This article is part of our MLB Team Previews series.
2015 Tampa Bay Rays Team Preview - A Cash Investment
Nate Miller (@Miller_RotoDad)
With just three regulars, Evan Longoria, James Loney and Ben Zobrist, appearing in more than 140 games and only two pitchers, Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi, reaching the 30-start threshold, the Rays suffered through their first losing season (77-85) of the past seven years in 2014. Not only was the team hammered with a plethora of injuries, most notably to southpaw starter Matt Moore (elbow) and young slugger Wil Myers (wrist), but was also damaged by an immense amount of underachieving talent and declining skills.
Due to the inability to deploy a dependable or experienced lineup, the Rays offense became increasingly stagnant. The team had 14 players receive north of 240 plate appearances throughout the summer with only one, rookie Kevin Kiermaier, slugging .450 or better. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the club finished dead last in the AL in runs, total bases and slugging percentage. The dismal offensive output could not even be overcome by top-five league finishes in FIP (3.56), ERA (3.56), WHIP (1.21) and K/9 (8.8). When Longoria is worth just 3.4 WAR, a career-low outside of 2012 when he only played 74 games, the Rays are likely to sink.
Sitting here just a few weeks before spring training 2015, the Rays organization has undergone a total offseason makeover. Gone is GM Andrew Friedman (2005 - 2014). Gone is Manager Joe Maddon (2006 - 2014). Myers, Zobrist, Matt Joyce, David Price (traded to Tigers mid-2014), Joel Peralta and Yunel Escobar, all gone. Inserted into the mix is rookie manager Kevin Cash, who was hired back on December 4th by Friedman's replacement Matthew Silverman. The hiring of Cash was just one of the many additions that Silverman made during the offseason in order to reinvigorate the organization with youth and fresh faces.
Signed free agent RP Ernesto Frieri (Pirates) to a one-year, $800,000 contract
After sporting a solid 3.07 ERA while racking up a combined 60 saves across 2012 and 2013, Frieri struggled mightily this past summer with the Angels and Pirates. The 29-year-old righty posted a poor 7.34 ERA and 1.46 WHIP in 2014, but did keep his strikeout rate up (10.4 K/9). The Rays have a reclamation project on their hands with Frieri. However, it comes at a low-risk cost.
Signed free agent 2B/SS Asdrubal Cabrera (Nationals) to a one-year, $7.5 million contract
Cabrera was an unexpected free-agent pickup, but does serve a purpose on the roster. He is a veteran switch-hitter that can provide marginal defense at shortstop and an average glove at second. On a one-year deal, he could be a piece on a contending club or a mid-season trade chip for Silverman and the Rays. The acquisition of Cabrera helped make the trade of Zobrist and Yunel Escobar possible.
Tampa Bay adds another young arm to the system, but loses a major-league innings eater. Ramos has been a serviceable swingman for the Rays over the past two seasons, recording a 3.90 ERA across 150 innings (91 games, 7 starts). Sappington was a fifth-round pick of the Angels back in 2012 who has pitched to a lackluster 4.61 ERA across 306.1 minor-league frames.
Peralta has been a steady late-inning reliever for the past four years in Tampa Bay. Approaching his 39th birthday, the veteran hurler has pitched to a 3.58 ERA across 296 appearances since 2011. Harris is still very raw and yet to work above A ball. Dominguez, on the other hand, is the potential prize for the Rays, as he is equipped with a high-90s fastball that has led to a 9.9 K/9 over 328.2 minor-league innings. Dominguez could become a valuable bullpen piece in the near future.
With several young arms progressing behind him, the Rays decided to part ways with 2011 AL Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson. The return package supplied the system with two of its Top-20 prospects according to MLB.com.
Traded UTIL Sean Rodriguez to the Pirates for minor league pitcher Buddy Borden
Manning seven different positions over the last five summers, Rodriguez has certainly played a vital role for two Wild Card winners and one AL East crown in Tampa Bay since 2010. The Rays add another young arm in Borden, who posted a 3.16 ERA and 8.6 K/9 over 128.0 frames for Single-A West Virginia (PIT).
A 2011 AL All-Star, Joyce has spent the past five seasons as a key contributor in Tampa Bay and ranks top-10 all-time in several offensive categories for the franchise. Staring at free agency and approaching $5M in salary for 2015, Joyce became a logical trade piece for the Rays. Jepsen put it all together for the Angels in 2014, racking up 75 punchouts to go with a 2.63 ERA in 65.0 innings of mostly late-inning relief. He will be part of what could be a strong stable of back-end bullpen arms.
