Malcolm On Base: Rays take a half-measure; Archer market; Diamondbacks double up

Welcome to Malcolm On Base, a daily rundown of baseball as I see it. You’ll get (flowery) essays, (mediocre) statistical analysis, (crude) opinion and (oh get on with it) nostalgia.

1. Open the tank

The Tampa Bay Rays unveiled their new team-sponsored insider-blog on Tuesday. It’s called The Ray Tank.

On the same day, the Rays – a team that recently designated Corey Dickerson for assignment, and also traded Jake Odorizzi and Evan Longoria – traded outfielder Steven Souza to the Diamondbacks. The Ray Tank? ESPN’s Keith Law summed it up best.

The Rays may have decided that after winning 80 games with a roster of players primarily between ages 27 and 31, and seeing the improvements made by the division favorite Yankees and Red Sox, it’s high time to open the tank and let the players out for new habitats.

Apparently Rays general manager Erik Neander says they’re going to stop here and not move any more assets, but why? They should just continue this, because it’s now the best path to take, especially since they’re a front office restricted by payroll limitations. It’s highly unlikely they have the ability to overtake the Sox and Yankees over the next three seasons, so what’s the use in attempting to be .500 while still carrying a host of players in their ages 27-31 seasons?

The Rays need to start young. Really young. Let’s go back in time and remember how they did it the first time. In 2003 the Rays made the 21-year-old Carl Crawford and Rocco Baldelli full-time players and won 63 games. Scott Kazmir, 21, came aboard in 2005, when they won 67 games. James Shields, 24, started in 2006, a 61-win season, and Melvin Upton, 22, and Edwin Jackson, 23, joined in 2007, a 67-win team buoyed by a number of new prime-level players, including Carlos Pena and Akinori Iwamura. We all know about 2008, an about face leading to the American League pennant.

So it took five full years for the Rays to become a championship contender, but they did it by riding their ultra-young prospects. After 2008 they remained competitive for several years, but something happened at the same time: they became bad drafters.

In 2007 the Rays selected David Price and Matt Moore, but after that the list of their best picks (who have succeeded in the majors) since 2014 is disheartening.

  • 2008 – Tim Beckham (4.5 WAR)
  • 2009 – N/A
  • 2010 – Derek Dietrich (3.8 WAR), Jesse Hahn (1.8 WAR), Kevin Kiermaier (21.5 WAR)
  • 2011 – Mikie Mahtook (0.7 WAR), Blake Snell (1.8 WAR), Jake Faria (1.4 WAR)
  • 2012 – Richie Shaffer (0.2 WAR), Andrew Toles (1.9 WAR), Joey Rickard (0.2 WAR)
  • 2013 – N/A
  • 2014 – N/A

Kiermaier is far and away the best name in the group, while the others are either bench or bullpen names, at best.

It takes time for players to cycle out and draft classes to bear fruit, so it was in 2014 that the lack of system depth caught up to them, and it happened just as the rest of baseball became wise to the Rays’ strategy of locking up great young players and de-emphasizing the free agent market. Meanwhile the Rays couldn’t hide their draft failures with big-ticket signings and international acquisitions. Sure they made some nice trades for young talent, but there’s only so much they could’ve done.

The Rays have to build by drafting and developing young talent internally. They failed to do so over the past several years, and that’s forced them into this position. So their best strategy going forward is to finish the job – get rid of Kiermaier, Chris Archer and the rest. We have yet to see what the last three drafts will mean for the Rays, but there’s hope that really strong talent at the top levels of the organization is about to impact the majors. You’ll see plenty of 21, 22 and 23 year olds playing for the Rays. Their plan should be to sell off the valuable 27-31 pieces (like Archer and Kiermaier), surround the kids with cheaper one-year and two-year veterans with little trade value, and build the second wave of talent, which will impact the majors in three years.

Go full Marlins. Open the tank.

2. The Chris Archer market

Sometime around 6 p.m. on Tuesday I started seeing tweets about Chris Archer. I figured, much in the way that Christian Yelich became a hot topic in the middle of the Marlins’ practice of trading away assets, that Archer had either spoken up about the “tank” or that there were now rumors that the Rays had put Archer on the block.

Not really. Instead it was one tweet by USA Today columnist Bob Nightengale about Archer being “on the clock.” So basically we’re talking a writer thinking that because other deals have been done, the Rays will then do another.

Then a writer who actually knows a lot about the Rays and how they do business, Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Rays, tweeted that his “sense is that they still are not likely to move Archer or (Kevin) Kiermaier.”

While you can’t fully believe anything a front office says, you also can’t follow a national columnist into the woods 100 percent of the time. It’s possible Archer and Kiermaier will be on the block, but it’s also possible they won’t be. We’ll see.

But if we’re to indulge this, what is the market for Archer?

Well, it’s big. Just about every team – sans probably the Marlins and maybe the Pirates and Tigers – would clamor for the 29-year-old right-hander who has two inexpensive seasons left ($6.25 million, $7.5 million), plus two team options ($8.25 million, $8.25 million). That means you can get up to four years of Archer for $30.5 million. A cursory look at his numbers (14 fWAR over the last three seasons) will tell you that’s a bargain, but honestly, you don’t need the numbers to tell you that’s a bargain.

