In "Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game," Michael Lewis wrote, "The sheer quantity of brain power that hurled itself voluntarily and quixotically into the search for new baseball knowledge was either exhilarating or depressing, depending on how you felt about baseball. The same intellectual resources might have cured the common cold, or put a man on Pluto."
Brain power is a big reason the Tampa Bay Rays have achieved great levels of success since 2008. It has helped them overcome their small payrolls, their inability to buy the best free agents or sign some of their best players. Brain power has led them to find the right players for the right roles, to become one of the first teams to emphasize infield shifts or to quantify a catcher’s ability to frame pitches. Brain power is supposed to keep the Rays on top.
Sometimes, it just isn’t your year.
Since 2008, only the Yankees have won more games than the Rays. They’ve done just about everything but win a World Series.
That’s not going to happen this year. The Rays are awful. They lost their ninth straight game on Wednesday, a 5-4 loss to the Marlins that dropped them to 23-37. There’s nothing accidental about that record: The Rays haven’t hit, pitched or fielded well. They sent ace David Price to the bump to end this losing streak, and he couldn’t stop the bleeding. He was given a 3-1 lead in the first inning and couldn’t hold it, surrendering a three-run homer in the third inning to light-hitting Donovan Solano one pitch after Evan Longoria dropped the ball on a two-out tag play at third. Lack of focus? Just a bad slider? A lucky swing from Solano?
Or just one of those seasons.
You can put a fork in this club. They’re done, no longer the Rays but the Devil Rays. Sure, you can argue that they still have 102 games left to play, so it’s too early to make utensil references. I looked up all teams over the previous 10 seasons that had won between 22 and 24 of their first 60 games. This provided a list of 26 teams off to bad starts similar to the Rays.
Only one of the 26 teams finished with a winning record and the average final record of those 26 teams was 67-95. Devil Rays, indeed.
But yes, there was one team that maybe provides hope. The 2005 A's started 24-36, but they soon won 12 out of 13 and from June 18 through Aug. 7 went 30-9. They’d finish 88-74. But do the Rays have a 30-9 stretch in them? They’re known for their extended periods of hot play -- they had a 23-4 stretch through late June and July last season that carried them into the postseason -- but I don’t see it in this club. Wil Myers is out for two months. Matt Moore is gone for the season. They’ve been outscored by 42 runs. Only the Diamondbacks, Phillies and Astros have a worse run differential.
Which leads us to this: The Rays have to trade Price. For all the talk and rumors in the offseason about trading Price, I had believed the Rays needed to keep him. After all, they were a playoff team with the obvious potential to make it back to the postseason.
This start, however, has highlighted a bigger issue with the Rays: You can only win so many games with the likes of James Loney batting cleanup and Kevin Kiermaier hitting leadoff and catchers who can frame pitches but can’t hit. Even if the team has underperformed and the pitching staff gets on a roll, history says 23-37 -- even in the mediocre American League season -- is too much to overcome.
There’s also the bigger issue of where the Rays stand long term. Myers might or might not become a star. Longoria should be at his MVP-caliber peak but has had two bad months. Desmond Jennings is OK but not the star once projected of him. Alex Cobb is great -- when he pitches. Moore will have to come back from Tommy John surgery. This piece by Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus also shows that Tampa's farm system might be drying up: Of the players in the majors in 2014, only the Astros and Orioles drafted fewer than the Rays.
So, Price. Despite the 4.03 ERA, there will be a big market for him since he’s not a free agent until after 2015. His phenomenal strikeout-to-walk ratio of 101 to nine is a better indicator of what he’ll do moving forward (although maybe he is throwing too many strikes, as he’s allowed 13 home runs and more than a hit per inning). With so many teams in the playoff race, more suitors should lead to better offers. And every team will want to consider Price, not just the teams in obvious need of pitching. Think of a team like Seattle. Even though the Mariners are second to the A’s in runs allowed in the AL, their fifth starters (Erasmo Ramirez and Brandon Maurer) have an ERA over 6.00 and they can’t necessarily continue to count on good results from Chris Young and Roenis Elias. The A's might appear to be without a weakness, but why not add Price to go with Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir (money issues notwithstanding)?
Whether those teams have the young players or minor leaguers to get Price is another issue, but you get the idea. The Rays need an infusion of talent. They’re not going anywhere this year. Price is their chip. Sadly, it's time to start dealing.