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The Rays and the projections

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They’re at it again, “they” being the projections and “it” being surprising positive forecasts of Tampa Bay.

MLB: New York Yankees at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, the Tampa Bay Rays won 69 games, but PECOTA projected them to win the AL East. The year before that, they won 80 games, but their third-order winning percentage suggested a true-talent squad of about 87 wins. The year before that, they won 77 games, but they underperformed their third-order wins by more than any other club in the game besides the A’s. In other words, the underlying numbers think that the Rays are a good club, while their actual wins and losses have pushed back strongly in the other direction.

This isn’t even the first time we here at Beyond the Box Score have tried to figure the Rays out. Last year, Henry Druschel parsed the differences in FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus’s projections to try and understand why the Rays seemed so weird. And this year, the Rays are at it again. Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA projections come out today, and lo and behold, the system pegs the boys from St. Pete to win 84 games, putting them in the Wild Card hunt. FanGraphs seems to agree, projecting 82 wins.

Say what now? The Rays, in theory, should be worse than they were last year. They traded away Matt Moore and Drew Smyly. They traded away Logan Forsythe. Their corner outfield situation didn’t appear to improve on paper, thanks to the arrival of Colby Rasmus. Wilson Ramos broke out last season, but then got hurt. And then there’s the less-than-delectable scenario of Brad Miller and Logan Morrison on the right side of the infield. A Wild Card team this does not appear to be.

So what gives? It mostly comes down to pitching, depth, and Kevin Kiermaier. Like a lot of teams in the Rays’ mold, GM Erik Neander is getting creative with the deployment of his assets. Even though Smyly and Moore are gone, both the rotation and bullpen appear to be in excellent shape relative to the rest of the league. And Kiermaier is, well Kiermaier.

First, let’s start with depth. Mallex Smith is present to help fill platoon gaps with Rasmus. Similarly, Corey Dickerson can spell Steven Souza, Jr. while either Morrison or Ramos kicks over to DH, depending on any given need on any given day. That’s a fair amount of flexibility, and helps squeeze some extra value from what project to be average players.

The Rays, to be fair, aren’t expected to hit all that much. Their projected .260 True Average is tied for eighth in the AL. Aside from Evan Longoria, these aren’t a sexy collection of bats. (Cf. Morrison, Logan and Dickerson, Corey.) But PECOTA thinks their defense will cover the gap. BP projects the team to have the sixth-best unit in the American League. We all know how much of that comes from Kiermaier, but Ramos brings with him a fair amount of defensive acumen with his framing. A full season of Matt Duffy at shortstop will also help stabilize that position. There aren’t too many teams aside from Cleveland, the Mariners and the Astros with such a complete up-the-middle defensive core.

The pitching staff will also get some help from Jose De Leon, recently arrived from Los Angeles. While De Leon had a bitter cup of coffee last year, he still projects to be major league ready, and can either be used as a spot starter or a bullpen piece, ready to become a permanent addition should injury occur in either area.

Where the Rays really shine, however, is their returning pitching staff. Chris Archer had a rough season on the surface last year, but his peripherals remained strong, and nothing suggests he won’t bounce back. Archer’s 3.0 projected WARP ranks only behind Chris Sale, David Price, Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Michael Pineda (?) in the AL.

It’s not just Archer holding the fort, here. Between Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Matt Andriese, Blake Snell, and Alex Cobb, the Rays rotation is projected to tally 9.3 WARP, third in the AL. They will eat innings and be solid behind Archer, without anyone cringeworthy in the way of a normal #5. The bullpen, anchored by Alex Colome and Brad Boxberger, won’t be as electric as the units in Boston or Cleveland, but they will be able to shorten games for the rotation, provided the offense can actually hit.

And then there’s Kiermaier. A league-average bat who might be better but for the fact that he faces the toughest pitchers of all hitters in baseball, he is the magic glove in center field. We know how suspect advanced defensive metrics can be, but when they all agree on the superlative nature of a player, year in and year out, then we can feel confident in that player’s value. Kiermaier is one of those guys. While his hitting only projects to be league-average again, he’s still pegged for 5.5 WARP. PECOTA thinks Kiermaier is the best center fielder in baseball, Non-Trout Category.

With Archer and Kiermaier leading the charge, the Rays can have an average offense and still be competitive. Their defense and pitching both look to be either very good or excellent. Add it all together, and PECOTA thinks the Rays will give up 692 runs this year, fourth-fewest in the AL. They don’t need to score much in order to lock down games.

Of course, the Rays have a bad track record with regard to the projections over the last few years. Their lack of offense has especially come to bite them in the ass. Can Miller really replace Forsythe in the lineup? Can Ramos’s breakout carry over into this season? Will Kiermaier still be a Platinum Glove out there? Will Archer look like Archer again? PECOTA seems to think so, so much so that the Rays now appear to see October off in the distance. What a time to be alive.