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Scouting the AL East: Tampa Bay Rays ZiPS projections

The Rays had their worst season in recent memory in 2016. Do they look likely to bounce back?

Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Yesterday, we took a look at the ZiPS projections for the Boston Red Sox, who again look to play very well in 2017. Now, let’s turn our attention to a division rival who has fallen on harder times, the Tampa Bay Rays.

The Rays are coming off a miserable 2016 season in which they went 68-94, finished last in the AL East, and missed the playoffs for the third consecutive season. However, it wasn’t all bad, as their underlying numbers indicated their true level of performance was obscured by a terrible record. FanGraphs’ BaseRuns, after adjusting for the effects of sequencing, estimated that the Rays were an 81-win team, while Baseball Prosepectus’ third order winning percentage, which applies adjustments for schedule, pegged the Rays for approximately a .501 winning percentage.

If the Rays were actually better than most thought they were last year, do they project well for 2017? Let’s take a look (projections courtesy of Dan Szymborski and FanGraphs):

The Rays aren’t star-studded, but they also appear unlikely to lose 94 games again. Much of their position-player core projects as close to average. The only standouts are Evan Longoria, who bounced back last season and projects for another strong 4-WAR campaign in 2017, and defensive ace Kevin Kiermaier, whose status as possibly the best defender in baseball outweighs his middling offensive capabilities.

Otherwise, the Rays lineup seems certain to feature a number of serviceable players. Both Corey Dickerson and Steven Souza should produce positive OPS+ figures (109 and 103 respectively) but neither projects as above average overall in the corner outfield. Matt Duffy only projects for a 90 OPS+ but still appears about average at shortstop. Logan Forsythe projects for 2.5 WAR as he quietly continues to play as one of the league’s better second basemen.

The biggest question mark among the Rays’ hitters is probably Wilson Ramos. Ramos projects for a strong 2.5 WAR and 465 plate appearances, both highly uncertain figures given Ramos’ recent ACL injury. If Ramos can hit those numbers, he’d be a huge bargain for the Rays on a 2 year, $12 million contract, but it remains to be seen how productive he will be coming off an awful and ill-timed injury.

The Rays’ pitching staff projects as stronger than their lineup, as it features a hefty amount of young depth. Just as the Red Sox did, the Rays possess six starting pitchers that project to post ERA figures better than league average. Most notably, staff ace Chris Archer projects to bounce back to the tune of a 3.41 ERA and 3.21 FIP after struggling to an ERA above 4 last season.

Backing up Archer is one of the more solid mid-rotations in the game. Jake Odorizzi projects for 3 WAR as he continues to be one of the more productive players involved in the James Shields trade. Matt Andriese projects for a 106 ERA+, as does Blake Snell, who projects for 2.5 WAR and a K/9 rate above 10 in just his second season.

Tampa Bay has plenty of depth on the back end too. Drew Smyly posted an ugly 4.88 ERA last year even as he set a career high in innings, but he projects for a solid 2.0 WAR. Alex Cobb’s ERA ran above 8 last year as he missed a beat returning from injury, but ZiPS pegs him for over 100 innings and a 102 ERA+ this year. Plus, top prospect Brent Honeywell, still only 21, projects for a usable 4.38 ERA.

The Rays’ bullpen is noticeably weaker than their rotation. Alex Colome broke out with a sub-2 ERA 2016, and he still projects for a strong 2.93 ERA, but the unit is weak beyond the closer. Relievers like Danny Farquhar, Xavier Cedeno, and Brad Boxberger all project to log plenty of innings, but none project to be anything more than middling.

On the whole, the Rays’ pitching depth looks like the team’s strength at this moment. Their rotation doesn’t appear to possess any elite upside outside of Archer just yet, but they do have plenty of young starters that project to be solid now and could develop into front-end pitchers somewhere down the road. Their lineup is balanced, if unspectacular. On the whole, this doesn’t look like a playoff team right now, but if this is the worst team in the AL East, then the Yankees’ division is shaping up to quite strong yet again.