2:06 AM EDT, October 19, 2014
MLB Team Report - Tampa Bay Rays - INSIDE PITCH
The Tampa Bay Rays entered the 2014 season with World Series expectations, a franchise-record payroll and arguably their most complete team ever, on paper.
They packed up their bags at Tropicana Field on Sept. 29 and headed into the offseason with a lot of questions about what went wrong this season, but fewer about what the team will look like in 2015.
There likely will be some roster turnover before they report to Port Charlotte, Fla., for spring training. Owner Stu Sternberg has said the Rays will be cutting down on payroll in 2015, though a large part of that work was done already by trading David Price.
But it would seem the Rays are going to remain mostly intact after a disappointing 77-85 season in which most, if not all, of the players expected to lead them to the postseason dramatically underperformed.
"It's not good," said Rays manager Joe Maddon, entering into the final year of his contract with the Rays. "We don't like it at all. It's been an awkward year. We had a lot of really good things happen. The bad thing is we lost 85 games. There's been some wonderful individual performances. There's been a lot of growth with different players. But there are different things we need to iron out before next season."
The Rays learned a few things on the positive side this year. They recognized that outfielder Kevin Kiermaier will be a part of their future, that lefty Jake McGee is up to the task of being a big-league closer, that reliever Brad Boxberger is a devastating setup man, that their young pitching will continue to be their greatest strength even after trading away Price.
But they once again came up short offensively, scoring an American League-low 612 runs. That total was also the lowest mark in franchise history. Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon has spoken at length all year about how the improvement in analytics, pitching and fielding has put offense in an almost inescapable hole throughout baseball. But it seems to have affected the Rays more than anyone else.
"That's probably a big part of why it's tough to score runs, but it's not stopping other teams," Rays outfielder Matt Joyce said. "I think there's some things that we definitely have to figure out. ... Obviously a lot of the season we struggled. It's hard to put your finger on one thing, and I think sometimes things don't always go your way. It's not to say the effort wasn't there."
For those anticipating any sort of shakeup, look for the Rays to retain their entire coaching staff next season. That includes Rays hitting coach Derek Shelton, often the subject of fan's criticism given the team's annual offensive struggles. And don't expect the Rays to change their philosophy that their team must be built around pitching and defense to be successful.
"I think you see the teams that get to the postseason are built on pitching and defense. It's our mantra, and it's the right mantra," Shelton said. "I think that's why (executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman) and Joe and our front office has built our team that way, because that's the way you're going to get there. Offense is a tough thing, especially with the way the game's going now. The analytics in the game, the shifts in the game, offensive players are at a disadvantage. We have to find a way to create runs, but it's always going to be a pitching and defense-based game."
In other words, expect more of the same from the Tampa Bay Rays in 2015 -- except, they're hoping, with different results.
"What we rely on heavily is all coming back next year, and then all of our hitters are going to be better, more prepared for the ups and downs of the season," Rays starter Chris Archer said. "We're going to come back strong as far as pitching is concerned, and our defense is going to be top-notch, as it always is. If we can stay healthy, we'd be fine."
MLB Team Report - Tampa Bay Rays - NOTES, QUOTES
RECORD: 77-85, fourth place in American League East
TEAM MVP: This isn't an easy pick given the team's overall down year, but third baseman Evan Longoria managed to put up respectable numbers amid a disappointing offensive season for both him and the Rays as a whole. Longoria played in all 162 games, perhaps his most important accomplishment, and finished the year with 22 home runs and 91 RBIs. Utility man Ben Zobrist put together perhaps the Rays' most complete performance, batting .272/.354/.395 while playing strong defense at several positions and being at his best during Tampa Bay's hottest stretch; he was named the team MVP by the local Baseball Writers of America Association for his contributions. Left-hander Jake McGee emerged as a dominant closer, but it's tough to say the closer of a sub-.500 team was its most valuable player. Instead, that nod goes to Longoria for his run production despite a career-worst season at the plate. "For two months he struggled. I think it's a credit to him. He grinded through it," Rays hitting coach Derek Shelton said. "A lot of guys aren't as mentally tough as he is, and he did a really good job with it."
BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: There's a strong argument for this to be RF Wil Myers, who followed up his American League Rookie of the Year campaign in 2013 with an injury-plagued, ugly 2014 season in which he hit .222/.294/.320 with six home runs and 35 RBIs in 87 games. But even that wasn't quite as disappointing as the year reliever Grant Balfour put together after coming back to Tampa Bay on a two-year, $12 million contract last offseason. The Rays are banking on Balfour bouncing back in 2015 after going 2-6 with a 4.91 ERA and pitching himself out of the closer role this year. He cost Tampa Bay several games early on in the year, eventually getting demoted to low-leverage work down the stretch.
