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Scouting the AL East: Taking a look at the Tampa Bay Rays 2016 ZiPS projections

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The AL East rival Rays have had back to back under .500 seasons for the first time in almost a decade. Do they appear likely to snap that streak in 2016?

Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

So far, we've taken a look at the projections for every other team in the AL East. Let's turn our attention to the final team, the Tampa Bay Rays. Tampa Bay consistently ranked as one of baseball's best teams during their run of success from 2008-2013, but the past two years have seen the Rays fall on harder times. 2015 marked the second consecutive season under .500 for the Rays, finishing 80-82 while outscoring their opposition by two runs to place fourth in the division. Looking at their 2016 ZiPS projections, a similar finish may be in store:

Not unlike the Yankees, the Rays look like a fairly balanced team. Outside of James Loney at first base, the team lacks glaring holes. However, it is difficult to find any star power. Longtime third baseman Evan Longoria, the best player in the team's history, looks poised to continue his gradual decline from superstar to merely above average. He is projected at 3.4 WAR for his age-30 season, which would be the lowest full-season total of his excellent career.

Perhaps the Rays' best hope for a star is Kevin Kiermaier, who has been a surprise breakout performer for Tampa, mostly on the strength of his glove. He led the majors in Defensive WAR and was the top-rated fielder in baseball by UZR. He is projected to continue his success with 4.2 WAR and a 101 OPS+ in 2016. Kiermaier is only 26, and owns a career wRC+ of 61 against left-handers, so if he can sort out his issues with southpaws, the Rays could have an elite player on their hands.

Elsewhere, Tampa Bay profiles as a team that will make great use of its depth to make up for its lack of stardom. Players like Steven Souza, Daniel Robertson, Steve Pearce, Brandon Guyer, and Curt Casali all project for at least 1 WAR, despite lacking a clear path to playing time. A team as savvy as the Rays will surely mix and match their surplus of usable players, platooning them in ways to ensure that each of them is in a position to succeed.

The Rays are known for their stable of strong young arms, and ZiPS lends credence to that notion. Ace of the staff Chris Archer is coming off a year in which he struck out nearly 11 batters per nine and posted a 3.23 ERA and 2.90 FIP. ZiPS sees a near repeat, projecting Archer for a 3.23 ERA and 4.2 WAR in 195 innings. Alex Cobb didn't pitch in 2015, but is still slated for 2.4 WAR in 128 innings. At the back of the rotation, Drew Smyly and Matt Andriese both appear to be solid with ERA+ projections of 105 and 101, respectively.

Perhaps most interesting is the 3.0-win projection for Jake Odorizzi, who, along with Wil Myers, was part of the return from Kansas City in the James Shields trade. Royals GM Dayton Moore was criticized for dealing Myers for just two years of Shields, but critics have softened their stance after Shields helped propel the Royals to the pennant and Myers struggled with the Rays and the Padres. Surprisingly, Odorizzi looks like the reason Tampa won't regret having sold Shields. Under team control for four more seasons, Odorizzi offers excellent value as an above-average 26-year-old starter. The most fascinating part of the polarizing Shields-Myers swap may be that the less-heralded players, Odorizzi, as well as Wade Davis in Kansas City, could well end up being the most valuable assets that were moved.

If there is a weakness in the pitching staff, it is the bullpen. Brad Boxberger is projected to be the Rays' top reliever, despite coming off a season in which he posted lackluster results in the form of a 3.71 ERA and 4.26 FIP. Danny Farquhar and Steve Geltz join Boxberger as the only Rays' relief arms that project for an ERA- better than league average. Some of Tampa Bay's bullpen troubles can be linked to their acquisition of Corey Dickerson, at the cost of Jake McGee. The hard-throwing McGee is projected for 1.2 WAR out of the Colorado bullpen. Swapping McGee for Dickerson was probably a fine move as far as value, but it certainly helped create perhaps the Rays' biggest weakness.

The Rays, taken as a whole, appear as something of an average team. The team has few bad players, but other than perhaps Archer, Tampa has little in the way of elite players. In some ways, the team's run of success can be seen as the cause of their downfall. The team has no ability to sign shiny free agents, and without the chance to pick at the top of the draft, the Rays have had very few chances to acquire premier talent. To the organization's credit, however, the team still looks competitive, at least for 2016. While Tampa Bay is unlikely to win the AL East, they, along with Boston, Toronto, and Baltimore, combine to form a very tough group of teams with which the Yankees must contend.