Keys to 2013: Tampa Bay Rays

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Starting Pitching Key: Matt Moore

Moore’s done his flashy playoff introduction to the world as David Price did. He had an inconsistent rookie year as Price did. Now, he’s ready to take the next step into Cy Young Award contender in his second season as Price did.

Moore has a smooth, clean, simple and repeatable motion similar to Cliff Lee. He’s refining his command and harnessing his changeup. The changeup is usually the last pitch a pitcher needs to master before fulfilling his potential. If Moore’s able to do that at age 24, the Rays will be legitimate World Series contenders.

Relief Pitching Key: Chris Archer

Fernando Rodney is not going to repeat his 48 save, 0.60 ERA. The question is whether he’ll revert to the on-again/off-again closer he was with the Tigers and Angels or will be able to get the job done the majority of the time. If he can’t and Kyle Farnsworth, the closer in 2011, can’t do it either, the Rays might turn to Archer.

Archer has been a starter in the minors, but has the power fastball to be a dominating reliever. The Rays have never been shy about using young pitchers in very important roles and Archer could play a major factor in 2013.

Offensive Key: Evan Longoria

As Longoria goes, so go the Rays. The other lineup bats Desmond Jennings, Kelly Johnson, Yunel Escobar, Matthew Joyce and eventually Wil Myers are undoubtedly important and the Rays are opportunistic and adaptable, but with Longoria they’re a title contender and without him, they’re not.

Defensive Key: Desmond Jennings

If Jennings has to play center field, he has to be at least adequate at the position. Sam Fuld is a fine defensive outfielder, but he can’t hit enough to justify being in the lineup as an everyday player. The Rays were in the market for a legitimate center fielder, but as the season moves along and Myers is recalled, they’re going to need to find a place to get Myers and Joyce in the lineup. Someone’s going to have to play the outfield and if Myers/Joyce are the DH, one is going to have to play left with Jennings in center.

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The Rays Chicanery

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I’d be very, very careful if I were an interested club and the Rays start taking offers for James Shields after this season.

I’d be even more careful if they do it begrudgingly; portraying the role of the hamstrung, financially-strapped entity that needs several pieces and can’t afford to keep Shields while entertaining the possibility of signing B.J. Upton to a long-term contract.

Suffice it to say that the Rays aren’t going to sign Upton to a long-term contract.

It’s all part of the subterfuge and trickery that’s become a part of the Rays way of doing business.

And parties interested in Shields need to be wary before giving up the house for him.

Yesterday, Shields pitched his 11th complete game. Even in the Roy Halladay-circle of old-schoolness, that’s an unheard of number of complete games. The Rays have pushed Shields hard this season. Curiously hard.

When examining his gamelogs this season, you’ll notice that he’s been allowed to throw a lot of pitches and pitch deeply into many games despite having one of baseball’s better bullpens backing him up.

It makes me wonder why.

Under GM Andrew Friedman, the Rays have never been a club to capriciously limit their pitchers because of arbitrary, easy to remember numbers like 100 pitches or 200 innings; Shields has been supremely durable during his career and has been allowed to regularly pitch deeply into games with over 100 pitches.

Has he learned to use his defense and pound the strike zone to a greater degree? Wheras he was pitching into the 6th-7th innings in prior years and giving up a lot more hits than innings pitched, in 2011 he’s drastically increased his strikeouts and reduced the number of hits allowed. The defense is a large factor in this as his batting average on balls in play (BAbip) this season is .267 and he’s allowed 22 homers; in 2010 it was .344 and he allowed 34 homers; in 2009 it was .311 and he allowed 29 homers. His line drive percentages are the same; his ground ball percentages are up; he’s walking more batters and striking out more.

Part of his success this year is due to better luck. The disparity between a .344 BAbip and a .267 BAbip accounts for a large amount of his improved results.

