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Wednesday, March 26, 2014
Don't doubt the Tampa Bay Rays

By Mark Simon

I don't know why, but I'd been having doubts this offseason about just how good the Tampa Bay Rays would be heading into 2014.

So I ran through an exercise I did for both the Yankees and Mets -- making reasonable guestimates at the WAR totals for every player who figures to be on the roster for some part of the season.

When I did this for the two New York teams, I did it with optimism in mind. There were some reaches among the assessments, as I wanted to see how I could get the two teams to contender status. The Mets' best players are on the young side, so there's a lot of uncertainty. The Yankees' best players are a bit old, so there's uncertainty with them.

The Rays seem to have it just right.

The estimates in the chart on the right peg the Rays for about 45 Wins Above Replacement in 2014. That's about a 6-WAR jump from 2013 and likely makes them a team that will win 90 to 95 games (studies have shown you can estimate a team's win total by adding 48 wins to their collective WAR).

This is very much a "back of the napkin" assessment (to borrow a phrase from the folks at FiveThirtyEight). You can tweak the numbers as you see fit. What we're providing is a starting point.
Here are a few things to take note of as you go through those numbers.

Not many reaches
Almost every guestimate I made had a strong basis in past performance. Evan Longoria has already had three 7-WAR seasons. Ben Zobrist has five straight seasons in which he was worth at least 4.5 WAR. David Price has a pair of seasons in which he was worth 4.8 WAR or more.

Go down the line to the mid-level players and again, you’ll see that our expectations are reasonable. Yunel Escobar has gone 4.7, 2.7 and 3.3 the last three seasons. A 1.5 WAR season would be a bounceback from 2013 for Ryan Hanigan, but he bettered that number in 2010, 2011 and 2012.

The Rays have a consistency (or track record) that is tough to match. And while past performance doesn't guarantee future results, it sure doesn't hurt.

On the rise
The list on the right only has a couple of guestimates that would entail a player doing what he'd never done before.

The key player is second-year outfielder Wil Myers, who I pegged for 4 WAR after his 2-WAR rookie campaign. A 4-WAR outfielder would be akin to Matt Holliday in 2012 or Hunter Pence in 2013. Given Myers' status as one of the game's top young players, it doesn't feel that outlandish to say he could match his .293/.354/.478 slashline over a full season. And if he does, 4-WAR is very achievable.

The starting pitching: So young, so good
The projected current Rays rotation of David Price, Alex Cobb, Matt Moore, Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi is, on average, 25 years old (sub in injured Jeremy Hellickson for Odorizzi and it's 26). That's way younger than the Red Sox, Yankees and Blue Jays, each of whom have a fivesome averaging at least 30 (the Orioles average 28, per MLBDepthCharts.com).

Price's track record speaks for itself. Cobb, Moore and Archer combined for 8.7 WAR last season, with none of the three pitching more than 150 1/3 innings. Our 10-WAR peg for that trio may even be a little conservative.

Odorizzi is the one question mark, but if he falters, the Rays have other prospect options (Enny Romero heads the list) they can plug in with little risk. And the quality of their first four allows them to be patient with their No. 5.

The bullpen is a question, but isn't it always?
I've struggled with trying to evaluate the Rays bullpen, because who would have guessed that Kyle Farnsworth and Fernando Rodney would have done what they did. So I made a presumption that Heath Bell could return to past form. He's the only one among their primary relievers for whom we'd consider the assessment a reach. Those others we've cited have decent track records to back up the numbers we've given them.

The Rays can survive one injury, but maybe not more ...
The one issue that the Rays may run into is one that you could arguably say is an issue for every team -- a lack of offensive depth. The Rays bench, which will be made up of the likes of Jerry Sands, Logan Forsythe and Sean Rodriguez is weak. The farm system, which Keith Law ranks 23rd in the majors, lacks positional players with punch.

One of the reasons Tampa Bay was good last season was that it had six players play at least 139 games (only the Orioles had more). It will need that sort of good health again in 2014.

What does it mean?
If you're going to power rank the Rays for any sort of preseason assessment, you're justified in giving them a good number of wins ... again. Will it be enough to win the AL East? That remains to be seen.