MLB Handicapping: Betting on the Tampa Bay Rays
by Trevor Whenham - 7/31/2014
So, the Tampa Bay Rays finally did it. They traded David Price. It had been rumored for a long, long time, but as the trade deadline neared it seemed at least conceivable that they would hold on to him to see if they could stay on the run they have been on lately after their disastrous start. Ultimately, though, they couldn't resist the possibility to get some assets back for Price instead of losing him as a free agent.
If you missed the details of the deal, Price was sent to Detroit as part of a three-team deal. The Tigers sent Austin Jackson to the Mariners and pitcher Drew Smyly to the Rays, while Tampa Bay also received young infielder Nick Franklin, who had been stuck in Triple-A because there wasn't a spot for him in Seattle.
There are a lot of ways to look at this deal, but I have no interest in the Detroit or Seattle perspectives - it made them both better at a fair price, and it's hard to dispute that. What is interesting here, though, is looking at what it means for Tampa Bay. Before the deal was announced I was preparing to write an article about whether the Rays, who are in an unlikely group with Toronto and Miami as the hottest teams in baseball over the last 10 games, can legitimately get back into the playoff hunt after a horrendous start. It seemed unlikely, but they were hot, had experience on their side, and weren't out of the picture just yet. Conventional wisdom will be that this move ends those dreams and points the team firmly towards next year. Betting with conventional wisdom is a quick way to go broke, though, so it only makes sense to dig deeper here are look at whether Tampa Bay is still a legitimate contender. (Spoiler alert - it's an even worse day to be a Tampa Bay fan than you would guess after trading a Cy Young winning ace):
The math: Last year Tampa Bay was a wild-card team with 92 wins. The year before it won 93 wins to advance. Through 108 games the Rays have 53 wins. They would need at least 39 wins to reach historical levels of what is needed. They have 54 games left. That means they need to win at least 72 percent of their remaining games. That's not impossible, but it is very challenging - especially now.
The wild-card logjam: It would be a lot easier to have faith in the Rays if they had a relatively smooth road to a wild-card spot. Instead, there is a mess of traffic ahead of them. Oakland got much better with the addition of Jon Lester and should have no trouble winning the AL West. That means that the Angels, who are playing well and will flirt with 97-100 wins, are all but sure to lock up a wild-card spot barring a calamity. Toronto has the second spot right now and has a three game lead over the Mariners and Yankees in the chase. Toronto didn't make any trade deadline moves, but they are playing dramatically better lately and could hold on. Seattle did improve in this deal and will be tough down the stretch. The Yankees are a mess but could still shine - and have some suddenly easier games against Boston to look forward to. The Rays would also have to leapfrog a suddenly-better Kansas City and Cleveland in order to get into the wild card, and the White Sox are only have a game behind Tampa Bay. Fighting with six other teams for one playoff spot while spotting most of the teams a lead and playing without your now-former franchise star - it's hard to get too excited about those chances.
The new pieces: Nick Franklin is a nice prospect - a 23-year-old infielder with solid skills and a decent bat who can find playing time with the Rays right away. Drew Smyly, 25, has played for three years, primarily starting in the first and third years. His numbers are fine though not overwhelming by any means, but he is serviceable and can step into the rotation or the bullpen as needed. He is not Price, though, and Franklin is not Cal Ripken Jr. In the wider picture they got relatively decent value for what was a diminishing asset for them because they weren't going to be able to keep him. It's hard enough to post a .722 win percentage at the best of times, never mind with a roster like they are going to field.
Coaching: I like Joe Maddon a lot, and he has done an amazing job of getting the most out of this Tampa Bay team in his tenure - at least in the regular season. I would have little faith in the ability of anyone to keep this team on track when faced with a devastating deal like this one, though, and Maddon certainly isn't up to the task.
The bottom line: If you wanted to believe that Tampa Bay could get into the picture with Price, you were fighting an uphill battle. Without him it is all but impossible. It will be important, though, not to overreact as a bettor and assume that all is lost for this team. They were winning a lot of games lately without Price, and though their intensity could suffer somewhat they will still win some games without him. You can't just bet against them blindly - there will be value on them and against them down the stretch in all likelihood.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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