Shields will be 30 in December; by the end of this season, he’ll have thrown 215 innings in four of the past five years; the one he didn’t (2010), he threw 203. He’s signed through 2014 with club options for $7 million in 2012 ($2 million buyout); $9 million in 2013 ($1.5 million buyout); and $12 million in 2014 ($1 million buyout); his value is never going to be higher than it is now and there’s a limited number of innings a pitcher—no matter how tough—has before a decline/breakdown occurs. Believe me when I say the Rays have crunched those numbers. They also have to start thinking about contract extensions for David Price, Matt Joyce and possibly would like to sign Desmond Jennings and Jeremy Hellickson to cheap, preemptive contracts as they did with Evan Longoria.

The Rays have used the “we don’t have the money” excuse to let Rafael Soriano walk after his career-best season and take the draft picks as compensation; to trade Matt Garza and Scott Kazmir for multiple young, cheap players. That excuse is highly convenient, true and should be examined with suspicion since they keep doing it over and over again and making off like bandits in the process.

With the dearth of good starting pitching out there; the way Shields has pitched; the cheapness and long-term nature of his contract; and that his value is never going to be higher, it’s right to be a little dubious if he comes available. Interested teams need to wonder why the Rays are willing to discuss him. And if the Rays say it’s because they want to sign Upton, those teams had better run away. Fast.

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That Rays Magic

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Closer attention is being paid to the Tampa Bay Rays and their “way”.

A large part of this is because of Jonah Keri’s book, The Extra 2%.

The hunger for a template in how to build a team using different methods was what created the myth of Moneyball and resulted in the disastrous attempts inside and outside of baseball to follow and validate that fantasy written by Michael Lewis.

Keri’s book is not twisted in the manner of Moneyball; it simply tells how the Rays have accomplished what they have within a tight budget in a hellish division. There’s no pompous, unsaid but clear statement, “this is the way you should do it or you’re a moron” inherent in the telling of the Rays tale.

And it’s why they’re built to last regardless of free agent defections; necessary trades; lack of financial resources and whatever other obstacles pop into their collective paths.

In 2011, they’re again defying conventional wisdom as they’ve rebounded from a rotten start to climb into first place in a division that still houses the Yankees and Red Sox along with the improving Blue Jays and Orioles.

So how have they done it this time?

Like in Keri’s book, it’s been a combination of luck, intelligence and putting their team into a position to succeed by executing the fundamentals correctly.

Let’s take a look how they Rays are at it again.

A blessing in disguise.

Manny Ramirez‘s retirement saved the Rays nearly $2 million. Presumably, had he held out in his contention that he didn’t use any PEDs that led to the failed drug test and precipitated his sudden retirement, they wouldn’t have had to pay him, but the money for Manny’s contract might’ve been tied up throughout the process of his investigation. To the Rays, that money isn’t an incidental cost—they need every penny they can get. With Manny off the books, that gives them nearly $2 million to add at mid-season in a deal.

I’m not convinced that Manny was completely finished despite his 1 for 17 start with no walks; he still had to be pitched to carefully and that would’ve held true into June—by then, other teams might’ve said, “let’s just pitch to Manny, he looks done”. Eventually, the Rays would’ve had no choice but to release him and pay the full freight.

Once Manny was gone, the Rays were free to move Johnny Damon to DH and insert Sam Fuld into the lineup. I’m not a believer in Fuld—midnight’s about to strike on his Cinderella story—but the Rays have gotten far more from Fuld than anyone could reasonably have expected; he can run and play great defense, two things that are constant whether he hits or not.

Desmond Jennings is murdering the ball in Triple A and it won’t be long before he’s up in the big leagues and playing left field in place of Fuld—that might not have happened this season had Manny hung around.

Pitching, speed and defense lead the way.

How is it possible that the Rays, with a gutted bullpen, injuries to Damon and Evan Longoria and a bunch of journeymen like Felipe Lopez, Kyle Farnsworth, Fuld and Casey Kotchman leading the way are still near the top of the tough AL East?

They have the speed to get to balls other clubs don’t and they catch it when they get there; they’re leading the American League in fielding percentage.

Bolstered by the confidence that balls that are kept in the ballpark are going to be caught, their pitchers throw strikes.

It’s easy to reference pitchers from the Rays past who’ve come into games and racked up massive strikeout numbers like Grant Balfour and Joaquin Benoit; but this year’s bullpen is an entirely new cast from the crew that was dispatched after last year and this staff is 12th in the American League in strikeouts.

