What Should the Rays Do?

The Tampa Bay Rays are a fascinating case study this offseason. They’re not bad, but it’s been a while since they were contenders. They haven’t finished with a winning record in any of the past four seasons, and as things stand right now, they aren’t projected as a 2018 playoff team either. Our depth charts currently peg them for having the 16th-best WAR in the majors, and the ninth-best in the American League. There isn’t a lot of separation between the Rays at 16th and the Diamondbacks at 10th, but by that same token, they’re not that far from the Orioles at 18th overall, either.

With some upgrades, the Rays could conceivably push a little closer to the top of the list and put themselves more firmly into the Wild Card mix. But as Craig noted on Friday, the Rays have already committed to a more expensive roster in 2018 than they did in 2017. As such, they may not have any money to spend in free agency. In fact, they may have to jettison some salaries. Who would they jettison, exactly? Let’s take a look:

Tampa Bay Rays, $5+ Million Salaries, 2018
Player 2018 Salary ($M) 2017 WAR Proj. 2018 WAR
Evan Longoria $13.6 2.5 3.0
Wilson Ramos $8.5 0.4 2.0
Jake Odorizzi $6.5 0.1 0.9
Corey Dickerson $6.4 2.6 1.1
Chris Archer $6.4 4.6 4.4
Kevin Kiermaier $5.6 3.0 3.8
Alex Colome $5.5 1.2 0.7
Adeiny Hechavarria $5.0 1.3 0.7
Highlighted = Projected arbitration salary from MLB Trade Rumors
Projected WAR via FanGraphs depth charts

So the Rays have eight players who are expected to make $5 million or more next season, either as part of their current contract or through arbitration (estimates of which have been provided by Matt Swartz). Brad Miller is projected to make $4.4 million in arbitration, which is also noteworthy.

There’s a bunch of different iterations/combinations the team could take with these players. If cutting payroll were truly the goal, they could cut back from the $80 million range to the $60 million range by trading Longoria and Ramos. Probably no one would cry about losing Ramos — yes, he’s a good catcher, but he’s rarely healthy and productive at the same time. After he posted 2.6 WAR in his rookie 2011 campaign, it took him five more seasons to cross the 2.0 WAR threshold again. I know, catcher value isn’t captured completely by WAR, but I think the point still holds.

Trading Longoria, on the other hand, is probably a non-starter. Longoria is the Rays — his 49.6 WAR as a Ray represents the highest mark in the history of the organization, 13 more more than second-place Carl Crawford. If he finishes his career in a Rays uniform, he may have a decent shot at the Hall of Fame. Hall of Stats has him close to the borderline for a Hall of Fame player already.

So, we probably won’t see a Longoria trade. Ramos seems unlikely, as well: while he’s no Johnny Bench, there probably won’t be a lot of savings on the free-agent market, unless the club is willing to take a significant step backwards. Which they could be, undoubtedly. But trading Odorizzi and Dickerson might be a better bet. Together, they’re projected to be worth the same 2.0 WAR Ramos is and play more replaceable positions. Dickerson’s playing time could be given to Mallex Smith and (when he’s called up) Jake Bauers, and Odorizzi’s could be given to Matt Andriese and (when he’s called up) Brent Honeywell. In an ideal world, you’d want to maximize your return on Dickerson and Odorizzi. If the main goal is cost savings, however, that’s not as important.

Would you put Chris Archer on the trading block?
(Photo: Keith Allison)

Of course, the main goal may not be cost savings. The Rays have often been forced (or force themselves, depending on your point of view) to compete by developing their own players through the farm system. As such, maximizing the return on trades is almost always the goal. Accordingly, it seems like we’re likely to be treated to another winter of Chris Archer trade rumors. Archer is easily the best player by projected WAR (and by 2017 WAR) on the club and has an incredibly team-friendly contract that would fetch a bushel of prospects. The same is true of Kevin Kiermaier.

If the Rays are trying to compete in 2018, though, trading either Archer or Kiermaier doesn’t make a ton of sense. Neither does trading Colome. Colome, as a closer who has saved 84 games the past two seasons, would probably fetch a good price, too, but the Tampa Bay bullpen is already bad enough with him. Trade him and protecting leads becomes even more difficult. Hechavarria has been traded twice in his young career already and may not have much trade value left in him. The same may be true of Miller, though he has only been traded once.

So if they aren’t punting, a good strategy might be to shop Dickerson, Miller, and Odorizzi, and see what turns up. If low-cost replacements are available for them, great; if not, that’s also fine. The goal would be to simply fill holes until the Super 2 deadline passes and Bauers, Honeywell, and infielder Willy Adames can ascend to the Show.

On the other hand, if the club does decide to punt, there might be a chance to reload quickly around Adames, Bauers, Honeywell, and Jose De Leon. After all, the team has been mediocre for four years: why not try and break the cycle by being bold?

Adames and Honeywell made the top 20 of Eric’s midseason top-100 prospects list, and Bauers an De Leon were considered for it. Brendan McKay may rocket through the minors. Jake Faria and Mallex Smith have youth and promise. There’s an interesting young core bubbling up here, but maybe the 2018 team is destined to top out at 83 wins. Or maybe the risk/reward of popping over that 83-win mark and into the playoff conversation isn’t worth it. Could dealing Archer and Kiermaier bring back five or six Double-A-and-above prospects? If so, is that enough to form a wave that really crescendos on the shores of St. Petersburg in mid-2019?

The thing is, neither plan is bulletproof. This year’s Rays — should they stay the course for the most part, trading off just enough guys to get under their payroll threshold and counting on the prospects to provide a midseason boost — might be good enough to get to 88 wins. But they might not. The same is true of hunting prospects in trade. Can they find the right prospects, and will they match up with the prospects the team already has? Teams like the Cubs and Astros have made it seem easy to graduate multiple solid-to-MVP-level contributors to the majors in a short span of time, but reality is often much crueler.

I’d probably stay the course, hoping that the team stays competitive until the prospects come up in late June/early July, but I could be swayed from that opinion. If you were running the Rays, what would you do?

Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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Bauers, Honeywell, and Adames are ready for Opening Day Assignments. Getting rid of Miller, Hech, and Odorizzi gets the Rays under the salary limit, and probably improves the team. Archer and Kiermaier will have tons of trade value if they bomb in 2018 and can be traded if needed later.