The Tampa Bay Rays as an organization get a ton of praise around here at Getting Blanked, as they should. The franchise that was brilliantly displayed in Jonah Keri’s book The Extra 2% is one of the smartest-run organizations in sports, at least on the baseball operations side of things. On a shoestring budget with absolutely zero wiggle room and no fan fare, the Rays have made themselves into perennial contenders in the roughest division in baseball competing with the high spenders and winning.
Terrific drafting, the ability to take advantage of unforeseen market inefficiencies, and savvy trading has propelled the Rays to the ranks of the elite, and that has continued into this year. The acquisition of Kyle Farnsworth via free agency this past offseason received some flak from baseball think tanks, but the Rays front office knew something had changed in him. The addition of a cutter that had gradually begun to replace his inconsistent slider had suddenly transformed Farnsworth into a different pitcher; and the Rays knew despite his age, he was on the upswing.
Then there was the Matt Garza trade. Understanding that they needed to make room for young Jeremy Hellickson in their starting rotation, the Rays traded their most expendable starter in Garza to the Cubs for a thieves bounty of young players that included Sam Fuld, Robinson Chirinos and prospect pitcher Chris Archer. Or how about the trade of Edwin Jackson, a flashy but inconsistent starter, to the Tigers for current rightfielder Matt Joyce back in December of 2008?
The Rays are a model franchise; one that any team, rich or poor, would do well to emulate. But they are not without their faults.
The most glaring one reared its head this season with the holding back of prospect outfielder Desmond Jennings. The Rays very zealously play the service time game, holding back prospects who appear to be ready to make the jump to the Majors in order to manipulate when they will hit the open market. This allows them to gleam as many cheap, controllable years from their elite young players as possible before letting them walk as their prime years slip away.
This strategy is one that seems best employed on a franchise that has no plans of contending in the current year. Mr. Parkes has criticized the Blue Jays for not holding back Maple God Brett Lawrie in order to increase the amount of time they will have control over him. Although you may disagree with him, his point has always been that the Jays were and are not contending in 2011, so why not get an extra prime year from Lawrie at a cheap price when they could be contending down the line.
The Rays, however, are not in the same position. Tampa Bay has won two of the last three AL East titles, and although they lost franchise leftfielder Carl Crawford and all-time home run leader Carlos Pena this past winter, they still appeared able to contend with one of the best pitching rotations in baseball. They have been up and down all year, but they’ve managed to keep themselves fairly close to Boston for the wild card, sitting just three games back with 16 to go.
Jennings, meanwhile, is nearly 25 and some seemed to think he was ready to make the big league jump last year at this time. The Rays, however, have been moving him along at a snail’s pace, deciding to go with Sam Fuld out of Spring Training instead of their talented young prospect. Jennings had a so-so year in triple-A Durham, but some speculated that he was merely tired of playing in a level he had clearly grown out of since arriving there in the summer of 2009. Now, after two full years in Durham, Jennings has arrived, posting a .394 wOBA, a .521 slugging percentage and nine home runs in 218 big league plate appearances. He’s been worth nearly two full wins above replacement, fifth among AL rookies behind only Dustin Ackley, Brett Lawrie, Mark Trumbo and Josh Reddick despite having only been in Tampa since late July. Whether or not his current play is sustainable, it’s clear that Jennings has been a marked improvement over Fuld, Brandon Guyer, and Justin Ruggiano, three players who at one time had inexplicably jumped him on the organizational depth chart.
The Rays have a history of bringing along their prospects very slowly. Jeremy Hellickson received the same type of treatment as Jennings before getting the call for good late last season, while the phenomenal Matt Moore (who’s finally been called up) was brought along like molasses despite some saying he was clearly ready to pitch in the big leagues much earlier this year. The difference there is that the Rays have a wealth of starting pitching, and bringing those pitchers up any earlier would have meant finding a different role for guys like Garza, Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis; pretty good pitchers in their own right. But keeping Jennings down after Crawford jettisoned to Boston just seems odd.
So the question is how much better would the Rays record be if Jennings had been the starting leftfielder all season? After his meteoric rise to superherodom early in the year, Fuld has fallen back to what you’d expect him to be; a decent fourth outfielder, while Guyer and Ruggiano have both contributed little more than replacement-level play. Those three have contributed 2.5 fWAR in 482 plate appearances and much of that is tied up in their leftfield UZR ratings, which are questionable to say the least. Jennings, by the same measure has been worth 1.9 fWAR despite having less than half the plate appearances.
Even with normal regression, you could make the case that the Rays would be at or slightly above the level of the Red Sox with Jennings in the lineup all season.
This could be an area of trouble for the Rays who appear to be resistant to adjustment on this strategy. Once you’re actually in contention, the point of intentionally holding back players who are ready to make the jump to the bigs is gone. They may have made a mistake that could cost them a shot at a World Series title.