The MLB league championship series are now set, and, surprisingly, neither the Oakland Athletics nor the Detroit Tigers are still around. Both of these teams dealt for an ace at the trade deadline to prepare them better for a deep run into the playoffs. But what happened? Jon Lester went 7.1 innings and gave up 8 hits and 6 earned runs in Oakland’s AL Wild Card Game loss. Then David Price went 8 innings and gave up a devastating two-run homer to Nelson Cruz in the Tigers’ elimination game against the Baltimore Orioles.
Interestingly enough, the Kansas City Royals advanced from the Wild Card game against the A’s while throwing their own trade-acquired ace, “Big Game” James Shields (11 IP, 11 hits, 6 ER in the playoffs so far). We’ve also seen a team with the greatest ace alive flop and be shown the door. Pressed into service on short rest, Clayton Kershaw saw his 102nd pitch be punished by Matt Adams and the St. Louis Cardinals’ bullpen made their lead stick.
Imagine that we can go back in time to the trade deadline, and imagine the uproar in the Tampa Bay area around the lack of a return for Price. ONLY Drew Smyly (47.2 IP for the Rays, a 1.70 ERA, and a 44-11 K-BB ratio), Nick Franklin, and Willy Adames! It seemed to repulse people at the time. Yours truly was certainly inflated and then let down by the whispered rumors of Oscar Taveras and Joc Pederson.
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The return now seems much better than it did to me at the deadline. We were told things about Franklin’s promise and Adames playing guys at least two years older than him, and seeing what Smyly can do restored my faith in Andrew Friedman. But the source of the nauseating repulsion in July was from the assumed association that you can only advance in the playoffs if you have an ace and hopefully at least a pair. What the postseason has shown us so far is that having a frontline starter rather than a solid one may not be as valuable as it would appear.
More important than the difference between a number two or three starter and an ace is a great bullpen and a consistent offense. Sure, throwing Kershaw out there every fifth game puts you in a good position to win every fifth game, but if it comes down to one must-win game you should favor the team that can hit and hold a lead. Not that Shelby Miller or Madison Bumgarner are bums–far from it–but the mythology prevailing at the deadline has been turned on its head. “Get an ace and you land in the championship game” has proved to be too reductive.
Does this vindicate the then-lackluster return for Price? No, not without believing that more than a few GMs can read minds. But it may sweeten (ferment?) the leftover kool-aid for Rays fans to drink for next season. How? two reasons:
- The Rays happen to have at least one sleeved ace. If one of Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, or Matt Moore (once he returns) pitches to his potential next year, the Rays will have at least ace-high heading into the latter stages of the 2015 season.
- The apparently announced needs for improvement happen to overlap with what has been shown to produce longevity in the post-season: the bullpen and the offense. If Grant Balfour’s adjustment can continue to produce numbers roughly approaching those of this past September, then the Rays will add a solid third element to a good late-inning combo of Jake McGee and Brad Boxberger. We have to believe that the Rays can get back to building a strong bullpen between their internal options (e.g. Jeff Beliveau, Brandon Gomes, and Kirby Yates) and whoever they can find cheaply on the free agent market. With that in mind, it seems that the only area for the Rays to look at this offseason is their offense.
Because the Rays’ (overpopulated) starting staff is so good, and the bullpen is very close to being excellent, perhaps one trade and a few low-cost signings could secure the two features that have led to postseason success. The unimaginative response would be to wait and hope that the roster as currently constituted can just turn it around: buy more stock in Joel Peralta, Desmond Jennings, Matt Joyce, and the alternate ‘pen pieces while lighting some candles in a church. The results this year suggest that you can fold an ace and succeed, in fact it seems to say more: you can’t lean on your ace when you don’t have a bullpen or if you’re not getting on base. If we can assume that next season will generally be similar to this season, then the Tampa Bay Rays have a fairly clear path for improvement next season. The question will be whether they can make the moves necessary to make such an improvement possible.