R.I.P.: 2014 Tampa Bay Rays season
The Rays were officially eliminated from postseason contention on Friday. Time to eulogize their season.
The Rays were officially eliminated from postseason contention on Friday. They need to win seven of their final eight games to avoid their first losing season since dropping the Devil from their team name. Let's look back at the year that was in Tampa Bay.
What went right
Aside from yet another strong season from Ben Zobrist, almost all of the positive news came from the pitching staff. Alex Cobb missed time with an oblique strain but otherwise continued to establish himself as a top tier starter. Both Jake Odorizzi and Chris Archer had strong first full seasons as MLB starters. Jake McGee and Brad Boxberger both emerged as elite shutdown relievers. Drew Smyly posted a 1.70 ERA in seven starts after being acquired from the Tigers in the David Price trade.
What went wrong
Despite hitting 22 home runs (and counting), Evan Longoria had a down year by his standards. His 107 OPS+ is easiest the lowest of his career -- his previous career-worst was a 127 OPS+ in 2008, his rookie season. Reigning AL Rookie of the Year Wil Myers missed a bunch of time with a wrist injury and simply hasn't hit when healthy (77 OPS+). Desmond Jennings had a good year (100 OPS+) but still has not taken that step forward to become a top shelf leadoff hitter.
Matt Moore made two starts before needing Tommy John surgery and Jeremy Hellickson missed the first few months of the season following non-Tommy John elbow surgery. Those two injuries exposed the team's lack of pitching depth -- after years of pumping out quality young starters, the Rays had to give 15 starts to Erik Bedard and seven to long man Cesar Ramos. Grant Balfour was a mess in his return to Tampa (73 ERA+) as the team's fourth highest paid player.
And, finally, the club had to trade away Price due to their perpetually tight payroll situation. Most felt they received an underwhelming return (Smyly, Nick Franklin and a Single-A shortstop prospect), though Smyly was excellent after the trade. Still, having to trade away a 29-year-old homegrown ace and former No. 1 pick is always tough to swallow.
MVP: Zobrist almost by default. I could see arguments for McGee, Cobb and Boxberger, but Zobrist again provided plenty of offense (114 OPS+) while starting games at second base, shortstop and all three outfield positions.
LVP: Myers. Between the injury and his woeful performance with the bat, the Rays lost one of his dirt cheap pre-arbitration years, the seasons that are imperative to their success.
Free agents to be: Zobrist ($7.5 million club option) and RHP Joel Peralta ($2.5 million club option)
Gameplan heading into the offseason
The Rays opened this season with a franchise record $76.9 million payroll and owner Stuart Sternberg has already said that will come down next season. Most of the payroll trimming will be the result of trading Price and his franchise record $14 million salary. He should clear $20 million in his fourth and final trip through arbitration next year, a salary the Rays simply couldn't afford.
The 2015 rotation is ostensibly set with Cobb, Archer, Smyly, Odorizzi and Hellickson, plus Moore due to return relatively early in the season. Hellickson is the most expensive of the bunch and his salary shouldn't clear $6 million through arbitration. If they were to trade a starter to plug holes elsewhere (which they've certainly been known to do), he figures to be the guy. My guess is they will hold onto him until Moore returns and shows he is effective following elbow reconstruction. Hellickson could be a prime 2015 trade deadline chip.
All of the team's regular position players are under contract for next season, at least after Zobrist's no-brainer club option is exercised. Outfielder Matt Joyce is a prime piece of trade bait thanks to his rising salary ($3.7 million this year) and impending free agency during the 2015-16 offseason. The emergence of rookie outfielder Kevin Kiermaier (116 OPS+) makes Joyce very expendable. Enough teams need offense that they should have no trouble finding a taker.
The Rays are never in the mix for top or even second tier free agents, and that will again be true this offseason. More than anything, they need Longoria and Myers to rebound as well as Cobb and Hellickson to stay healthy. That's where they will see their biggest improvement next season. Any offseason moves will be minor tweaks, like adding a reliever or bench player, stuff like that. Trading Joyce is a safe bet to their most notable move of the winter.
Ridiculously premature prediction for 2015
Longoria and Myers are still young enough and talented enough that I expect them to bounce back and have big years in 2015. The pitching staff isn't as deep as it once was, however. The Rays are always at a disadvantage due to their payroll and that payroll is coming down next year. They'll be better in 2015 than they were in 2014, but not good enough to contend in the AL East. They'll have to settle for being in the wild-card mix.
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