We might be spoiled by the Tampa Bay Rays. Last year was Moneyball this, Moneyball that. This season was all about the A's and their rise to the top of their division. They were the old standard for small-market success stories. Now they're the current standard. Everyone look what the A's did! Everyone look at the A's!
The Rays won 90 games in a division that spawned two playoff teams. It feels like we should be talking about this more; that one of the more amazing stories in baseball every single year is the ability of the Rays to compete on one of the tightest budgets in the game. They can do it because no other team develops pitching better; of the eight pitchers who started for Tampa Bay in 2012, six were homegrown. One of the non-homegrown pitchers was acquired as a 21-year-old, so feel free to count him as a developmental success story, too.
They couldn't sneak into the playoffs, though. How does that jibe with the preseason expectations? Let's check in with the Rays' season preview from before the season.
Overall tone of preview
Smitten with the front office and overall collection of talent, as was appropriate. I suggested the Rays had five starters who wouldn't be in the Opening Day rotation, but who would be clear improvements on the Orioles' or Rockies' five. The knee-jerk dismissal of the Orioles looks silly in retrospect, but Baltimore might have had an even better season with a Cobb/Archer/McGee/Davis front four.
What actually happened
90-72, and third place. If it makes Rays fans feel better, the team's Pythagorean record was five wins ahead of that. That probably doesn't make Rays fans feel better, especially considering they had to watch the Orioles win just about every extra-inning and one-run game they played.
What changed before the preview and the end of the season
A relatively thorough list:
- Evan Longoria got hurt.
That's just about the only thing that changed between the team we expected and the team that showed up. Longoria missed about 80 games or so, or the equivalent of a half-season. He was excellent when he was around, of course. But he went from a seven-win player to a two-win player, mostly because of the time he missed. Considering they messed around with a gaggle of replacement-level types like Brooks Conrad, Will Rhymes, and Sean Rodriguez, you can be excused for thinking those five wins were a tangible, transferable thing.
Just about everything else was expected. David Price and James Shields were good? Ben Zobrist can hit, but Jose Molina can't? B.J. Upton can play defense, run, and hit dingers? Well, yeah. That's how it was supposed to work. Desmond Jennings was supposed to be promising and inconsistent. He was. Matt Moore was supposed to dazzle and frustrate, like a good rookie should. That's exactly what happened.
I haven't gone through all 30 teams, but I'd be flabbergasted if there was another team that met expectations quite like the Rays. They didn't have a flukey breakout season, other than Fernando Rodney's. The only major disappointment was Carlos Peña, and even that disappointment was within the realm of expectations for him. The Rays were essentially the team that comes out the other end of 5,000 computer simulations.
The difference is that Evan Longoria got hurt. Things are usually a little more complicated and nuanced than that. Not here. Evan Longoria got hurt, and that was almost certainly the difference between making the playoffs and not.
Player(s) I ignored for whatever reason
This is a bit of a cheat here, but I didn't mention Fernando Rodney. That's because I intentionally left bullpens out of my season previews. The reason for that is because players like Fernando Rodney. And now we've come full circle. You can't predict bullpens. Why even try? Even if you limit yourself to closers, you'll fail. More than half of the closers in baseball were replaced by the start of June.
I thought Jeff Keppinger was a pretty terrible baseball player based on the 216 at-bats he got with the Giants in 2011, but he turned out to be a great addition for the Rays. He wasn't bad for the Giants; he was just leaving his high-contact talent under a piece of volcanic glass in a Buxton hayfield for Marco Scutaro to find.
It wasn't just Keppinger's hitting that was disappointing for the Giants last year, as his range at second is like that of Alfonso Soriano being swallowed by a sand worm. But the Rays used him mostly at first and third, where he was more than okay. He was worth 2.4 wins in 2012 according to Baseball Reference, which brought his career total up to … 1.8 wins.
So, yeah, his season was a bit of a surprise. He might even parlay it into a starting job somewhere.
Obscenely stupid quote
The Yankees and Red Sox are still impressive collections of talent. Even with the twin powers sitting out most of the offseason free-agent insanity, they're still teams with advantages the Rays can't touch.
Hahaha, oh, man, that was stupid.
Tone of the next preview
Same as it was last year. They'll have to replace B.J. Upton, but there probably isn't a better breakout candidate in baseball than Matt Moore. Depending how the rest of the off-season goes, it probably isn't out of the question to expect them to be favorites in the A.L. East, even without knowing what Toronto, New York, or Baltimore will do.