Reality Struck For Rays After Struggles In 2014
The end of an era came at home. Evan Longoria was unable to check his swing on a Koji Uehara sinking fastball. With that, the Boston Red Sox came sprinting out of their dugout forming a celebratory pile in the mound at Tropicana Field. It took the Sox four games to dispatch of the Rays in the American League Division Series.
It was a successful year by most measure for the Rays. They finished the season 92-71 including wins in Game 163 and a Wild Card victory over the Cleveland Indians. “We had an up and down kind of a team.” Manager Joe Maddon said. “We hit some really good moments and some really bad moments. At the end of the day, you still win 92-games. That’s pretty darn good.”
Rays Had Gotten Accustom To Success:
In the six seasons (2008-2013) since changing their name from the Devil Rays to the Rays, they posted a 550-423 (.565) winning percentage, second-best record in the majors behind the division rival New York Yankees (564-408). They made the postseason four times, something only the Philadelphia Phillies, St. Louis Cardinals, and New York Yankees had achieved.
They had five seasons of 9-plus wins in that span, the only team in MLB that could make that claim. The 2013 season was the organizations fourth straight 90-win campaign, a feat only matched by the Texas Rangers. Despite all the success, playoff appearances, and the 2013 92-win season and playoff appearance, the front office faced a decision on what route to take the franchise.
They were showing the marks of a team in need of a makeover. Their farm system, once the jewel of the organization, had fallen off and was ranked near the bottom-third in the league. Three of their top players, David Price, Matt Joyce, and Ben Zobrist, were nearing the end of their contracts, each with just two years of control remaining. It would be very difficult to see the Rays finding the dollars to sign Price or Zobrist.
Was now the time to make a concerted effort to rebuild the farm by moving Price, Zobrist, and others? Or, was the team capable of adding players and making another deep run into the postseason?
Front Office Chooses To Add On:
The front office chose the latter and this decision quickly turned sour as players brought in declined rapidly and injuries derailed the 2014 season.
DeJesus And Molina First To Return:
David DeJesus was acquired from the Washington Nationals in August of 2013. The Rays held a $6.5MM club option for 2014 ($1.5MM buyout). Rather than pay the buyout, they elected to pick-up the option. A few days after picking the option up, it was announced that the Rays had agreed on a 2-year/$10.5MM extension, effectively replacing his $6.5MM 2014 salary.
In 2013 catcher Jose Molina hit .233/.290/.304 in 99 games but he did throw out 29-percent of base-stealers (league average 26-percent). Based mostly on his pitch-framing skills, widely considered to be one of the best in MLB, the Rays re-signed him to a 2-year/$4.5MM deal.
Rays Acquire Hanigan And Bell:
The first trade of the off-season was a three team trade between the Cincinnati Reds and Arizona Diamondbacks. The Rays received catcher Ryan Hanigan (Reds) and reliever Heath Bell (Diamondbacks). Arizona sent David Holmberg to the Reds. For their part, the Rays sent prospects Justin Choate and Todd Glaesmann to the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Rays also agreed to take on $5.5MM of Heath Bells $9MM 2014 salary.
Hanigan, coming of his worst-season of his career, slashed just .198/.306/.261 spanning 260 plate appearances. He was one year removed from a very productive 2012 campaign in which he slashed .274/.365/.338. He had also thrown out 42-percent of base stealers between the 2012-2013 campaigns
The Rays extended him with a 3-year/$11.75MM contract. They had hoped the thumb and wrist issues that hampered him in 2013 were in the rear view mirror and he’d give them both a quality hitter and defender behind the plate along with Molina.
Loney Returns On Biggest Free-Agent Deal In Club History:
Prior to the 2012 season, the Rays signed James Loney to a 1-year/$2MM deal that include $1MM in incentives. He had a very successful 2013 season batting .299/.348/.430 and was a top-3 finalist for the Gold Glove award. At the end of the season, Loney headed to free agency hoping to land a 3-year deal in the $27-30MM range. In early January, the Rays signed him to a 3-year/$21MM deal, the riches free agent deal in franchise history.
Rays Acquire Boxberger In 7-Player Deal:
In late January the Rays and San Diego Padres completed a seven-player deal. The Rays sent reliever Alex Torres and minor league pitcher Jesse Hahn to the Friars in exchange for minor leaguers Matt Lollis (RHP), Matt Andriese (RPH), Maxx Tissenbaum (C), and major leaguers Brad Boxberger (RHP), and Logan Forsythe (IF).
Rays Bring Balfour Back To St. Pete:
Despite the club record free agent deal given to James Loney, the Rays weren’t done dabbling in the free agent market. Grant Balfour appeared to have a 2-year/$15MM deal with the Baltimore Orioles but failed his physical. It was already late January and Balfour found a shrinking market for his services, plus new questions surrounded his health after the Orioles doctors claimed to have found something.
Fernando Rodney, the team’s closer in 2013, had departed via free agency and Balfour was coming off a 38 save season for the Oakland Athletics. It seemed a perfect fit for the Rays who signed Balfour to a 2-year/$12MM deal.
