We have become so used to the Tampa Bay Rays being the smartest kids on the block that last year's down season seemed unreal. Now, after a turbulent off season that has seen two pieces of the brain trust leave for greener pastures, are the Rays still the Rays? Well, they still have Evan Longoria and Tropicana Field, so there's that. But who or what is this team now?
The body blows actually began last year when David Price was dealt to the Tigers. Price, more than any other Rays player was the face of that team. His presence on Twitter, his personality and, of course, his talent on the field made him a star. A bit of the genius luster came off on what was perceived to be little return for Price with the trade.
As soon as the 2014 season was over, Andrew Friedman bolted to the Dodgers. Friedman was long considered one of the best front office people anywhere. His departure also created a loophole in Joe Maddon's contract. Maddon opted out and after a brief courtship and bidding war, he has now gone to manage the Cubs.
Whether the reputation is earned or not, Maddon had become the model of what a great manager was supposed to look like. He was the master motivator and innovator. He helped turn what was a devil of a franchise into a winning one. He made other managers over-manage to try to keep up with him. If Friedman was one part of the brain, then Maddon was the other along with being the heart of the franchise.
The spigot stayed open after Friedman and Maddon. Jeremy Hellickson is gone. Wil Myers (in a shocker) is gone. Joel Peralta, Ryan Hanigan and Matt Joyce are gone. Jose Molina finally tipped over the age scale.
This should go without saying, but time will tell on how these trades all work out. But from this early standpoint, only two of all those prospects netted by all those trades are ranked by Baseball Prospectus. Add them to the Price trade haul and all the deals feel more like salary dumps than strategic moves.
David Price's departure hurts, but the pitching still looks like the most impressive part of this team. Alex Cobb has become a star. Chris Archer was terrific until it seemed like he hit a wall in the second half. He should benefit from that experience. Matt Moore will be back in the early part of the season. Jake Odorizzi can be as good as Hellickson or better. Drew Smyly has a chance to be very good. The only real question in the rotation is Alex Colome, but he is a highly rated prospect who has shown poise in his two cups of coffee.
The bullpen needs to get a healthy Jake McGee back but, otherwise, has some good arms, especially in Brad Boxberger. Kevin Jepsen and Ernesto Frieri can make the group formidable.
And so the pitching looks solid at least with perhaps a hole or two that time will sort out. But the offense, already 14th in the American League last year in OPS has taken more of a hit than the pitching.
I cannot understand giving up on Wil Myers, but perhaps they had their reasons. Longoria was finally healthy and played all 162 games. But his output offensively was surprisingly mundane. Desmond Jennings has to be considered a disappointment thus far. Ben Zobrist has been great, but will be 34 in 2015. Other than those guys, there is a whole lot of meh in the rest of the lineup.
Kevin Kiermaier is a very good player but his offense faded a bit at the end and he will need to prove himself again in the lineup. James Loney is useful, but behind these five guys previously mentioned, the lineup as it stands now does not scare anyone. An unproven Steven Souza, David DeJesus, Rene Rivera and Yunel Escobar round out the group.
The other bothersome thing about the offense that is currently constructed is that it is overly right-handed in a park that seems to favor left-handed batters more. Both catchers are right-handed and of a really weak bench, only Nick Franklin is a switch-hitter who shows some promise and is at least young enough to emerge from the group.
With the Rays' 2014 finish, perhaps some of the mystique was already gone on these upstart Rays. After an impressive run of success, everything came to a screeching halt last season and only a late-season surge prevented them from fighting the Red Sox for the bottom spot in the AL East.
A year later, with their GM and manager gone and several players becoming more expensive gone as well, it is difficult to gauge who this team is now. Has the sun set on this Rays team or is a new dawn about to begin? The former seems more likely than the latter, but time will tell. The only thing that is sure about the 2015 Rays: They will feel really different.