Winter report card: Tampa Bay Rays
With just a few weeks before pitchers and catchers report, we’re checking in on how each team has fared in conducting its offseason business while acknowledging that there’s still time for its prognosis to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2012, and I’ll revisit and adjust their grades to account for late-winter deals as spring training begins.
Tampa Bay Rays
2012 Results: 90-72, 3rd place in AL East (Hot Stove Preview)
Key departures: RHP Burke Badenhop, IF Brooks Conrad, RP Wade Davis, OF Ben Francisco, LHP J.P. Howell, IF Jeff Keppinger, LHP Kyle Lobstein, 1B Carlos Pena, SP James Shields, OF B.J. Upton
Key arrivals: OF Shelley Duncan, SS Yunel Escobar, RHP Roberto Hernandez (Fausto Carmona), 2B Kelly Johnson, 1B James Loney, RHP Jake Odorizzi, OF Wil Myers, RHP Jamey Wright
After making the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, the Rays fell short in 2012, albeit not by much; they weren’t eliminated from contention until the final few days. In retrospect, the end of the season marked the end of an era, as the three players on their roster with the strongest ties to their days as be-Deviled division doormats, B.J. Upton, Carlos Pena and James Shields — not coincidentally, the team’s three highest-paid players — have since departed, the first two via free agency, the third via a blockbuster trade with the Royals. It’s all par for the course for a small-market team on a shoestring budget trying to compete with the big spenders in the AL East, but while the Rays did very well in that trade, the rest of general manager Andrew Friedman’s machinations are more questionable. He has bought low on several once-productive players whose rebounds are no certainty even if they’re matched with appropriate platoon partners.
The trade of the 31-year-old Shields was an inevitability given the righty’s age and cost-controlled status and the team’s wealth of minor league pitching. During the season, the righty had become the oldest pitcher to make a start for the team in almost five years, he was under contract at an affordable price and Friedman found a GM who overvalued him as an ace. The surprise was what the Rays got for him and Davis, who was squeezed out of the rotation last year: a four-player package from the Royals headlined by Myers, a 21-year-old fresh off winning Baseball America‘s Minor League Player of the Year honors after hitting .314/.387/.600 with 37 homers split between Double-A and Triple-A. Given his total lack of major league experience, you can expect the Rays to game Myers’ service clock in some manner. Whether that means keeping him in Triple-A for a few weeks to squeeze an extra year of club control before free agency, or a couple of months to prevent him from becoming a Super-Two arbitration case, he’ll eventually take over rightfield.
As for the rest of the outfield besides Myers, 26-year-old Desmond Jennings will shift from leftfield to centerfield in place of the departed Upton. A former top prospect, Jennings struggled in 2012 (.246/.314/.388), particularly after coming back from a left knee sprain that knocked him out for three weeks in May and June; he hit just .217/.282/.333 in 2010 PA in June and July, but .261/.333/.433 in 227 PA from there to the end of the season. Lefty Matt Joyce, 28, will slide over from rightfield to leftfield once Myers arrives, presumably with Ben Zobrist continuing to take most of the starts against lefties assuming that he isn’t patching some other lineup hole.
When he’s not doing that, Zobrist will be part of a platoon at second base with 30-year-old lefty Kelly Johnson, who signed a one-year deal (salary unknown) earlier this week. Johnson spent last year with the Blue Jays but hit just .225/.313/.365 in his second down year in a row and his third out of the last four; he had a huge platoon split in 2012 (.201/.297/.309 in 158 PA vs. lefties, .234/.319/.386 in 423 PA vs. righties) but over the past three years combined, his splits are just 14 points of OPS apart.
Escobar, who served as Johnson’s double-play partner with the Braves and Blue Jays, will be the starting shortstop; like Johnson, he’s 30 and coming off a disappointing season (.253/.300/.344), his second in the past three years. He had virtually no platoon split last year, but the righty has hit .285/.366/.392 in 428 PA against lefties over the past three seasons, compared to .260/.325/.348 in 1,337 PA against righties, a split that would appear to give an edge to switch-hitting Elliot Johnson (.279/.327/.371 against righties in 219 PA last year) as the backup/platoonmate instead of righty Sean Rodriguez (.205/.230/.345 in 215 PA against righties).
