Elegy for ’18 – Tampa Bay Rays

Sergio Romo was at the forefront of the Ray’s opener strategy
(Photo: Keith Allison)

The team that made openers baseball’s hot new thing made a run at the playoffs with a blazing final act, but fell short of the playoffs thanks to the daunting win total non-AL Central teams needed to stretch the season into October.

The Setup

The Tampa Bay Rays, newly shorn of the Devil in their name, were rightly one of baseball’s darlings from 2008 to 2013, winning 90 games in all but one season and making four playoff appearances, including one World Series. That’s no easy feat in a division with the Red Sox and Yankees, the baseball versions of Rich Uncle Pennybags from Monopoly come to life. If Tampa has an avatar, it’s more akin to Chris Farley’s plaid-jacketed motivational speaker who lives in a van down by the river.

The initial run of the Rays eventually lost steam, the team dragged down by some difficult realities they had to face. One of the biggest problems for the Rays was that the common notion that building a consistent winner will lead to increased attendance (which would in turn lead to larger revenues that could keep the team together), didn’t actually work in their case. Whether it’s the fault of the park or not, by the time of their final 90-win season, the team was welcoming barely 100,000 fans more to the Trop than they were in 2007, a 66-win slog and the team’s tenth consecutive losing season.

For a team payroll that has never even come close to nine digits to compete in the AL East, the Rays absolutely have to have an assembly line of prospects, a continual cycle of replacement of talent. The team has always shown a knack for trading or letting players depart before their collapses rather than after, but that isn’t enough by itself.

What failed the team was largely the amateur drafts, starting around 2008, not providing enough quality to replace the departures. Entering 2018, only a single player drafted by the Rays over the previous decade had established himself as an impact player in the majors, Kevin Kiermaier. Let’s put in this way: The Rays made 14 first-round picks from 2008 to 2017 and the second most-accomplished player after Tim Beckham of that group is likely Ryne Stanek or Mikie Mahtook. (I’m talking players taken in the first round proper; the Rays got Blake Snell as a supplementary pick.)

The virtuous cycle of rebuild-invest-push-repeat failed to work for the organization for whatever reason and without a steady flow of prospects, the fact that the Rays have only had one season in which they fell below 70 wins is a testament to the front office’s scrounging abilities. Running the Rays is a bit like being asked to turn straw into gold and oh yeah, you don’t actually have the budget to buy straw.

Trading Evan Longoria, Brad Boxberger, Steven Souza, Corey Dickerson, and Jake Odorizzi before the season didn’t do wonders for the team’s reputation among fans, either. It could rightly be argued that most of these moves made sense from a baseball perspective — almost all of these players were at the height of their value, with the obvious exception of Longoria — but the problem with always making the cheap move is that your fanbase will come to believe that even the good, cheap move was done purely for reasons of thrift.

Not helping the Rays coming into 2018 season was the revelation that every pitcher the Rays had, ever had, or ever will acquire, required Tommy John surgery before the season started. OK, that’s what they call a “lie,” but it felt a bit like the truth when Brent Honeywell and Jose De Leon, both pitchers who the Rays hoped to count on, needed elbow surgery within just a couple weeks of each other.

The Projection

While the projections didn’t adopt quite the same panicked tone many writers displayed regarding the team over the winter, I can hardly claim ZiPS was predicting greatness with a 76-86 projection and a 6% chance at making the playoffs. The computer felt that pretty much every player Tampa Bay traded would have a worse season than with the Rays, but also predicted that with the loss of Honeywell and De Leon, the pitching was stretched too thin, and it was hard to see the Rays improvising enough of a lineup to make up for these losses.

The Results


Sometimes things just need capital letters. If you made a movie about the 2018 Rays, it would be impossible to craft a trailer that didn’t heavily mention the “openers,” possibly with some hoary An Experiment So Crazy That It Just May Work cliché booming over Ryan Yarbrough striking out batters to an 80s rock anthem.

For those curiously still unaware of this concept, beginning with Sergio Romo’s one-inning, three-strikeout “start” on May 19th, the Rays started using relievers to open games; they would quickly give way to a long “reliever,” who would pitch several innings. The general idea was that with a thin pitching staff — the Rays didn’t engage in any such shenanigans with the Blake Snell or Chris Archer starts — there was a benefit to being able to play matchups early in the game and get guaranteed innings from relievers, who are easier to find than a starter with an identical ERA.

As for breaking WAR, starters and relievers are pegged to different replacement levels, reflecting the better quality of free or cheap talent among relievers than starters. But what happens to WAR when relievers are being used as starters and vice-versa? A pitcher like Yarbrough ends up getting pegged relative to the higher replacement level of relievers even though he’s been given the workload of a starter. If these changes become pervasive, it will likely require a reimagining of how we categorize starters and relievers for these purposes.

