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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Retired Numbers Series: Tampa Bay Rays

The Rays are different than most of the other teams in the league, let alone the other teams that I’ve covered in the Retired Numbers Series. Almost the entirety of the history they would want to honor has come in the past half-dozen or so years. As a consequence, this article will likely skew heavily to projection. Not that that’s bad; it’ll just take longer to see the predictions tested.


Notes on the Numbers 

Some quick notes on the stats: the two most prominent stats I used are similarly named. Both are called WAR, or Wins Above Replacement. They both try to account for every part of a player’s game, including, but not limited to: offense, defense, position, and playing time. So, it is a counting stat, like hits or home runs (with the small difference that bad seasons can actually decrease your WAR, if you are worse than a replacement player). WAR credits a player with how many wins they have provided to their team. They aren’t perfect, but for my purposes (a single number showing roughly how good a player has been), they work perfectly.

There are two major sites that provide WAR, Baseball-Reference (henceforth called bWAR) and Fangraphs (fWAR). The two are mostly the same, with the biggest difference coming from the different fielding stats the two use. Fangraphs has a fairly good summary of what makes up WAR and how it is calculated (for those wanting a more general summary, the introduction works just fine). Pitching is slightly different: Fangraphs’ WAR for pitchers, until recently (as in, after I started this series), only went back to 1974, so for my purposes, I stuck to just bWAR for them.


The Already Retired Numbers

The Rays have actually retired one number since they started back in 1998. In 2000, they honored Tampa native Wade Boggs and his number 12. He played in the franchise’s first two seasons. In that time, he was worth only 0.8 bWAR and 1.3 fWAR, compared to 88.3 bWAR and 94.8 fWAR in his whole career.


Compared to the League

There are three different variables (so to speak) that I can account for when comparing team’s retired number standards: I can look at fWAR compared to bWAR; I can compare the average value of the honored players to the median; and I can look at what the players did for their entire careers versus just what they did with that team.

The Rays, unsurprisingly, are all over the board. Thanks to only honoring one player, and having that player be Hall of Famer Wade Boggs, their career value categories are near the top of the league. In fact, they even rank second in average and median career bWAR, behind only the Braves in each. However, since Boggs was only in Tampa for two years, they appear near the bottom of all team value rankings. In both average and median bWAR with the team, they finish last, and in average and median fWAR with the team, they only top the Mets (who lose Tom Seaver, thanks to not using pitchers’ fWAR).

Such is the plight of expansion teams, though, especially new teams like the Rays. Unlike the Diamondbacks, they didn’t even wind up with an early superstar or two (Luis Gonzalez and Randy Johnson, at least) to soften the blow.

Two other teams have retired only one number: the Diamondbacks and the Marlins (although the Marlins later un-retired their one number). Only the Rockies and Mariners have retired fewer. 


So Who’s Next?

Now for the fun part; predicting who will one day see their number retired. The easiest place to start would be with the franchise leader in both fWAR and bWAR: Carl Crawford. In his nine seasons with the club, Crawford became the team leader in not only bWAR (33.1) and fWAR (37), but also in other more traditional stats, like games played and batting average. Getting traded away from a division rival will probably only help. If he manages to hang on to 3000 hits (he has 1642 going into his age 31 season) and/or makes the Hall of Fame, his chances will only go up. As in, his number 13 might still stand a good chance thanks to his “First Franchise Player” status.

Immediately after him in both bWAR and fWAR is Evan Longoria, number 3, who obviously set up to pass Crawford in the future. In five years, he’s managed 28.5 bWAR and 29 fWAR. Within the next two years, he should be at the top of both lists with a contract that runs through 2023. Between the Hall-worthy start and the long-term deal, I have to imagine that he’s almost a lock to be a Rays’ retired number, sometime around 2025 or so.

After Longoria on the list is the newly-minted (with the departure of B.J. Upton) longest-tenured Ray, Ben Zobrist. I can’t think of a better representative of the mid-2000s Rays than Zobrist, between his versatility that has made him a favorite of Joe Maddon and his skill set that has made him undervalued in a way that the front office loves (and he’s even signed to a team team friendly contract with options that run through 2015).