More important than the strikeouts, they don’t walk anyone and allow few homers.

Could it be that the key to the Rays unlocking the aggravating abilities in Farnsworth and Juan Cruz—disparaged and dumped veterans both—are that simple? That they no longer has to worry about striking everyone out and can concentrate on keeping the ball down and in the ballpark confident in the knowledge that if there’s a defender anywhere close, he’ll catch it?

Maybe.

Hot starts and the beneficial schedule.

After he’d been knocked all over the place in the past two seasons, no one could’ve expected the hot start from James Shields.

Casey Kotchman is hitting .346.

You read that right.

Casey Kotchman is hitting .346.

Matt Joyce is hitting .369.

Ben Zobrist is back to being Zorilla.

Damon, Dan Johnson and Fuld have all gotten big hits or made game-saving defensive plays.

Had any of these occurrences not come to pass, the Rays would probably be hovering around .500 or worse.

The schedule has been an advantage for them as well.

The Rays 0-6 start was accumulated against a hot and enthusiastic Buck Showalter-led Orioles club and the Angels in games pitched by Jered Weaver and Dan Haren. This was seen as a portent of a long season in Tampa.

But they righted the ship against the Red Sox as they too staggered out of the gate; they then fattened their record against the Twins, White Sox and falling-to-earth Orioles.

They’ve yet to play the Yankees and have the rough part of their schedule upcoming. They have to play the Marlins, Reds and Cardinals in inter-league play in addition to the regular matchups against the AL East.

Presumably, they’ll run into inevitable lulls because of playing better teams; but the Rays way isn’t a negligible bit of fundamental correctness. They have the players to execute their plan because they can run and catch the ball.

It’s a cohesiveness that permeates the club from top-to-bottom and it all starts with that small aspect of range and glovework. It’s extended to the pitching staff and overcomes an offense that was without their MVP candidate Longoria until last week and has relied on the aged; the journeyman; the young players who are trying to establish themselves.

It seems easy to say, “throw strikes and we’ll catch the ball”, but if it’s so easy, why don’t other teams do it?

Could it be that other teams don’t have the athletes to execute the plan? That the pitchers don’t trust their fielders to handle so many balls as flawlessly as the Rays do? That the Rays speed in the field extends to running the bases and they score enough to support the pitching staff that has garnered confidence from that defense?

It’s a cycle.

A cycle to win.

Given their upcoming schedule, I’m not prepared to jump on the Rays bandwagon as so many have (some of whom jumped off after the terrible start); but they’ll be competitive for the reasons elucidated above; and if they’re competitive late in the season, they’re dangerous.

Because they do the little things right.

And that ain’t Moneyball.

****

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Hot And Not

Hot Stove
  • Brilliance either way:

The overwhelming reactions to the Rays “combo” signings of Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez have tended toward the ludicrous with a fair amount of ignorance thrown in.

To think that the Rays do anything just “because” is missing out on the way the front office has run their club since gaining their footing after a rough first year.

Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez for a combined $7.25 million for 1-year? In what world would this be considered laughable, risky or something any club wouldn’t do if given the opportunity?

Contrary to prevalent perception, the Rays were still going to be dangerous this season despite the free agent losses they mostly allowed without a fight. Of all the players they lost, the only two they presumably lament are Carl Crawford and Matt Garza, and they had justifiable reasons for their departures; apart from that, Carlos Pena was a declining force at the plate; Grant Balfour, Lance Cormier, Rafael Soriano, Jason Bartlett—all were pickups whose value was extinguished and are replaceable.

They couldn’t afford to keep Crawford—plain and simple—and they didn’t put up the pretense of an offer that was doomed to fail. Garza was growing more expensive and the Cubs gave up a massive package for him to augment the already bursting Rays farm system. Along with all those draft picks they accumulated with the other free agent defections, the Rays are well-stocked for the future.

With the rotation and lineup—a sum of the parts entity that was third in the American League in scoring despite having no DH; a first baseman batting under .200; and subpar performances from Ben Zobrist and Bartlett—they’re still dangerous.