Lobaton Dealt To Nationals:
After the Rays had re-signed Jose Molina and acquired Ryan Hanigan they had to make a move with catcher Jose Lobaton who was out of options. Right before spring training opened, Lobaton and minor leaguers Drew Vettleson (OF) and Felipe Rivero (LHP) were sent to the Washington Nationals for minor league pitcher Nate Karns (RHP).
Rays Ink Archer To Extension:
While the Rays were spending a lot of money on filling their 2014 roster, they also continued to focus on adding talent for the future as seen in the deals with the Padres and Nationals. The Rays also have a tradition of being aggressive in extending their young stars to long-term deals. In early April, the Rays continued that tradition by signing Chris Archer to a six-year deal that contained two option years.
The deal bought out all of his pre-arbitration and arbitration years at $25.5MM and contained two option years that could push the value of the deal to $43.75MM over eight years. At the time, the deal was the largest ever for a player with less than one year of service time, previously held by Evan Longoria ($17.5MM) and Matt Moore ($14MM).
Rays Give Escobar A Contract Extension:
Opening Day came and went but the Rays were still working on contracts. Yunel Escobar had been acquired from the Miami Marlins for Derek Dietrich prior to the 2013 season. The move paid dividends for the Rays as Escobar hit .254/.320/.340 and finished as a Gold Glove finalist.
Already under contract for $5MM in 2014 and a club option for $5MM in 2015, he was given a two year $13MM extension. The new contract guaranteed his 2015-2016 salaries ($5MM in ‘15, $7MM in 16) and included a club option ($1MM buyout) worth $7MM in 2017.
Between picking up money in the trade with the Diamondbacks (Heath Bell $5.5MM), free agent signings (Loney, Balfour, Molina), contract extensions (DeJesus, Hanigan, Escobar, Archer), Andrew Friedman had spent $104MM.
Price Returns To Head Solid Rotation:
Behind all the moves Andrew Friedman had made, there was an ominous dark cloud over the team regarding the return of David Price. Would he be back?
When the 2013 season ended it seemed almost a certainty that he would be dealt. How could the Rays risk injury to their most valuable trade chip? Better to get maximum value for him now with 2-years of control then risk a down season or injury? A trade never materialized and Price sat atop one of the best rotations in baseball along with Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, Jake Odorizzi, and Chris Archer.
The Rays also hoped to have Jeremy Hellickson, who underwent elbow surgery in February, back at some point during the first half of the season(he returned July 8th). In addition to Hellickson’s injury, Tim Beckham was also lost for the season after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in the off-season.
Injuries Hit Rotation Early:
Unfortunately, that rotation took just one turn together in 2014. In his second start of the season against the Kansas City Royals, In his second start of the season, Matt Moore delivered a pitch and immediately grimaced in pain, and was forced to depart. The injury was to his ulnar collateral ligament and would require season ending Tommy John surgery.
His spot in the rotation would be filled by reliever Cesar Ramos who had stretched out as a starter in Spring Training.
Less than a week later, Alex Cobb delivered 7-innings of scoreless baseball to run his scoreless streak to 15 ⅓-innings. Two days later, he was placed on the disabled list with a strained oblique forcing him to miss six weeks.
His spot in the rotation was filled by veteran Erik Bedard who was a non-roster invitee with the club during the spring. He was released near the end of camp but after failing to find a big league offer had re-signed a minor league deal with the Rays.
At the end of April the Rays were 11-16. The 16 losses were the third most losses in April in franchise history (8-18, 2001 & 9-17, 2003). It was their most losses in any month since September 2009 (11-17).
Spiral Continues Into May:
Heading into June the Rays had lost five in a row and were 10-games under .500 (23-33) for the first time since finishing the 2007 season at 66-96. Injuries continued to mount for the club. Ben Zobrst missed two weeks with a fractured right thumb, his spot on the roster was filled by Cole Figueroa. Ryan Hanigan hit the DL with hamstring tightness and was replaced by Ali Solis. Wil Myers sprained his right wrist and was replaced by Jerry Sands.
The starting pitching the Rays had relied on to open the year had been decimated by injuries. At the end of may, Rays starters had pitched 5-innings or fewer a ML leading low of 26 times (4-22 in those starts).
Turn Around Begins In June:
By mid-June the Rays had lost 14-of-15 games and had slipped to 18-games under .500 (24-42). To their credit they bounced back and finished the month strong winning 12 of their final 19. In those games the offense was averaging 4.53 R/G and the pitching staff was pitching to a 3.58 ERA. Prior to June 11th the Rays were averaging 3.58 R/G and pitching to a 4.08 ERA.
The Rays had gone 20-11 since June 11th and entered the All-Star Break with a 44-53 record. Despite the success, they were monitoring the trade market for David Price who had been 9-7 with a 3.53 ERA while striking out 164 batters while issuing just 20 non-intentional walks. Based on the Rays record and their place in the standings it seemed that Price’s tenure with the Rays was coming to an end.