To date, he’s been worth 25.4 bWAR and 25 fWAR, meaning it’s not out of the question for him to pass Crawford even assuming he doesn’t return once his contract is up. It may be that he isn’t popular enough to merit a retired number (I don’t know what his image is currently), but I think he’ll definitely retire with enough value. Really, it’s a toss-up that will depend on 1) how much he declines (an abnormally fast drop off could torpedo his odds); 2) his popularity with the fans; and 3) how stingy the team will be with retired numbers (although, since they’ve already retired Wade Boggs’ 12, this may be a good sign).

After that, the WAR leader boards for hitters prove less helpful. Carlos Pena and B.J. Upton are next (Pena-Upton in bWAR, Upton-Pena in fWAR). Upton’s at 23 fWAR and 13.6 bWAR, while Pena’s at 15 fWAR and 16.5. With both leaving the team this winter, that means that it’s probably time to move on to the pitchers...

Except the top pitcher in franchise history (by bWAR) also left this winter. James Shields, thanks to a 2.2 Win season, snuck past Scott Kazmir into first place on the list. However, that still only gives him 17.0 career bWAR. That’s a good stating place for a discussion, but he would have needed a few more years in Tampa to actually make a case for himself. Not that I think the Rays will regret trading him, anyway.*

*On the weird coincidence front, it’s worth noting that, in the six players that I mention, I’ve already covered 3, 13, 23, and 33. 

As mentioned, Scott Kazmir follows Shields, with 15.3 WAR in his time in Tampa. Again, it’s a solid start, but he would have needed more solid years. Unlike Shields, though, Kazmir isn’t even a solid pitcher anymore, which rules any chance of a reunion to improve his odds.

The only other pitcher with even 10 bWAR while a Ray is reigning Cy Young David Price, who stands the best chance by far out of this trio. In addition to his award, he’s only 2.7 WAR behind Shields and under contract for three more seasons, meaning he’s likely to obliterate both their marks by the time his contract is up (not even counting what he’d add should he get an extension). As the first Rays Cy Young winner, he’s already secured a place in team history; there’s a good chance he can build a retired number case from that.

The pitcher leader board doesn’t look too stocked after Price, so it’s probably time to move on. Fred McGriff played with the Rays for five years, was from Tampa, and is on the Hall ballot this year. He wasn’t great while a Devil Ray, but maybe he can win a Boggs-like honor. However, the team will be less desperate to add history now that they actually have some to speak of, meaning that each passing season drops his chances. If he makes the Hall, though, there’s always some chance. As a Ray, he was worth 9 fWAR and 7.8 bWAR.

The only avenue left to explore is the current roster, and the obvious starting place from there is the manager. He’s a two-time Manager of the Year and the first pennant-winning manager of the Rays. Heck, he’s the only Rays manager with any playoff appearances, or even a winning record (585-549, and likely to go up). Another pennant or a championship would help (he’s with the team through at least 2015), but even as is, he’s one of the most respected managers in the game. I think he probably has one of the best Cooperstown cases among active managers, and that has to give him a leg up in the retired number process.*

*As an interesting side note, his number 70 would be the second highest number retired for a player or coach, behind only Carlton Fisk’s 72.

The rest of the retired number candidates are based entirely on potential. Desmond Jennings came with high expectations, and is still just 25. Wil Myers comes from Kansas City with even greater expectations. Same for Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, Alex Cobb, Jake Odorizzi...All were 25 or younger in 2012, and have high ceilings going forward. Maybe one, or even several, of them will one day be honored. It’s just a little early to do anything other than mention them at the moment, though.

Myers or Hellickson are probably the favorites, just based on their success in the minors and Rookie of the Year awards (respectively). But for all of them, I would say the potential greatness makes them some of the better candidates.


So, In Closing...

As of right now, the players that I think are most likely to get their numbers retired by the Tampa Bay Rays in the future are, in order:

Evan Longoria-3
David Price-14
Joe Maddon-70
Carl Crawford-13
Ben Zobrist-18
Wil Myers-8
Jeremy Hellickson-58
Matt Moore-55
Chris Archer-22
Alex Cobb-53
Jake Odorizzi-49
Fred McGriff-29
James Shields-33
B.J. Upton-2
Carlos Pena-23
Scott Kazmir-19

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