It’s conveniently ignored that the majority of the players who left had ready-made replacements or were part of a bullpen that the Rays patched together with stuff they essentially found in the dumpsters of other clubs.

Manny was not the Manny we’ve come to expect last season, but he’s not finished either. His overall numbers—9 homers, 42 RBI, 25 extra base hits, a .298 average and .409 on base in 90 games look pretty good to me considering that the Rays designated hitters from last season were Pat Burrell (released) and Willy Aybar (whose main problem is that he’s Willy Aybar).

Manny Ramirez for $2 million? The Yankees would’ve jumped on that deal too.

Add in that the Rays know how to build a bullpen on the cheap and will have the prospects to be able to make a big mid-season splash if they need to bolster the bullpen. As I said a few days ago, there are going to be a lot of closers entering their walk year; a couple of their clubs are going to have down seasons and look to deal. If something can be worked out with Francisco Rodriguez‘s contract option from the Mets, he’s one to watch as are Francisco Cordero of the Reds and Heath Bell of the Padres.

The question of where this places Desmond Jennings is reasonable, but I wouldn’t be stunned to see Damon playing some first base to ease—not eliminate—but ease the amount of running he’d have to do on the Tropicana Field turf. People don’t realize that the first baseman, sometimes, does more running than an outfielder with covering the base and functioning as the cut-off man, but the Rays are willing to think outside the box and their current first baseman is listed as journeyman Dan Johnson. Why not Damon there for 50 games or so?

Teams that win know when to take a chance on a veteran who is approaching the end of his career, but still has something useful left. The Rays got themselves two and they got them cheap. If you’re laughing at them for it, it’s either due to fear of what they might accomplish this year or because you haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about. These are two brilliant moves even if they don’t work.

  • Then there’s this:

This deal isn’t as awful as it’s being portrayed, but it still makes little sense for the Angels.

The Angels and Blue Jays completed a trade that sends Vernon Wells and $5 million to Anaheim for Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera.

It’s January and Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos deserves to win executive of the year for getting Wells’s contract off the Blue Jays books and getting pieces of use in the process.

The Blue Jays are still relying heavily on a very young starting rotation and their offense is diminished from last season; they’re also hoping either Octavio Dotel or Jon Rauch can close—they have issues of concern—but getting the Wells contract off the books is a tremendous coup. That they received Mike Napoli—who replaces the no-hit Jose Molina as the primary catcher—and Juan Rivera, who will hit his 15-20 homers and play a serviceable left field, makes the trade a total win for the Blue Jays.

As for the Angels?

So it’s not that terrible. But that doesn’t make it wise.

Here’s the big problem with Vernon Wells: he’s a good player making Albert Pujols-level money. And this can’t work. Apparently $5 million went from the Blue Jays to the Angels as if that’s going to make a dent in the financial catastrophe that is the Wells contract which still has $86 million to go through 2014.

The Angels have money to spend—judging from this move, money that was disagreeable to owner Arte Moreno to hold onto. That’s dismissible I suppose. As long as it doesn’t stop them from making other necessary moves, it’s explainable. But what about the players?

They’re shifting Wells to left field for Peter Bourjos to get a legit shot at center field and Bobby Abreu to DH. Does this make them any better? They’re replacing Napoli behind the plate with Jeff Mathis (can’t hit, mediocre defensively); Bobby Wilson (28-years-old and yet to hit in the big leagues; has a good arm); or Hank Conger (23, has hit and thrown well in the minors). Unless Conger delivers at the plate, do you see the problem here?

It’s a lateral leap and doesn’t help that much in the short or long term.

The caveat of “not that bad” aside, this makes no sense for the Angels right now. If, in the short term, it catapulted them over the divisional competition—the Rangers and the Athletics—for 2011, then it made sense; but they picked up a financial albatross at age 31 who has pop, but doesn’t improve on what they gave up and it costs them a ton of cash.

The Angels offense and bullpen were their main obstacles to contending before and this doesn’t do one solitary thing to fix that; if anything, it makes them more expensive and less flexible.

It won’t be a disaster, but it won’t be good either.