It's never too early to start talking about next year. Maybe I developed this attitude growing up a Cubs fan in the 90s, when next year couldn't get there soon enough. Since I was too young to drown my sorrows in a pint of Old Style, there was little else to do.
Anyway, I'm planning to take a look at how some teams stack up for 2008. As I look into the crystal ball, there is one team whose forecast is absolutely fascinating (to me, anyway): the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. (Will they be known simply as the Rays by this time next year?)
Though everyone wrote them off this year, I thought the Rays had a legitimate shot at 80 wins. Entering the year, they looked like a collection of tremendously skilled young players: Delmon Young, B.J. Upton, Elijah Dukes, Scott Kazmir, Rocco Baldelli, Carl Crawford. Throw in some development from Jamie Shields and J.P. Howell and decent seasons from the rest of the roster, and that's one hell of a collection of talent.
As 2007 played out, several things have gone right for Tampa. Kazmir has stayed healthy and effective, and Shields emerged as a legitimate front-rotation starter, currently sporting a K/BB ratio of over 5:1. Upton broke out in a big way and has finally found a long-term position. Carlos Pena turned into a monster in the middle of the lineup. Crawford has maintained his level of play at one notch below stardom. The rest of the lineup has generally been effective, though Young has failed to develop as expected and Dukes and Baldelli seem to have hit severe snags in their careers.
With a good young offensive core, two very good SP, and a staff that leads the AL in K/9 by a wide margin, what has gone wrong this year? In a word: Defense.
If you believe The Hardball Times--and given the evidence, I'm inclined to--the D-Rays team defense is the only thing standing between them and a winning record. All their offensive stats and peripherals indicate that this is a slightly above average team at the plate. Their pitchers, besides leading the league in strikeout rate, are right around the AL average in BB/9, line drive rate, and groundball rate. In other words, they're doing their part.
Tampa's defense, however, is not. The D-Rays rank last in the AL in team defensive efficiency--the percentage of balls in play they convert into outs--by an incredible margin: the difference between their .662 and 13th place Seattle's .680 is roughly the same between Seattle and fourth place Minnesota at .699.
More evidence? The Hardball Times uses a tool called Plus/Minus to split the blame for allowing excess runs between a team's pitching staff and its defense. A figure of 0 means the team is exactly league-average; positive scores indicate above-average performance and negative scores below-average.
Look at THT's team page, and scroll to the AL Fielding Stats and the Plus/Minus column. That's not a typo: the Devil Rays pitching staff has actually been 16 runs better than the league average this year, while their defense has been 139 runs worse. I don't have access to historical Plus/Minus data, but this must be one of the worst defensive teams in recent history. With the exceptions of Crawford and Akinori Iwamura, most of the Devil Rays have reputations as terrible fielders, so the data match the scouting reports.
Basically, we're dealing with a 2007 team that gets slightly above average production from their hitters and pitchers, but with a Maginot Line-esque defense. What's going to change in 2008?
The good news is that team defense is susceptible to large year-to-year fluctuations. Additionally, all teams that record a historically good or bad performance in any category will usually see significant regression to the mean in the future. Even if they changed nothing, the 2008 Rays likely would have the worst defense in the AL, but it would cost them less than half as many runs as in 2007.
Plus, they've gotten Upton and his butcher-like defense out of the infield for good, and may install Evan Longoria, who has a great defensive reputation, as their everyday third baseman. Put all that together, and this looks like a -40 run defense next year. If that doesn't sound like a compliment, consider that we're talking about an improvement of 100 runs, or 10 wins, over 2007.
Aside from the defense, what else can they improve upon? If Howell can ever stick in the rotation, his combination of strikeouts and ground balls could make him another Fausto Carmona--that is, if the Tampa defense can ever turn those grounders into outs. (In case you forgot, Carmona posted a 5.42 ERA last year, largely in relief. So this is not a totally farfetched comparison.)
Andy Sonnanstine currently owns a strikeout rate above the league average, a K/BB ratio of over 4:1, and a reasonable 1.2 HR/9. So why is his ERA 5.73? It's that defense again. If they ever start fielding the ball, Sonnanstine becomes an asset as a league-average starter.
Though Al Reyes has his faults (does the man ever induce a ground ball?) he is still a better pitcher than his current ERA indicates, and he'll be a bargain at $1 million next year. Grant Balfour (who may have the worst aptonym of any baseballer) is a live relief arm with a high ceiling--if he can stay healthy.
And then there's the farm system. In addition to Longoria, who's crushing the ball in AAA at age 21, the Rays have a stable of young arms, including Wade Davis, Jeff Niemann, Jake McGee, and number 1 pick David Price. All could be ready to contribute at some point next year.
In a perfect world, Pena and Upton maintain their current level, Young and Longoria break out, the young arms continue to blossom, and the team plays enough defense to keep themselves in most games. It probably won't happen, but don't be surprised to see this team in the 80-win range next year, positioning themselves for a possible playoff push in 2009. If I had to hazard a guess now, I'd say they'll go 77-85 and showcase themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the AL East.