Why the Rays will be better than you think

The Tampa Bay Rays will start 2011 with a new shortstop, left fielder, first baseman, stopper, eighth-inning setup man and No. 2 starter. That’s a quarter of their roster, which in 2010 produced 51 home runs, 63 steals, 221 RBIs,  21 wins, 48 saves, 34 holds and a whole lot of credibility.

(They’ve also lost reliever Dan Wheeler and his propensity to throw the demoralizing late-inning home run ball, but that might be more easily replaced).

You would think all those departures would preclude the Rays from contending in the American League East next year, but think again. The newly fashionable wisdom (or lack thereof) is that the Rays will be where they have been for the last three years — in contention.

How so? By doing something the Red Sox and Yankees don’t have to: paying for talent going forward and projecting production, not relying on it. If you took Rays GM Andrew Friedman shopping with you, you’d probably cut your grocery bill by a third; if you took Yankees GM Brian Cashman or Red Sox GM Theo Epstein, you’d need a bigger vehicle.

The Red Sox and Yankees have spent more than a billion dollars combined on players’ salaries over the last three years; the Rays little more than a tenth of that. Yet the Rays have won two of the last three division titles.

When the Red Sox and Yankees have budget problems, they expand the budget. When the Rays have budget problems, they make decisions. No team has squeezed more production out of Carlos Pena or Joaquin Benoit or Edwin Jackson or Sean Rodriguez or Grant Balfour, though many have tried.

And no team has parted with more talent at the appropriate time than the Rays. Here’s a closer at what they’ve done, and why for 2011:

  • First base: Out: Carlos Pena. In: Dan Johnson. Pena was what qualified as a big-money player in Tampa — he was paid $24 million after hitting 46 home runs for $800,000 in 2007. He hit 98 home runs and walked 270 times from 2008-2010, but hit only .196 last year. The Rays are betting Johnson — who hit .303 with a 1.053 OPS in AAA in 2010 — can do as much for them as Pena did, and cost less. Johnson, although older at 31, is in a similar place to where Pena was when the Rays signed him — limited major league success with a good AAA record. Pena is now in Chicago, ready to make $10 million (if the Cubs wanted an older, depreciating first baseman, they could have kept Derrek Lee).
  • Shortstop: Out: Jason Bartlett. In: Reid Brignac. No way the Rays were paying $11 million, as the financially strapped Padres will for the next two years, to Bartlett. Brignac will deliver more for less. Bartlett gave the Rays defense and an .879 OPS in 2009, but that’s .139 points more of OPS than his next-best season. Brignac is 24 and far more likely to deliver that kind of season in the future. If he does, he can expect Hak-Ju Lee to replace him as he’s replacing Bartlett.
  • Left field: Out: Carl Crawford. In: Desmond Jennings. Jennings won’t replicate Crawford; the question is how close will he come at the major league minimum to what the Red Sox pay Crawford $20 million to do? Jennings is 24 and has a like skill set — a better eye, perhaps, but less power — but we’ll see how it translates from AAA. In 2009, Jennings hit .325 with a .910 OPS; a year later he hit .278 with a .756 OPS. The Rays win by 2009 numbers, lose big by 2010.
  • Starting pitching: Out: Mat Garza. In: Jeremy Hellickson. Trading Garza was all about maximizing value. Hellickson might be better than Garza, but he’ll definitely be younger and cheaper. Yes, Hellickson and Garza would be better than Hellickson and James Shields or Wade Davis, but the money saved on Garza can be spent on relief or a DH. As for Hellickson, he was very good in AAA the last two years (174 innings, 134 hits, 193 strikeouts) and better in a brief stint in the majors. No reason he shouldn’t be just as good in 2011.
  • Bullpen: Out: Rafael Soriano, Joaquin Benoit, Dan Wheeler: In: Joel Peralta, Adam Russell, Jake McGee. Back: J.P. Howell. Here’s where the defections might be hurt the most, because Soriano and Benoit were so good. Between them last year, they pitched 122.2 of the late innings and gave up just 66 hits and 25 walks. Soriano had a .509 OPS against, Benoit .454 (by comparison, Mariano Rivera was at .493, Jonathan Papelbon .674). That’s going to be hard to replace, no matter how much you spend. The Rays do return J.P. Howell from injury. Howell, if he returns to form, gives the Rays something the Sox and Yankees don’t have — a left-hander who can get right-handers out. They may add Kyle Farnsworth today, with the hope they can do for him what they did for Grant Balfour or Benoit. Russell had big strikeout numbers, but couldn’t crack the Padres’ bullpen. McGee had even bigger strikeout numbers as a starter for the Rays. Peralta is one free-agent acquisition, and the Rays can make another with the money saved on Garza. The way Soriano is being discounted, he might wind up back in the Rays’ range.

For three years the Rays have contended on the cheap by being creative — cobbling their bullpens together, batting catchers leadoff, making Ben Zobrist a super-utility player. They’ve challenged the norm. No reason they can’t do so again in 2011.

Today’s Stat

  • Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera are the only players with more than 500 career saves. Hoffman retired with 601, Rivera has 559. Hall of Famers Dennis Eckersley had 390, Rollie Fingers 341 and Bruce Sutter 300, though Eckersley spent his first 12 seasons as a starter.

Today’s Quote

  • “Hoffman had to sweat for (save) No. 600. He might be sweating again, five years from now.” ESPN’s Rob Neyer on Trevor Hoffman’s Hall of Fame chances.

Suggested Links

Garza trade helped the Rays

Conlin: No morals clause

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