The AL East has been stacked in recent years. The Yankees have returned to prominence, the Red Sox have also surged, the Blue Jays have fielded talented teams, and even the Orioles have made the playoffs a few times. The team that has fallen on the hardest times, though, has been the Rays.
After winning the second-most games (behind the Yankees) in the league from 2008 to 2013, the Rays haven’t had a winning season since. Yet, as Jeff Sullivan noted at FanGraphs, the Rays’ underlying numbers since 2014 have been representative of a pretty solid team.
In fact, per FanGraphs’ BaseRuns estimators, the Rays had the underlying quality of an 87-win team in 2017. So, if 87 wins is the talent level they are building off of, perhaps the Rays will project better in 2018 than some would expect:
These represent the Rays’ ZiPS projections courtesy of Dan Szymborksi and FanGraphs. At first glance, while the team doesn’t look great, the Rays still profile as respectable even after dealing Evan Longoria, the best player in team history, to the Giants.
Last season, the Rays turned in a .245/.317/.422 slash line, which equated a 98 wRC+. They again look likely to field an offense that performs close to the median. Of their projected starters, five of them project for a wRC+ within six points of league average.
The best player of those said starters is Kevin Kiermaier. Kiermaier projects for an exactly average 100 wRC+ and for center field defense 14 runs better than average. He continues to stand out as one of the best players in the game who doesn’t actually provide much at all at the plate.
His wing-man in the outfield, right fielder Steven Souza, profiles as the Rays’ best hitter. Souza, like seemingly every other hitter that entered 2017 with modest power, broke out with a career-high 30 dingers. ZiPS calls for 24 more bombs and a quality 112 wRC+.
Beyond that, the Rays’ lineup consists mostly of spare parts that project together to something close to average. Wilson Ramos and Jesus Sucre look like a middling catcher combo, with Ramos projected for a 97 wRC+. Corey Dickerson projects for a 104 wRC+. Denard Span recieves a 94 wRC+ projection in left field.
Notably, the best hitters ZiPS lists with the Rays’ projections are current free agents Logan Morrison and Lucas Duda. Both are forecast to post offensive lines well above average, and would represent a sizable upgrade over a number of Tampa’s bats. If the free agent freeze continues, it wouldn’t be shocking to see the Rays at least try to bring back one of the sluggers at a price befitting their bargain basement payroll.
The Rays are deeper on the pitching side. Chris Archer has seen his ERA’s rise above his peripherals the past couple seasons, but ZiPS pegs him for over 4 WAR and a 125 ERA+ (Archer also pulls a comp to similarly enigmatic former Yankee AJ Burnett). Young lefty Blake Snell projects as the number two, with a K/9 a shade below 10 and 3 WAR.
In fact, with Jacob Faria (9.7 K/9), and Brent Honeywell (8.9 K/9) the Rays possess nearly a full rotation’s worth of starters that project to fan about a batter per inning. Honeywell, though, is the Rays’ premier starting prospect and may well start the season in the minors.
Matt Andriese and Jake Odorizzi both project for a 100 ERA+ and make for very solid back-end options. Also of note is old friend Nathan Eovaldi, who was last seen frustrating Yankee fans with his eclectic mix of hard-throwing and mediocre results in 2016. He may return from Tommy John surgery this season and receives a 95 ERA+ projection.
While the Rays appear well-stocked in the rotation, the bullpen has less depth. Alex Colome has saved 84 games across the past two seasons, and projects as a fine closer option again (116 ERA+, 1.1 WAR). Dan Jennings (110 ERA+) and Andrew Kittredge (119 ERA+) both project as solid setup men as well. Beyond that trio, the Rays don’t possess any other relief arms that project for a better than average ERA in over 50 innings.
Even with the face of the franchise shipped to San Francisco, the Rays still appear frisky. As always, they have plenty of interesting options in the rotation, and position players that provide enough with the bat or in the field to justify a starting spot. They just don’t have many stars, and that may cap their ceiling. It’s not hard to envision this squad again hanging around .500, but with the Yankees and Red Sox at the top of the division, the Rays will have a tough time making much noise in the AL East race.