TOP PROSPECT: The Rays' farm system is surprisingly thin on elite talent in the upper minor leagues, but they appear to have added a potential star in SS Willy Adames. Tampa Bay acquired Adames, who just turned 19, as part of the three-team deal in which David Price was shipped off to Detroit. As the youngest everyday player in the Midwest League, Adames hit .271/.353/.429 with 41 extra-base hits and 61 RBIs in 125 games for Class A West Michigan and Bowling Green. Adames is a long way from the majors -- again, he's only 19, and this was his first full season in the minors -- but he has more upside than anyone in the Rays' system and could be their shortstop of the future and could get to Tampa Bay by 2017.
--RHP Michael Kohn signed a one-year contract with the Rays on Oct. 16. Financial terms of the deal were not announced. Kohn pitched in 25 games for the Angels this season and had a 2-1 record with 20 walks and 26 strikeouts and a 3.04 ERA in 23 2/3 innings. The 28-year-old, who was on the Angels' Opening Day roster, became a free agent in September after he was outrighted from Los Angeles' 40-man roster. After undergoing Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery and missing the 2012 season, Kohn returned in 2013 to pitch in 63 games and post a 1-4 record with a 3.74 ERA.
--3B Evan Longoria played in all 162 games this season, perhaps his most important accomplishment, and finished the year with 22 home runs and 91 RBIs, making him the most productive hitter in the Rays' lineup. But it was a wildly inconsistent year for Longoria, easily the worst season he's ever had at the plate. Longoria posted a meager .320 on-base percentage and a .404 slugging percentage, marks that are 37 and 108 points, respectively, below his previous career averages. It's the second straight year Longoria's offensive numbers have taken a slide in the wrong direction, a trend that could become extremely concerning for the Rays and their franchise player. Longoria, manager Joe Maddon and hitting coach Derek Shelton have all pointed to Longoria's improved RBI numbers in the second half -- he drove in 47 runs over those 65 games compared to 44 in the first 97 -- but that yielded a .247/.301/.430 batting line that represents an overall decline in Longoria's offensive output. There's plenty of reason to believe it was just an off year and Longoria will be fine in 2015, but it's worth keeping an eye on going forward.
--INF/OF Ben Zobrist put together the Rays' most complete performance in 2014, batting .272/.354/.395 with playing strong defense at second base, shortstop and all three outfield positions. He was also at his best when the Rays were at their hottest, batting .315/.403/.477 when the Rays went 37-19 from June 11-Aug. 15. According to the website FanGraphs.com, Zobrist led the team with 5.6 WAR (Wins Above Replacement), making him more than 1 1/2 wins more valuable than their second-best player, outfielder Kevin Kiermaier. The Rays hold a $7.5 million club option on Zobrist, and it seems certain they will pick up that option. What remains to be seen is whether they will consider trading Zobrist, in the final year of his contract, to cut down on payroll. Given his versatility and value to the Rays, the most likely outcome is that Zobrist will play out his contract with Tampa Bay.
--RHP Alex Cobb emerged as the Rays' ace in the wake of the deal that sent David Price to Detroit at the trade deadline, finishing the year with a 10-9 record and a 2.87 ERA that ranked sixth in the American League. Cobb pitched 166 1/3 innings over 27 starts after missing time early on due to injury. Cobb struck out 149 batters on the year and held opposing hitters to a .231 average. Don't be surprised to see Cobb on the mound come opening day in 2015. In the meantime, one question to consider over the offseason: Could Cobb be next in line for the kind of long-term, team-friendly contract extension given to rotation-mates Matt Moore and Chris Archer?
--RHP Jeremy Hellickson could be a popular name in trade rumors this offseason. Heading into his second year of arbitration eligibility, the 27-year-old right-hander could be the odd man out of the Rays' rotation. Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, Drew Smyly and Jake Odorizzi are all sure bets for Tampa Bay after solid seasons in 2014. Matt Moore will be back at some point after recovering from Tommy John surgery. The Rays have young right-handers Alex Colome and Nathan Karns, who would make the major league minimum and fill Moore's spot until he's healthy. Hellickson, meanwhile, struggled to a 1-5 record and 4.52 ERA in 63 2/3 innings over 13 starts this season. It was his second straight down year after going 27-21 with a 3.06 ERA from 2010-12, with an American League Rookie of the Year Award in 2011. Hellickson made $3.625 million in 2014, a figure that will only go up in 2015 and makes him a potential trade candidate as the Rays look to cut down their payroll.
--OF Matt Joyce would seem to be the most likely Rays outfielder to be traded this offseason, as he's set to make more than $4 million in salary and is entering his final year under team control. Joyce, a native of Tampa who's always loved playing for his hometown team, hit .254 with a .349 on-base percentage in 493 plate appearances but slugged only nine home runs, his fewest since 2009. Joyce has mostly been limited to a platoon role in his time with the Rays, as they don't generally use him against left-handed pitching, and he's in line for another raise via the arbitration process after making $3.7 million in 2014. With Kevin Kiermaier, Desmond Jennings, Brandon Guyer and Wil Myers all available as younger, cheaper options and utility man Ben Zobrist able to man both outfield corners, Joyce realizes he may have played his last game with the Rays. "Obviously I'd like to be here. I have another year on the contract, and this is my home," Joyce said. "I've had a ton of fun and some amazing memories. For right now, I'm still a Tampa Bay Ray. I have every intention of working my butt off and getting ready to stay a Tampa Bay Ray and come back and have a successful season next year."
