Photo: Keith Allison/Wikimedia
by Aaron Knopf
As winter draws to a close, temperatures rise—Ann Arbor aside—and the sweet sounds of bats hitting balls emanate from Florida and Arizona, echoing around the country, it can only mean one thing: Baseball is (almost) back!
Pitchers and catchers have reported, and here at M-SABR we are counting down the final 33 days until America’s favorite holiday: Opening Day. To brighten that final baseball-less month just a little bit, we will be bringing you 30 Teams in 30 Days! Check back every day for one of our staff members’ insights on what you can expect from your favorite team in 2018, how we thought their offseason went, and what players you should make sure to keep your eye on! Don’t forget to read up on their division rivals, as well.
Beginning earlier this week with the Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays, we will work our way through all 30 teams, going from AL to NL by division in reverse order of last season’s standings. When the team previews wrap up, M-SABR’s Bold Predictions, Playoff Previews, and Awards Predictions will give you the big picture right in time for the very first first pitch of 2018. Enjoy!
Tampa Bay Rays
2017 Record: 80-82 (3rd AL East)
2017 Payroll: 91,016,605 (28th)
Projected 2018 Lineup:
All player projections for 2018 from Steamer
- DH: Denard Span
- 3B: Matthew Duffy
- CF: Kevin Kiermaier
- RF: Carlos Gomez
- C: Wilson Ramos
- 1B: CJ Cron
- 2B: Brad Miller
- SS: Adeiny Hechavarria
- LF: Mallex Smith
Projected 2018 Rotation:
- Chris Archer
- Blake Snell
- Nathan Eovaldi
- Jacob Faria
- Matt Andriese
Boy, did the Rays have an interesting offseason, and one filled with turnover and confusion from their own fan base. Back in December, the Rays started their offseason with a bang by trading Evan Longoria, star third baseman and all-time club leader in games, home runs, and RBI, to the San Francisco Giants for Denard Span, infield prospect Christian Arroyo, and two minor league pitchers. It was a pretty surprising move by the Rays since Longoria has been an integral part of their franchise for the past decade. General Manager Erik Neander noted that the decision to trade Longoria was “Incredibly difficult for us to make,” but “was in the best long-term interest of our franchise.”
In addition, Jake Odorizzi, who was Tampa’s number two pitcher last season and finished with an ERA slightly over four, was traded to the Minnesota Twins for shortstop prospect Jermaine Palacios. The move is smart for both teams; the Rays stockpiled another prospect and the Twins gained a pitcher who should bolster the rotation for the next two seasons.
The Rays made several other moves as well. Early in the offseason, they sent reliever Brad Boxberger, who saved 41 games in 2015, to Arizona. They traded outfielder Steven Souza Jr. to the D-Backs as well in a three-team deal, and sent Corey Dickerson to the Pirates in exchange for pitcher Daniel Hudson, a minor-league infielder, and cash considerations. They also signed Carlos Gomez and received CJ Cron from the Angels for a player to be named later. Notable free agent departures include Alex Cobb, Steve Cishek, and Logan Morrison.
2018 Season Preview:
With the 2018 regular season just around the corner and Spring Training having just begun, the Rays find themselves in a less-than-ideal spot. After finishing the 2017 regular season at a mediocre 80-82, missing the second wild-card spot in the American League by five games, one could say the Rays were just one piece away from making a legitimate push towards a playoff berth. This makes their fire sale over the past few weeks all the more surprising.
11-year veteran Carlos Gomez will jump on board on a 1-year deal for only $4 million to provide leadership, advice, and a good locker room presence for the young guys. This allows the team to have a bit more depth in the outfield, so players can sit out a day if need be without seriously hurting the team.
With so much roster turnover, the expectations for the Rays in the 2018 season have changed drastically. The team, which finished two games under .500 last season, has gotten much worse. Their 2017 run total was already second lowest in the American League, and it is bound to take even more of a hit. Team offensive leaders such as Longoria, Dickerson, and Souza Jr. are all no longer on the team. With a completely revamped starting lineup this year, new guys are ultimately going to have to step up and produce. Otherwise, the Rays will have no chance at making noise in a very competitive AL East race.
Unlike the lineup, which has clearly taken a big hit, the Rays’ rotation is still mostly intact. Chris Archer is back as the staff ace. The signing of Nathan Eovaldi during the offseason provides them with a solid number three starter who, although he had a 4.76 ERA with the Yankees last year, has very good velocity. His groundball rate of 49.6% and swinging-strike rate of 9.3% were both career highs for him. Blue-chip prospect Blake Snell has been back and forth between AAA Durham and the Rays for the last few seasons, and will now have the opportunity to stick in the rotation full-time. The same goes for Jake Faria, who will be thrust into an important role. Faria has pitched well at every level, including a short stint with the Rays in 2017, and could break out as a star this year.
Unfortunately, the Rays received heartbreaking news on February 23rd. Top prospect, pitcher Brent Honeywell, went down with a forearm injury, and will likely require Tommy John surgery. Should he go through with the procedure, Honeywell will be out until at least the beginning of next season and likely longer. This is a shame, as Honeywell was expected to be a big contributor to the Rays’ rotation this season.
Tampa’s goal this year should be to develop the young talent they have and continue to rebuild.
Predicted Record: 70-92
Player to Watch: Chris Archer
The first player to watch for the 2018 season is the star of the team, starting pitcher and ace Chris Archer. Archer threw a team-leading 201 innings last season, had a team-high 10 wins and ranked fourth in the MLB in strikeouts with 249. Archer looks to improve his 4.07 ERA from last year. His FIP stood at a solid 3.40, showing that he is due for a bounce-back season. If Archer is able to keep his ERA in the low threes, he is fully capable of being a 20-win pitcher, something that the Rays need if they want any chance at contending.
Player to Watch: Mallex Smith
Another player to watch who hasn’t yet made his mark but would like to do so over the upcoming season is Mallex Smith. As a rookie last year, Smith played 81 games and hit .270 over 256 ABs. If Smith is able to step up, he could become a valuable piece in a Rays lineup that needs all the help it can get.
Player to Watch: C.J. Cron
The third player to watch this season is recently acquired first baseman, C.J. Cron. With the Angels last year, Cron hit 16 home runs and 56 RBI’s in 100 games. He’ll most likely be in the middle of the order and be forced to produce at a high level right away as an integral part of the offense.