Traded OF Wil Myers, C Ryan Hanigan, LHP Jose Castillo and RHP Gerardo Reyes to the Padres as part of a three-team deal that included the Nationals, acquired C Rene Rivera, RHP Burch Smith, 1B Jake Bauers, OF Steven Souza, LHP Travis Ott.
Just one aspect of the uber-eventful Padres' offseason, the most notable moving parts in this deal for the Rays is the change in right field (Souza for Myers) and behind the plate (Rivera for Hanigan). Smith does have the potential to pitch for Tampa Bay in 2015, whereas Ott and Bauers are still proving themselves in the lower levels of the minors.
Zobrist, and to a lesser extent Escobar, are likely to be the most difficult to replace in 2015. Escobar has been a steady shortstop whose defense at the position took a bit of a dive last season, but is still typically friendly to his teammates on the mound. Zobrist is the big loss, as the switch-hitting jack of all trades is more than a fan favorite in Tampa Bay and ranks second in Rays franchise history with 36.6 WAR. That mark trails only Longoria's 40.0. Silverman did bring back a familiar face from Oakland in veteran C/DH John Jaso along with a solid outfield prospect in Boog Powell (TBR No. 12, MLB.com). However, the real difference maker could be infielder Daniel Robertson, who many feel was the Rays' new top prospect immediately upon arrival.
Projected Lineup (vs. RHP/LHP)
1. Kevin Kiermaier, LF / Desmond Jennings, CF
2. John Jaso, DH / Brandon Guyer, DH
3. Evan Longoria, 3B
4. James Loney, 1B
5. Asdrubal Cabrera, SS
6. Steven Souza, RF
7. Desmond Jennings, CF / Rene Rivera, C
8. Nick Franklin, 2B / Mikie Mahtook, LF
9. Rene Rivera C / Logan Forsythe, 2B
This is a shot in the dark, as it remains to be seen just how first-year manager Kevin Cash will approach his batting order decisions. However, he has eluded that lineups on a day-to-day basis will be more stable than those of his predecessor. Given Joe Maddon's propensity to experiment with batting orders, that will not be a difficult goal to reach.
With McGee starting the 2015 season on the DL, any of the aforementioned relievers could possibly see some save chances. However, after an extremely impressive campaign, Boxberger will be the man to grab on draft day. Fashioning a 2.37 ERA, 0.84 WHIP and 14.5 K/9 in 2014, the 26-year-old right-hander holds fantasy value even in a setup role.
Notes of Import, Fantasy or Otherwise
What can we expect from Matt Moore?
It could be Independence Day before Moore is granted the freedom to take once again take the mound for the Rays. With that in mind, the 25-year-old southpaw, who is still in the recovery process from Tommy John surgery (04/22/14), is likely to see something in the 15-20 start range. Command is often the last thing to return for pitchers coming off the infamous procedure. For Moore, as evidenced by a career 4.3 BB/9 and 1.33 WHIP, that is already his largest area of concern. Moore is certainly worth a late-round, draft-day stash for those in AL Only or deeper formats, but in standard leagues, it is probably best to avoid the situation until 2016.
Is Steven Souza ready to make an impact in the majors?
Well, if his 2014 performance for Triple-A Syracuse is any indication, then Souza is definitely ready to do just that. Last year, the 6'4", 225 lbs outfielder put together a sensational .350/.432/.590 line to go along with 18 home runs and 26 steals in 96 games. Souza went just 3-for-23 in brief stints in the bigs with Washington last season, but did hammer a couple out of the yard. He will almost assuredly get more of a real opportunity to prove himself with the Rays in 2015. With enough at-bats, a 20-20 season is not out of the question.
Even with Matt Moore recovering from injury and David Price no longer in the mix, Tampa Bay's main strength still lies in the starting rotation. Headed up by righties Alex Cobb and Chris Archer, the Rays still have potentially the best staff in the AL East. Over the past two years, Cobb has put up close to ace-like numbers across 49 starts, posting a 2.82 ERA, 3.29 FIP and 8.2 K/9 over 309.2 innings. Archer has come into his own during that stretch as well, recording a nice 3.28 ERA and 7.6 K/9 in 55 starts. Both have had impressively dominant stretches in their young careers, but neither has reached 200 frames in a season to this point. Cobb and/or Archer will need to hit that threshold in 2015 to take the next step into the upper tier of fantasy hurlers.
The Rays' current 40-man roster features five MLB seasons of 25+ home runs, but four of those belong to Evan Longoria. Power is definitely the most lacking resource in Tampa Bay. The club will be looking to their youth, most notably Steven Souza, to help shore things up in that department.