In the end, the Rays had “relievers” who went five innings 31 times in 2018, the fourth-most going back to 1908 (the limit of Baseball-Reference’s Play Index). The entirety of baseball in 2016 and 2017 only had 37 such games combined. The last team with even ten five-inning relief stints was the 1991 Orioles and that wasn’t so much by design as due to the fact that the team’s rotation was a terrifying Lovecraftian amalgamation.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating, however, and none of this would have persisted if the Rays didn’t get results. In the five-inning “relief” stints, the team (Yarbrough was the most notable, but the team also used Austin Pruitt, Yonny Chirinos, and Jalen Beeks prominently in this pseudo-starter role) combined to throw 170 2/3 innings with a 3.48 ERA, sort of like a weird J.A. Happ chimera to join the A-Rod centaur among baseball’s mythical menagerie.

After starting this opening strategy, the Rays went 69-50, a 94-win seasonal pace, and after receiving quick boosts from midseason trades for Tommy Pham and Ji-Man Choi, the team went 36-19 in their closing kick.

Unfortunately, this was the wrong year for that kind of thing. The AL and NL have reversed roles the last couple of years, with the NL becoming wide-open and the AL the league bifurcated into essentially two leagues, one with super-teams, the other with rebuilders.

AL Win-Loss Records After May 18th
Red Sox 78 39 .667
Astros 74 42 .638
Athletics 74 43 .632
Yankees 72 48 .600
Indians 70 49 .588
Rays 69 50 .580
Mariners 64 54 .542
Twins 60 62 .492
Angels 55 62 .470
Blue Jays 51 66 .436
Rangers 49 67 .422
White Sox 51 70 .421
Tigers 44 74 .373
Royals 44 74 .373
Orioles 33 85 .280
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

What’s depressing from the point of view of the Rays is that the team still would have missed the playoffs by two and a half games if the standings reset on the morning of May 19th.

If the Rays had won 94 games instead of their actual 90, it would have been enough to take the AL East in 2017, 2016, and 2015, while earning a wild card appearance in 2014, 2013, and 2012. The last time 94 wins didn’t get October baseball for an AL team was 2010, when there was only one wild card spot; the Yankees went 95-67 that year. Whether 94 or 90 wins, it was only enough in 2018 to make the Rays the last team eliminated from the playoffs in the American League.

What Comes Next?

The Rays will remain misers for the foreseeable future if they don’t finagle their way into a new stadium. Even with the recent success, the team will have to continue to find values on a shoestring budget, something that is harder to do than it used to be with the general inflation of smartness in front offices over the last 15 years.

From a general baseball standpoint, it also remains to be seen how the opener strategy will affect pitcher salaries if more teams adopt this for their lesser pitchers. I don’t believe that in the end it’ll make a big difference; teams are far less likely to care about a starter’s win totals or a reliever’s saves than even ten years ago. But I’m naturally cynical, so I expect to still be watching this closely.

The really good news for the Rays is that they’ll return almost the entire core of the roster in 2019, with only Vidal Nuño, Carlos Gomez, and Sergio Romo hitting free agency. The 2017-2018 bloodletting has resulted in a roster that, even with everybody tendered, has only a single player making $5 million (Kiermaier) and a payroll that can stay short of $50 million.

I suspect we won’t see the Rays shedding much in the way of 2019 talent this winter; if they were close to doing that, I don’t see them adding Mike Zunino, now the team’s veteran in terms of service time. A Kevin Kiermaier trade strikes me as very unlikely, both because he’s coming off a down year full of injuries and because they just traded Mallex Smith. Nor would Austin Meadows be a candidate to make such a trade practical as he’s the probable right fielder.

The very early projections, based solely on what the Rays have on the roster right now, see a team in the mid-80s for wins, with diminished expectations on the De Leon/Honeywell returns. The Rays are a clever organization, however, and with the farm system recovering over the last few years from the doldrums of the early-mid ’10s to once again be in the top tier, I suspect this team can continue to punch above its weight class, even if in miserly fashion.

Preliminary ZiPS Projection, Blake Snell

I think that Snell is likely to be the AL Cy Young winner when the award is announced this afternoon, and with his performance being a key factor in the team’s revival, avoiding serious regression is crucial for Tampa. ZiPS saw an improvement for Snell in 2018, projecting a 3.70 ERA and 186 strikeouts in 175 1/3 innings, enough to just about the hit the three-WAR mark (with a four-to-five win peak), but it didn’t see the Cy Young breakout.