Speaking of players coming off consecutive disappointing seasons, Tampa Bay recently filled at least the left side of its open DH slot by re-signing 34-year-old Luke Scott to a one-year deal (again, salary unknown). Scott hit just .229/.285/.439 with 14 homers in 344 PA while missing seven weeks with back and oblique injuries; he’s a total basket case against lefties (.149/.211/.264 in 95 PA last year), so he still needs a platoonmate. Duncan, a 33-year-old righty who was signed to a minor-league deal, is a candidate, though neither his career split (.243/.319/.428 in 431 PA) nor his 2012 one (.212/.297/.398 in 128 PA) offer much hope of adequacy.
As for the pitching, the other near-MLB-ready player from the trade with Kansas City is Odorizzi, a 22-year-old righty who put up a 3.03 ERA while striking out 8.4 per nine in 145 1/3 innings across Double-A and Triple-A before making a two-start audition with the Royals in September. Not that being ready means he’ll immediately get a shot at a starting spot; in this organization, the waiting list for rotation opening is like that for a table in a four-star restaurant. Right now, it appears that the more experienced Jeff Niemann and Alex Cobb are likely to begin the season behind David Price, Matt Moore and Jeremy Hellickson, with Chris Archer probably ahead of Odorizzi if Niemann, who turns 30 on Feb. 28, is traded to create an opening.
Far less likely to get a chance at a full-time rotation spot is Hernandez, whose legal troubles in the wake of his true identity being discovered limited him to three starts with the Indians. He has a 5.06 ERA with just 5.1 strikeouts and 3.8 walks per nine in five seasons since his big 2007 campaign; only once has he been above replacement level in that span. At best he’s ticketed for a swingman role; his ability to generate groundballs could be handy, but his control needs serious work.
Elsewhere in the bullpen, Friedman has been busy keeping the band together aside from the departures of Davis and Badenhop; he re-signed top setup man Joel Peralta to a two-year, $6 million deal, retained 2011 closer Kyle Farnsworth via a one-year deal (salary unknown), and was recently said to have agreed to a two-year deal with 2012 closer Fernando Rodney, though that report has been refuted. Friedman also made a nice little addition via the minor league deal for the 38-year-old Wright. At first glance, he’s a 17-year veteran with a career 4.89 ERA, but in transitioning from rotation palooka to useful middle reliever he has made good on non-roster invitations for seven straight years; with the Dodgers last year, he posted a 3.72 ERA in 67 2/3 innigns with career bests in strikeout, unintentional walk, groundball and home run rates.
Unfinished business: If at first… The Rays didn’t get much from their second go-round with Pena, a Replacement Level Killer who hit just .197/.330/.354 with 19 homers and 182 strikeouts in 600 PA, but thus far it appears they could get even less with his successors. After a late 2011 change in his swing offered hope that he could turn his career around, James Loney hit just .249/.293/.336 with six homers in 465 PA split between the Dodgers and Red Sox, and has batted just .269/.322/.386 over the past three seasons — unacceptable production for a first baseman, even a slick-fielding one. Tampa Bay signed Loney to a one-year, $2 million deal with the hope that he could be the long half of a platoon at first base, but his .287/.344/.415 against righties over the past three years is only superficially impressive, and even less so in the absence of a suitable partner — i.e., somebody better than Duncan — to take starts against lefties.
The free agent market has been picked clean, with most of the remaining options also lefties of questionable capability (Jason Giambi, Aubrey Huff, Lyle Overbay and 2011 Rays standout Casey Kotchman). The one big-name righty who’s still available via that route is Carlos Lee, but the 36-year-old is coming off a Loney-like .264/.332/.365 season split between the Astros and Marlins, and has just one acceptable season out of the past three. Friedman would be better served by using his pitching depth to scare up an alternative so that the lineup’s weakness at first base doesn’t leave them a few games short of another playoff spot.
Preliminary grade: B-. The trade for Myers is one of the best moves of any team this winter, but the rest of the Rays’ winter haul is full of question marks. Friedman still needs to make a few more moves to shore up this lineup if Tampa Bay is to contend.