Rising:Jake Odorizzi - Getting a chance to prove himself for an entire year at the highest level, Odorizzi, for the most part, did not disappoint in his rookie campaign. A 4.13 ERA and 1.28 WHIP are not fantastic marks by any stretch, but are somewhat commendable for a 24-year-old hurler in his first full season in the bigs, especially with an AL team. The most impressive takeaway from Odorizzi's 2014 effort was his 9.3 K/9 across 168 innings. The run through May, June and July, in which he posted a 3.00 ERA while punching out 107 in 90.0 frames, gave us a glimpse of the young righty's ceiling. If Odorizzi can overcome the fatigue factor that ailed him late last season, we are talking about a solid middle-of-the-rotation arm with strong strikeout potential.
Declining:Asdrubal Cabrera - It is best to just forget about the 2011 Cabrera that slugged .460 with 25 homers and 17 stolen bases. That version of the switch-hitting middle infielder does not seem to be coming back anytime soon. Since that year, Cabrera's slugging percentage has been on a steady decline while he has failed to collect more than 16 round trippers or 10 steals in any single campaign. Be that as it may, he has still averaged 15 home runs, 34 doubles and nine swipes over the last three seasons. That is fairly playable as a late-round 2B/SS who could regularly bat in the middle of the Rays' order, but temper your expectations.
Sleeper:Kevin Kiermaier - Forced into the lineup due to multiple injuries in the outfield, Kiermaier became a regular contributor for the Rays beginning in June and basically never relinquished his role. In his rookie season, the 24 year old, as mentioned earlier, ended up leading the team in slugging percentage (.450) and OPS (.765) while banging out 10 homers, 16 doubles and eight triples across 364 plate appearances. Kiermaier struggled against LHPs in 2014 (.203/.213/.284), but figures to at the very least see plenty of at-bats in the strong side of a platoon during the upcoming season. If healthy, he could reach 500 plate appearances in 2015 and be a nice contributor in deep fantasy formats.
Supersleeper:Hak-Ju Lee - Spending the last four seasons trying to work his way through the Rays' farm system, Lee could be on the cusp of finally breaking into the big leagues. However, he is definitely relying on his glove and speed to get him there after putting up a lowly .203/.287/.276 slash with just 14 extra-base hits in 357 plate appearances for Triple-A Durham in 2014. It is important to keep in mind that Lee was battling back from torn knee ligaments that limited him to just 15 games in 2013. As mentioned, the Korean shortstop's game is built around speed and defense, though he has recorded a career .352 OBP in the minors. His excellent range and strong arm could eventually make him a Gold Glove winner at a premium position. For fantasy purposes, Lee might turn into a one-trick pony, but that one trick has produced four separate seasons of 25 or more steals.
Daniel Robertson - After an impressive season for High-A Stockton (OAK) in which he put together an .873 OPS to go along with 37 doubles and 15 home runs, Robertson has been named by MLB.com as the new No. 1 prospect in the Rays' system. Profiling as a middle infielder, the soon-to-be 21 year old could be the shortstop of the future in Tampa Bay or step in at second base to form a solid combo with the previously covered Hak-Ju Lee. Though he has yet to play above High-A, Robertson could advance his way to the bigs by the start of 2016.
Steven Souza - Named both the International League MVP and Nationals' Minor League Player of the Year, much is expected from Souza with his new organization.
Alex Colome - Colome will likely be first in line to fill the No. 5 starter role in Tampa Bay, at least until Matt Moore returns. The 26-year-old righty has received a small taste of big-league action over the past two seasons, appearing in eight games (six starts) for the Rays. A 2.50 ERA over 39.2 innings jumps out, but does not tell the whole story and is indeed a small sample size. Colome's 4.33 FIP, 4.3 BB/9 and 5.7 K/9 in the majors leave much to be desired. That is not to say that the hard-throwing hurler will not progress into a steady back-of-the-rotation starter with his mid-90s heater. However, Colome must harness his command and stay healthy. Otherwise, he might be destined for a career in the bullpen.
Ryan Brett - Following a breakout effort for Double-A Montgomery that saw him hit .303 with 39 extra-base hits and 27 stolen bases in 107 games, Brett has placed himself on the radar as a potential long-term second baseman for the Rays. He is obviously not without company in that club, as Nick Franklin, Tim Beckham, Daniel Robertson and Andrew Velazquez all project somewhat similarly.
Blake Snell - Even at 22 years of age, Snell is still a bit of a long-term asset for the Rays. The slender southpaw will likely spend at least the vast majority of 2015 refining his skills with Double-A Montgomery. However, dynasty and keeper-league managers should keep tabs on the 52nd overall selection of the 2011 Draft, as he struck out 119 batters across 115.1 innings between Single-A Bowling Green and High-A Charlotte while surrendering just two long balls. On the negative side, Snell walked 4.4 per nine and posted a 1.41 WHIP over 16 starts in High-A ball.