--OF Wil Myers followed up his American League Rookie of the Year season in 2013 with a disappointing 2014 campaign, batting .222/.294/.320 with only six home runs and 35 RBIs in 87 games. Myers was also held back by wrist injuries, a right wrist fracture that sidelined him for nearly half the season and a nagging left wrist injury that may have led to some of his offensive struggles early on in the season. Myers said he would spend the offseason getting fully healthy and working harder to prepare for the 2015 season. "It was definitely tough, but I definitely learned from it," Myers said.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "None of us like the fact we are not winning the division. It's the goal. It's going to be the goal every year. We feel like we can do it. We thought we could do it this year. And in spite of all of this, again, just a really bad, awkward moment. ... We get into this 1-14 stretch, and all of a sudden, it's really difficult. But I give our guys a lot of credit. They continued to play hard." -- Rays manager Joe Maddon.
MLB Team Report - Tampa Bay Rays - ROSTER REPORT
While the 2014 season was a disappointment for the Tampa Bay Rays, it appears they will bring back most of their roster in 2015. While they likely will trade away a few players to cut down on payroll, resolve position logjams and bolster their minor league system, expect to see a lot of familiar faces next year in Tampa Bay. They have no free agents this offseason, and it's unlikely they will make a major splash in the free agent market. They dealt starter David Price to the Detroit Tigers in July, answering what had been their biggest potential question heading into this offseason. They could trade players like Ben Zobrist, Matt Joyce, Jeremy Hellickson and Sean Rodriguez, but odds are the Rays are going to try their luck with the majority of the players who came up short this year.
BIGGEST NEEDS: More than anything, the Rays need the players they're bringing back to stay healthy and perform up to their ability in 2015. If Evan Longoria and Wil Myers are a reliable run-production duo in the middle of their lineup, their offense all of a sudden looks a lot more potent. If Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, Drew Smyly and Jake Odorizzi pitch like they did for most of this season, their rotation stacks up against any other in baseball. If Jake McGee and Brad Boxberger pick up where they left off, and if Grant Balfour gets back on track, the back end of their bullpen will be taken care of.
NEWCOMER: RHP Michael Kohn (free agent from Angels)
FREE AGENTS: None
The Rays will enter the offseason with no pending free agents, though they have club options on RHP Joel Peralta and INF/OF Ben Zobrist. It seems likely that they will pick up the $7.5 million option on Zobrist, while Peralta could become a free agent. The veteran reliever hopes to remain in Tampa Bay. "I want to be here, but I don't know what's going to happen," Peralta said.
ARBITRATION-ELIGIBLE: OF Matt Joyce, RHP Jeremy Hellickson, INF Sean Rodriguez, LHP Jake McGee, LHP Cesar Ramos, LHP Drew Smyly, OF Desmond Jennings, RHP Alex Cobb, 2B Logan Forsythe, RHP Brandon Gomes
Joyce seems unlikely to return given his escalating salary and part-time role. Rodriguez also doesn't seem like a fit, nor does Ramos. Hellickson might be one of the Rays' most interesting decisions this offseason, as his salary is on the rise and Tampa Bay could have a surplus of starters in its rotation. McGee, Smyly, Jennings and Cobb could be in line for big raises, with Cobb seemingly a candidate for a long-term extension.
IN LIMBO: RHP Jeremy Hellickson, OF Matt Joyce, INF Sean Rodriguez, RHP Joel Peralta, INF/OF Ben Zobrist, LHP Cesar Ramos
Zobrist and Peralta have team options for next season, and Zobrist -- with a $7.5 million salary, if the Rays pick up his option -- could find himself on the trade market. It's more likely the Rays hang on to their super-utility man, however. Peralta's option is for $2.5 million, which makes him a more interesting decision as the Rays have a number of young bullpen arms at their disposal. Ramos is all but guaranteed to be traded or non-tendered. Rodriguez could find himself in a similar situation, though his fate remains less clear. Hellickson's inconsistent performance and rising salary will force the Rays to make a tough decision, as it's always hard to part with pitching depth. But they're committed to cutting payroll somehow, and Hellickson's salary would be an obvious place to start. The same can be said for Joyce, who seems like an obvious trade candidate if the Rays can find an interested team.
--LHP Matt Moore (Tommy John surgery in April 2014) was playing catch from 60 feet in September. Moore said the plan is for him to throw off a mound at some point this winter, possibly as early as mid-December. He hopes to be back in the Rays' rotation before the 2015 All-Star break, with a return in June seemingly the most likely outcome.
--OF Desmond Jennings (bruised left knee) missed the final month of the season. The injury isn't believed to be serious, and Jennings is expected to be ready for spring training.
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