is the closer, this could be a problem because the defense hid the fact that he really wasn’t all that good. Jason Isringhausen got a non-roster invite to spring training, and I hope he isn’t pressed into closer duty.
Throw in the fact that the Rays were actually a little bit over their heads last year (the Blue Jays had essentially the same differential in runs scored and runs allowed, but finished with an unlucky 86 wins), and one wonders if the Rays might actually decline a little bit. A slow start or small slump, and the team struggles with expectations – next thing you know it’s 85 – 77 and not 95 – 67. My best guess is that the team will win 92 games and be right in the thick of the playoff hunt. If Las Vegas odds makers have the Rays winning 92, though, I’m playing the under.
Down on the Farm…
Justin Ruggiano was the best outfielder and hitter at AAA Durham, hitting 11 homers with 20 steals – a good combination of speed and power – in just half a season. However, he doesn’t walk much (22 in about 280 plate appearances). Still, he’s as good as Gabe Gross, just as mobile in the field, though learning at the plate. Mitch Talbot might get a shot as a starter or long reliever after going 13 – 9 for the Bulls, with good K/W data and few homers allowed. Jeremy Cummings and Dale Thayer had good years, but are too old to be considered as prospects.
The best player at AA Montgomery (the Biscuits!) was David Price, and he’s not going to be heading back unless it’s a rehab assignment. Chris Nowak might be a future third base prospect, but not in Tampa Bay. Cesar Valdez led Visalia (A+) posting a 10 – 3 record with good control. Jeremy Hellickson ripped through Vero Beach (A+), going 7 – 1 in 14 starts, with 83 Ks against only 5 walks (!) in nearly 77 innings. He was quickly moved to Montgomery and held his own. Hellickson will be on the major league team if he keeps at this rate – though probably not until 2010.