What teams might be most interested in Archer? You’d have to believe just about every contending team would be seriously interested, while a few of the teams closing in on contention (Minnesota, Milwaukee) and a few teams another year or so behind (San Diego, Philadelphia) would be dark horses. But not everyone has the kind of package that the Rays would want – let’s face it, it should take a substantial haul to get four years of Archer.

The Rays’ first wave is entering the majors, and that includes pitchers Brent Honeywell and Jacob Faria, infielders Jake Bauers, Willy Adames and Daniel Robertson, and outfielder Justin Williams.

The second wave currently includes infielder Lucius Fox and outfielder Jesus Sanchez (and potentially Brendan McKay, who is still a pitcher and first baseman), but it lacks pitching and catching depth, according to Baseball America. So the Rays should be focusing on pitching and catching in any deal for Archer. They could seek depth, targeting two or three solid 50-level pitchers and two hitters, or they could go after a big-time pitching or catching prospect. Either way, they should be targeting players in the double-A, advanced-A or single-A levels.

If we’re talking about pitching, we should start with the Padres, who can package a combination of Mackenzie Gore, Michel Baez, Adrian Morejon and Logan Allen to headline a trade. They lack a good catching prospect, however.

The Braves could put together a solid offer including some combination of Kyle Wright, Ian Anderson, Joey Wentz and Bryse Wilson, but it would almost certainly be a depth package. Plus, they might be one year from making a trade like this.

As if the Dodgers need to do any more work, they could put something together for the Rays, as they possess good catching depth. Top catching prospect Keibert Ruiz could headline a deal that includes mid-rotation or back-rotation arms like Dustin May, Dennis Santana and Caleb Ferguson.

It’s hard to find a great match between Milwaukee or St. Louis, as their best arms are already major league ready. Minnesota has good low-level talent but would need to put together a depth package that includes, say, Fernando Romero, Lewis Thorpe and Brusdar Graterol. The Yankees lack good catching prospects, but they have pitching to burn, including Justus Sheffield, Albert Abreu and Freicer Perez.

Finally the Phillies would be an interesting fit, and a deal would possibly be headlined by Sixto Sanchez, or Adonis Medina with some depth behind him.

In the end the Padres seem like a good fit, and if they really believe their window is about to open, they should force the issue with Archer.

3. The Diamondbacks’ doubles outfield

The Diamondbacks acquired Steven Souza from the Rays, coming on the hells of their Jarrod Dyson addition. Tuesday I wrote that preferring outfield defense was a solid approach for Arizona, whose Chase Field features a large outfield, in which more extra-base hits than average occur.

Souza was worth 3.7 fWAR last season, thanks in part to some newfound power (.220 ISO) but also to decent defense. Souza put up a 4.3 UZR in right field last year, making 30.8 percent of unlikely plays, which is on the high end of the scale. He’s not an elite defender but he certainly holds his own. He’ll join Dyson, A.J. Pollock and David Peralta to form a quartet that can cover plenty of ground out there in Chase Field (and in the spacious outfields of Coors Field and AT&T Park).

Likely to give the quartet more work will be the installation of a humidor at Chase Field. It’ll join Coors as the major league stadiums with humidors, which are used to help suppress offense.

In Coors the humidor decreased production from a high of 143 OPS+ in 1999 to a more manageable 129 OPS+ in 2002, the first year of its usage. Chase Field pre-humidor has a 106 OPS+ – while it’s not an extreme hitters’ park, it rated as the No. 2 hitters’ park in baseball in 2017 (1.202 park factor for runs) and the No. 4 home-run hitters park (1.222). Alan Nathan wrote a piece at the Hardball Times about the potential effects of a Chase Field humidor, finding that it could decrease home run production anywhere from 25 to 50 percent. That’s a huge change. It means more fly balls and line drives that land in the outfield, which means a greater emphasis on outfield defense … but also a greater emphasis on doubles and triples. But it doesn’t look as if the Diamondbacks are necessarily following that blueprint.

Yes, it’s foolish to build a team under the strategy of “hit more doubles and triples,” but you’re always looking in the margins, and because of the humidor and how Chase Field traditionally plays, the D-Backs can take advantage by finding hitters who can spray balls, hit line drives and run fast. They have some of these things, but not altogether.

Souza isn’t a big doubles hitter (53 from 2015-17) or a big triples hitter (4 from 2015-17). He does, however, have a 22% line drive rate since 2015 (62nd out of 232 players with 1,000 plate appearances) and a 43.6% ground ball rate since 2015 (smack in the middle out of 232). So there’s a chance he rides the good liner rate into a career high of doubles.

Dyson is still a ground-ball hitter, but he increased his fly ball rate last year with the Mariners while reducing his grounder rate. His best asset offensively is speed, of course. Peralta smacked 31 doubles last year, along with 14 home runs and four triples, but he’s also a big ground-ball hitter (career 52.1%). Maybe set to enjoy this newfound park profile the most is Pollock, who in his last two mostly healthy seasons hit a combined 72 doubles and 12 triples and stole 59 bases.

An outfield of Peralta, Pollock and Souza, with Dyson playing part-time, should be good for Chase Field, if we’re just looking at defensive benefits. Offensively we might see more doubles at Chase in 2018 – the question is if the Diamondbacks can take advantage of the trend.