A recent article on the official Tampa Bay Rays website contained the following quote from President of Baseball Operations Matt Silverman:
"“There were some injuries, there were some lack of performance that we think will revert back to normal,” Silverman said. “But if you take the same guys we had last year, put them back on the field, they’re going to score a lot more runs. The pitching is there, we’re pretty close. Seventy-seven wins doesn’t cut it. But 77 very easily could have been in the mid-upper 80s, and that’s why we have so much optimism heading into next year.”"
Silverman may have read the analysis Baseball Prospectus published at the end of the 2014 season. Their analysts calculated what they call second order wins and losses. They analyzed individual performance by hitters and pitchers to determine how many runs scored and allowed each team should have achieved based on individual player stats. At the end of the day, Baseball Prospectus determined that the Rays’ record in 2014 should have been 86-76.
Had that truly been the case, we would be looking be looking at the Rays’ 2014 season entirely differently. If we look at the entire MLB standings using second order wins and losses (or the more complicated third order wins and losses), the Rays would have been the second-place team in the AL East and just one game behind the Seattle Mariners for the second AL Wild Card.
Given that the Rays may have lifted their foot off the gas pedal in September, they realistically could have made the playoffs had their true record reflected their second order wins and losses. The fact that they didn’t perform this well simply resulted from a lack of timely hitting and poor luck, and we can expect those to turn around next season.
That analysis agrees with my fan’s sense of what I was watching much of the 2014 season. It seemed, particularly early in the season, that the Rays were losing on little pop flies that were falling just out of reach, or on line drives Evan Longoria hit right at opposing infielders. They always seemed better than their record. If Silverman is right, then the team did not need a major overhaul to contend in 2015.
The Tampa Bay Rays have certainly made some notable moves this offseason, but the core of the team is returning. Their pitching staff remains excellent, and there are even players to be excited about among their position players.
Evan Longoria will be back and is primed to rebound from his down 2014. The same can be said for Yunel Escobar, although his resurgence will be more focused on his defense. James Loney gives the Rays a solid first baseman, and Desmond Jennings provides them with a slightly above-average centerfielder.
Then we can look at all the young players primed to take a step forward. Kevin Kiermaier‘s offense faded after his hot start, but his defense is spectacular and his bat should be good enough for that to matter. Brandon Guyer seems set for a platoon role, but he showed flashes of being even better than that.
Then there are Nick Franklin and Steven Souza, who were acquired in the David Price and Wil Myers trades respectively. They both have the power, speed, and defense to be impact players this season, and if they get there, they will change both the storylines of those trades and the Rays’ fate for this season.
Speaking of Myers, however, did the Rays really help their chances by replacing Myers and Hanigan with Souza and Rene Rivera? That will remain to be seen for the long-term, but the Rays will clearly see improvement at least for next season. The right fielders who will replace Myers should hit better than his paltry .222/.294/.320 line in 2014 and a catching mix headlined by Rivera will surely outperform one that featured far too much Jose Molina.
That leaves one major question: whether Ben Zobrist will be traded. Asdrubal Cabrera will take much of Ben Zobrist’s playing time at second, but if Zobrist sticks around, he will become a starting outfielder and continue to be one of the Rays’ most valuable players. The best team the Rays could field in 2015 would certainly include Ben Zobrist.
However, even if Zobrist is dealt, that does not mark the end of the Rays’ playoff hopes. Directly, Zobrist would be replaced by Cabrera, who is clearly not as good of a player, but that difference could be offset elsewhere on the roster. We already talked about right field and catcher, and bounce-back years from Longoria and Escobar could do the rest.
This is a Tampa Bay Rays team that should have won 86 games last year, and the components to get back there or even surpass that total will remain in place. At the very least, remember that the Rays’ poor 2014 was as much about bad luck as poor performance and that a shift in their luck could change everything in 2015.