Monday, June 6, 2011

What The Heck? Pesky Buggers Edition

Well, it’s finally draft day. It’s certainly an exciting time for fans of the Pirates (who will have the first selection, and will almost certainly add UCLA starter Gerrit Cole to their already-impressive stable of young arms). Anyone interested in the Diamondbacks organization must be thrilled as well, as the Snakes will add two premium talents with the picks 3 and 7. However, there may be no club with more reason to look forward to the 7 PM Eastern start of the Rule 4 draft than the Tampa Rays, who will select an incredible 12 times in the first 90 picks and look to augment what already stands as one of the better farm systems in baseball.

Though the Rays are excited to have this glut of picks, they have come at a price. Six of the Rays’ first and second round picks come as compensation for losing Type A free agents Carl Crawford, Rafael Soriano, and Grant Balfour. Another four compensate the loss of Type B free agents Brad Hawpe, Joaquin Benoit, Randy Choate, and Chad Qualls. That’s a lot of major-league talent to replace, before even considering the loss of Carlos Pena as a free agent who didn’t qualify for Type A or B status, as well as Jason Bartlett and Matt Garza, who were traded away in the offseason. All told, only 3 players from the Rays 2010 Opening Day lineup were Opening Day starters this season.

With the team that won the AL East last season almost entirely deconstructed, it was nearly universally assumed that the Rays would be right back in rebuild mode, waiting for the prospects gleaned through their offseason trades and tonight’s draft picks to have an impact in order to contend with the big pockets in their division once again. However, if GM Andrew Friedman has taught us anything, it’s to respect the value of “The Extra 2%” (the title of Jonah Keri’s new book on the Rays, which is fantastic if you haven’t read it. I’d highly recommend it). Friedman made what moves he could in free agency under the tight restrictions of the (comparatively) miniscule budget allowed to him, made sure that major league talent was acquired alongside prospects in the Garza and Bartlett trades, and pretty much took a leap of faith in promoting several former part-timers to everyday roles.

Friedman’s moves have worked out extremely well, and although the Red Sox and Yankees may have considered the AL East to be something of a two-horse race before the season began, the pesky Rays (and their payroll, a quarter of the size of Boston’s and a fifth of the Yankees’) sit four games back and simply will not go away. Do they have what it takes to repeat last season’s improbable division title?

In some ways, it seems like the Rays may be playing a bit over their heads, as they’ve scored less runs than either of their major division rivals and allowed more runs than the Yankees and the same total as the Red Sox. Their wRC+ of 98, below the big league average and well back of the Yankees and Red Sox 115 and 113 marks, respectively, show that the Rays simply don’t have the offensive firepower of their bigger-budgeted foes. The teams are more even in terms of their run prevention, as although the Rays certainly have flaws in their starting rotation, it may very well be the best in the division. Though the loss of Garza certainly dealt a blow to Tampa, they replaced him with rookie Jeremy Hellickson, and Hellickson has looked up to the task so far. Meanwhile, both Boston and New York have dealt with injuries and ineffectiveness in their rotations, and the Yankees especially could have trouble keeping up the returns they’ve seen from their starters so far. Relying on Bartolo Colon as a major part of a big-league rotation has proven to be a recipe for failure over the last decade or so.

The Rays have taken a large step back in the bullpen. Their xFIP has risen nearly a third of a run, from last year’s 4.15 to a 4.47 in 2011. With all the pieces they lost, this is hardly a surprise, and they’d be in much worse shape if it weren’t for impressive results thus far from free agent pickup and de facto closer Kyle Farnsworth. Each other reliever is within a tenth of a point of 0 WAR, so Farnsworth has singlehandedly kept the bullpen above replacement level this year.

Offensively, many of the Rays’ bigger contributors have been buoyed by Lady Luck thus far. Matt Joyce, who leads the team in WAR at 3.1, is currently leading the AL with a .388 BABIP. Joyce, who came over from Detroit in the Edwin Jackson trade in 2008, is almost certain to slow his production slightly. However, now that Evan Longoria has recovered from his early-season injury woes, this regression won’t prove nearly as fatal, as Joyce helped carry the team while Longoria nursed his oblique. Ben Zobrist continues to mash the ball and is on pace to nearly double his production from last year, a somewhat disappointing campaign after his breakout 2009. Since returning from the DL, Evan Longoria has been Evan Longoria, and this team certainly looks better with their superstar at the hot corner. Second baseman Sean Rodriguez has shown improved patience so far this season, leading to more walks and making him a viable top-of-the-lineup hitter. However, this team’s offense isn’t going to be able to keep pace with the powerful Yankees and Red Sox.

The Rays, however, have a secret weapon, one that allows them to not only approach but exceed the much higher-priced teams in Boston and New York. Tampa has been fantastic with the leather this season, accumulating a team UZR of 24.4 that ranks as the best in baseball. They’ve gotten defensive contributions from essentially every position. Evan Longoria has been a wizard with the glove, leading the team and all major league third basemen with a 7.8 UZR despite missing significant time. Zobrist has contributed mightily at second, as have Matt Joyce in right and Sam Fuld in left. The Rays might not be able to keep up with the Red Sox and Yankees, but it won’t be for lack of defensive effort. If things continue to go wrong in their divisional foes’ rotations, the Rays could once again contend for the division crown. Even if they don’t, the Rays’ ability to keep pace with the Yankees and Red Sox to this point shows that defense is still highly underrated in baseball, and it can make good rotations (like the Rays’) look like great ones.

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