ZiPS Projection, Blake Snell
2019 14 9 3.05 30 30 165.0 131 56 16 67 199 134 3.9
2020 14 8 3.10 29 29 159.7 127 55 15 65 192 132 3.7
2021 14 8 3.03 29 29 157.7 124 53 15 64 190 135 3.8
2022 13 7 3.06 26 26 144.0 114 49 13 58 173 133 3.4

No 219 ERA+ repeats there, but those are legitimate ace numbers, and ZiPS is being surprisingly un-grumpy about downside risk outside of innings in future seasons. ZiPS sees enough talent in Snell to compensate for the inherent fragility of pitchers and the skewed risk you see in all great players (there are simply larger downsides than upsides). It’ll be interesting to see if the Rays can sign Snell to a similar contract to the recently departed Archer.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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5 years ago

i’d love to see the rays make some bold moves this offseason, such as trading for goldschmidt, going after some big bats in the FA market on short term deals. even though i’m a yankee fan, i have a soft spot for the rays, i love the way they operate

5 years ago

This is actually my biggest frustration with the Rays: They are really good at treading water and not so good at swimming forward. Granted, they are really, really good at treading water–but it would be nice to see them actually try and compete at the top. Without a forthcoming 40-man crunch (the only big prospect that needs to be added is Jesus Sanchez), I don’t see what would motivate them to move any of their top 10 prospects.

5 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Well said. I’m not sure why it’s acceptable for them to run a $50 million payroll. We clamor for other teams to spend. Their financial situation isn’t so dire that they can’t add a little payroll. Increasing payroll to $80 million will still leave them in the bottom 3 in payroll (and still very profitable – they were in the high 70 millions in 2014/2015), and allow them to fill significant holes with stopgaps they need. I wouldn’t know how to feel as a Rays fan. On the one hand, they are amazing at running the organization and what they’ve done should be the awe of the industry. But on the other hand, I feel like they’re not investing as leverage to get what they want. They could push – they have the means and certainly the smarts to do it. Instead they’d rather posture? Something feels wrong about that..

5 years ago
Reply to  dodgerbleu

The thing is, their half-teardown last offseason resulted in a team that isn’t really ready to push all their chips to the center, but they also are way too good now to totally tear it down. 2019 remains very much in limbo. The Rays have a nice wave of prospects coming around 2020, and then another set around 2022. What the Rays are going to do is just hang out, with a bunch of guys hitting free agency (Snell, Pham, Adames, Glasnow) right around the time the 2022 wave comes through. They really need to find a way to move some of that talent forward or backward, whether that’s signing Snell and Adames to long-term extensions or signing a free agent, but they probably missed the boat on a good deal for Snell and free agency is a terrible value most of the time. That means trades? But who would return good value, and which way do they go?

5 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

This seems overwrought. From 2008-2013, the Rays won 90+ games 5 out of 6 seasons, peaking at 97 wins. What “competing at the top” did they not do?

From 2014-2017, they’ve been rebuilding. They’re only entering their chance to compete at the top now. Actually, both the Rays and A’s success both mystify me with each having only 1 star (Snell & Chapman, resp., maybe Pham now) and then a bunch of 2.5 win players. Honeywell, Javier, McKay seem to address their biggest needs along with their young core of Wendle, Adames, Meadows, Glasnow, etc.

I’m just not seeing where they didn’t trade for a superstar that would have pushed them over.

And their current payroll is $85M. Not sure where dodgerbleu is getting $50M. https://slackiebrown.com/2018-mlb-team-salary-list/

5 years ago
Reply to  Dan Szymborski

Great, thanks Dan! I enjoy these elegies!

5 years ago
Reply to  Shalesh

$50M was referring to 2019 and was from the article.. And it implied less than $50M. The Rays have little more than $8M committed right now.

“The 2017-2018 bloodletting has resulted in a roster that, even with everybody tendered, has only a single player making $5 million (Kiermaier) and a payroll that can stay short of $50 million.”

And my hypothetical wasn’t about a trade, it was about FA and $. Hypothetically, signing Donaldson for 2-years and $45 to $50M, Romo on a 1-year for $3 or $4M (who wants to stay a Ray) and then a scrap heap bat to replace Cron (unless that’s Choi’s role, in which case go spend a few mil to get Suzuki to help behind the plate or Harrison to help all over or another cheap reliever like Brach or Chavez).