Rays Finally Trade Price:
On July 31st the Rays dealt David Price to the Detroit Tigers in a three team trade with the Seattle Mariners. The Mariners sent infielder Nick Franklin to Detroit for outfielder Austin Jackson. The Rays received Franklin, left handed pitcher Drew Smyly, and minor leaguer Willy Adames from Detroit.
Rays Fight Back To Even Before Fading:
At the time of the trade, the Rays had fought their way back from 24-42 mark on June 11th to 53-55. They would eventually crawl their way back to even at 61-61 becoming just the fourth team in history to return to .500 after being at least 18 games under as they were on June 20 (24-41).
The Louisville Colonels were 22 games under at (16-38) in 1899. The 2006 Marlins were 11-31 on May 21 and returned to .500 at 68-68 on September 3 (peaked at 73-31 on September 11). The 2004 Devil Rays were 18 games under (10-28) on May 19th and got back to .500 at 35-35 on June 25th. None of the teams finished with a winning record. Neither would the 2014 Rays who finished the season losers of 24 of their final 40 games to finish 77-85.
Disappointing Finish To 2014 Season:
Their 77-85 mark was the worst finish by a Rays team since the 2007 Devil Rays finished 66-96. It brought to an end a streak of six straight winning seasons. Only the Yankees (22) and the Cardinals (7) could match them.
Like Joe Maddon said of his 2013 squad “We had an up and down kind of a team.”We hit some really good moments and some really bad moments.” The 2014 squad was much the same. From opening day til June 10th they went 16-24. Then from June 11 through August 15th they posted a 36-19 mark (best record in MLB). Finally, from August 15th to the end of the season they went 16-24.
Injuries played a big role in the Rays fall in 2014, so did a lot of poor decisions by the front office.
Disappointing Seasons And Decisions:
- James Loney and Yunel Escobar had lost their most valuable assets: defense. They were each owed a considerable amount of money.
- Jose Molina put together one of the worst offensive seasons (.178/.230/.187) of any player with 240 or more plate appearances. He had exactly two extra-base hits (both doubles). He still had a year on his contract.
- Ryan Hanigan struggled through another injury plagued season (.218/.318/.324) appearing in just 84 games. He was still owed $8MM on his extension.
- Wil Myers appeared in just 87 games. He slogged his way to a .222/.294/.320 mark with just six homers in 361 plate appearances.
- Jeremy Hellickson (1-5, 4.53 ERA) returned from the disabled list but looked nothing like the Hellickson of old. He only had two years of club control remaining.
- Matt Joyce hit just nine home runs in 493 plate appearances and was entering his final year of team control.
- In 13 games Heath Bell allowed 14 earned runs in 17.1-IP while striking out 12 and walking 8. The Rays released him and remained on the hook for the remainder of the $5.5MM owed on his 2014 salary.
- Grant Balfour was removed from the closers role in June. He struggled through the rest of the season finishing 2-6 with a 4.91 ERA and just 12 saves. The Rays owed him $7MM in 2015.
- Matt Moore was lost for the year after tearing his UCL in his second start of the year.
- David Price was traded at the trade deadline.
- Ben Zobrist was entering his final year under team control.
Look On The Bright Side:
- Kevin Kiermaier emerged as one of the best young defensive CF in the game. He also showed surprising power belting 10 homers in 364 plate appearances.
- Chris Archer made 32 starts and finished the year 10-9 with a 3.33 ERA while striking out 173 batters in 194.2-innings.
- Jake Odorizzi made 31 starts and finished the season 11-13 with a 4.13 ERA while striking out 174 batters in 168 innings.
- Drew Smyly made seven starts with the Rays before being shut down in September. He went 3-1 with a 1.70 ERA (9-ER/47.2-IP).
- Alex Cobb made 27 starts and finished with a 10-9 mark with a 2.87 ERA.
- Brad Boxberger made 63 appearances in a setup role out of the ‘pen and went 5-2 with a 2.37 ERA. He struck out 104 batters in 64.2-innings of work (14.5 K/9).
Plotting A New Direction:
Shortly after the 2014 season ended Andrew Friedman left the organization to take over operations of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Then long-time Manager Joe Maddon took advantage of an opt-out of his contract departing to take over the Chicago Cubs.
Silverman had work to do. He had to begin the search for a new Manager. Then he had to work with the manager to put a coaching staff together.
On top of the human resource aspect of the job, he had to creatively handle several veterans on the roster.
- As noted Ben Zobrist and Matt Joyce were entering their final seasons.
- Ryan Hanigan, Jose Molina, James Loney, David DeJesus, and Yunel Escobar were due more than expected output.
- The farm system needed to be overhauled from the bottom up.
The Rays had hoped to have enough talent to compete while restocking the farm. Every deal would be focused on making the team better today, but also with an eye on the future.
The David Price trade was just an example of what was to come. Drew Smyly and Nick Franklin were acquired to play immediate roles at the big league level. The most important player in the trade was Willy Adames who was 18-years old at the time.