The past few weeks have made it increasingly clear that the Tampa Bay Rays will not be out-slugging their opponents in 2015. There are reasons for optimism–Evan Longoria should rebound, and the Rays can’t possibly do worse than the offensive results of Jose Molina, Wil Myers, and Logan Forsythe (in his case, specifically against righty pitching) from last season. Nevertheless, the Rays lineup looks like it will be decent at best, leaving the team’s pitching with little margin for error.
As we look at the Rays’ lineup, though, we have to remember that value for position players involves one other critical area: defense. The Rays will still need to score at least a run or two to win games, but if their defense can join the pitching in making their run prevention top-notch, that will certainly make it easier for them to win.
Will the Rays and pitching and defense be enough to not only cancel out their struggles at the plate, but also overshadow them? One look at their pitching staff for next season gives us half the answer, and this piece from Jeff Sullivan at Fangraphs provides us with the other.
According to the Steamer projection system, the Tampa Bay Rays are expected to be tied for the third-best defensive team in baseball in 2015, trailing only the Kansas City Royals and Baltimore Orioles. Their team Ultimate Zone Rating is expected to go from 7 runs above average all the way up to 29, and that type of shift could easily be enough to win the Rays a few more games next season.
The biggest change of all is going to be a full season of Kevin Kiermaier. Wil Myers did show some improvement in right field this season, but Kiermaier has shown himself to be a spectacular defender and represents a major improvement over him. Any outfield alignment featuring both Kiermaier and Desmond Jennings is going to be outstanding, and Kiermaier just needs to hit enough to ensure the Rays feature him in the lineup on a regular basis.
More positive changes are expected to arise from the infield. Evan Longoria was closer to average than Gold Glove-worthy in 2014, and given his excellent track record at third base, he should be back to normal by his standards next season.
Even more critical, though, will be Yunel Escobar getting his head back in the right place. For whatever reason, Escobar went from a well above-average defensive shortstop to one of the worst defenders in all of baseball last season. Escobar can’t possibly be that bad, and even a return to average would mark huge strides for the Rays’ team fielding.
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Finally, there are some miscellaneous defensive deficiencies that the Rays are now better suited to avoid. For instance, Kiermaier will ensure that the Rays don’t need to play David DeJesus, Brandon Guyer, or Ben Zobrist in centerfield if Jennings needs to miss a game. Nick Franklin also gives the Rays the opportunity for better defense at second base when Zobrist plays the outfield after Forsythe, Sean Rodriguez, and Cole Figueroa could have looked better there last season.
If the Tampa Bay Rays’ defense is truly as good as Steamer projects it to be next season, it will be a major boon to their playoff hopes. The Rays have always be regarded as a team built around pitching and defense, and while those are not enough to compensate for a complete lack of offense, they may just be sufficient if the Rays’ lineup gets just a little better.