I guess what I’m saying is you’re at the 90-win mark on the curve. You have essentially zero obligations and no future money spent to speak of. And you’re not going to try to improve from that 90-win mark on the curve? The mark where dumb luck can propel you into a WC spot (or dumb luck can propel the A’s out of one – same diff – Rays are next up in line). Dan isn’t the first person to float the $50M for 2019 figure. Hop on over to MLBTR. Why is this ok? We all have our own views and I’m wrong more often than I’m right, but I don’t see it.

5 years ago
Reply to  dodgerbleu

Actually, Spotrac doesn’t include Zunino. Let’s say his Arb1 is $5M, then their payroll is more like $72M.

DepthCharts has them at about 35 WAR after the Zunino trade so right now a projection of 83 wins for 2019 and 4 wins back of the Angels for the 5th wild card. If Honeywell and DeLeon are healthy, maybe you can bump that up to 86 wins. I don’t think they need a 1B because a lot of people like Bauers. So that leaves them in need of a DH and 1-2 SP’s.

Handing a fifth of their payroll to 33-year-old Donaldson doesn’t make any sense. I don’t think they can afford Corbin, so maybe they can move some of their middle infield depth in the minors or even Wendle for a SP.

5 years ago
Reply to  Shalesh

I probably shouldn’t respond but I can’t help myself – some pathological issue too deep to explore here. But. You can’t add Zunino’s arb salary to the 2018 payroll to get a 2019 estimate. They have $8M on the books now. Call it $13M with Zunino. Still on pace for less than $50M if they return the exact roster as it is.

Not sure why I’m still talking about this.. Have a good day!

5 years ago
Reply to  dodgerbleu

I’d love to see them sign Nelson Cruz.

5 years ago
Reply to  Goms

I would love that as well and it fits with what they have done in the past with Burrell and Manny Ramirez (though neither worked out). I am hoping they can sign Cruz to a 1 or 2 year deal and this time it actually benefits them.

5 years ago
Reply to  Shalesh

I don’t really agree with this. First, it’s not entirely fair to say “they should have traded all those busted prospects for upgrades then” because that’s 20/20 hindsight, but it is fair to say that when you’re at that point of the win curve it’s worth it to go for it. They only won the division twice in that span, mostly because the starting pitching wasn’t all that good (save for a couple of years when both David Price and James Shields turned it on, but even then, the rest of the rotation was underwhelming).

Second, part of the problem they find themselves in is that they didn’t do much rebuilding from 2014-2016. I am not so certain that Honeywell or McKay are going to be that good or ready so soon, and Franco (I assume that’s who you mean) was in rookie ball this year. When do we expect those players to turn into the guys that are going to take them to the next level? And was this year’s record even sustainable, given that it rides the performances of the Joey Wendles of the world? (and Mallex Smith, who may or may not have been a fluke, but was still their second-best position player last year, and was traded). It’s hard to see how you get from this team in 2019 to anything like the teams from 2008-2013 (which I agree is a good outcome) with internal upgrades.

Third, I think there are a lot of times that teams like the Pirates and Rays look back and see previous success because they were the most data-intensive organizations in the league and think that it will come that easily again. Both teams had a really hard time developing talent the same way they did before, potentially because they were picking lower in the draft, potentially because they got a little lucky the first time. It’s one of the things I like about Billy Beane is that he doesn’t take these things for granted.

5 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

1. So what move should they have made during their dynasty years?

2. If their true talent is more like 83 wins than 90 wins, why are we concerned they aren’t competing at the top? They should stay the course, continue churning guys they think over-performed for guys they think are better, especially when the 2 juggernauts in their division are at their prime.

3. Even if MLB as a whole is getting more efficient, the Rays are still able to trade Archer for Meadows, Glasnow, and Baz and get Pham for nothing.

5 years ago
Reply to  Shalesh

1. This is too easy. Cliff Lee. Zack Greinke. Dan Haren. They had the prospects too; they had BA’s #6, #18, #34, #35, #54, #67, and #68 prospect in 2010. But that question is like shooting fish in a barrel, because 20/20 hindsight of how the prospects turned out and how good those guys were. The more important issue is that they were in the best zone to add wins. When you’re hovering around 90 wins, go for it.

2. I would agree that it doesn’t make sense to push all the chips in now. They’re probably too good to tear down, not good enough to go for it. But the problem is that their two best players are Snell and Pham, and those guys are going to be free agents by the time the young guys hit their prime; they’d be replacing the current guys, not supplementing. They’d never get a fair return for Pham, and the fans would riot if they traded Snell. In a cold, logical world I’d auction Snell to the highest bidder; I doubt I’d have the stomach to do it in this one, though. Maybe they could have traded Mallex Smith for prospects instead? I don’t know. I don’t see a good way out.

3. That seems like an unsustainable thing to bet on.