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Baseball Prospectus: Moving Evan Longoria to first base 'starting to look inevitable' for Tampa Bay Rays

While Evan Longoria enjoyed a power surge last season, his defense is in decline, Baseball Prospectus says. [ANDRES LEIVA | Times
]
Published Feb. 10, 2017

It's the most wonderful time of the year.

Every February, checking the mailbox becomes fun again.

Most of the time, there's nothing but bills and credit card solicitations. It's like opening a pack of baseball cards and getting Pat Kelly, Jeff Manto and Kurt Manwaring.

Then, finally, the package arrives. I rip open the bubble wrap, and there it is.

The Baseball Prospectus annual. Hundreds and hundreds of sweet, glorious pages of player projections, commentary, TAv, FIP and WARP.

Do you root for the World Series to go to seven games just because you don't want the season to end? Is there a baseball glove in the trunk of your car? Is fantasy baseball a year-round commitment? Do you say "pitchers and catchers" when someone asks, "What are your plans for Valentine's Day?" Then this is the book for you.

What does it say is in store for the Tampa Bay Rays? Let's dive in.

RELATED STORY: Baseball America Prospect Handbook rankings start with Willy Adames

Is Evan Longoria cooling off at the hot corner?

Life comes at you fast. It doesn't seem that long ago that Longoria was 22 and making his major-league debut. He's 31 now and the only player from the 2008 World Series still playing on his original team.

He is coming off his best offensive season (36 home runs and an .840 OPS) since 2013, but BP suggests his days as an elite defender might be over. His "once-exceptional defense seems to be failing him, and a move across the diamond is starting to look inevitable."

For three straight seasons, Longoria has finished in negative territory in defensive runs saved. His minus-9 DRS last season ranked 15th. Colorado's Nolan Arenado led baseball with 20 DRS.

At the plate, he'll hit 25 home runs and post a .258/.323/.448 slash line, BP says.

• • •

Who will be the Rays' best player?

BP loves, loves, LOVES Kevin Kiermaier, he of the green eyes, Gold Gloves and nicknames that you wish you had. The Outlaw, who turns 27 in April, is set to have his best season yet, provided the center fielder can avoid breaking bones while stealing hits and making catches.

You know about Dreamy McHustle's defense. It's good. How good? If you said it's the best, you're probably underrating it, based on BP's commentary.

"The Rays' unbelievable center fielder might be the Barry Bonds of outfield defense, excelling at a level that's an order of magnitude higher than even his most talented peers. He has the total package of defensive skills: he positions himself well, runs tight routes to the ball, possesses speed and athleticism to cover the gaps and fires off assists with a cannon arm. As the lynchpin of Tampa's run prevention strategy — and all those fly-ball pitchers the team employs — Kiermaier's presence allows the Rays to turn about one hit per game into an out compared to games where he doesn't play. Averaging nearly two wins per season simply due to defense over the past three years, he has a case as the most impactful defensive player in baseball (non-catcher division)."

If you noticed the reference to "Tampa," you're paying attention to the wrong thing. Barry Bonds, people. Barry. Bonds.

BP projects that in 614 plate appearances, Kiermaier will set career highs in home runs (16) and stolen bases (23) and slash .257/.314/.420.

• • •

Should you worry about Chris Archer?

No. Archer's not going to lose 19 games again. (Besides, you should stop paying so much attention to pitcher wins and losses.)

He had the fifth-lowest average run support among starting pitchers (3.48 runs per start) last season. Compare that with 17-game winner David Price, who posted a similar ERA and WHIP but enjoyed a run support average of 5.66.

Archer, 28, struggled over the first three months (4.76 ERA, 1.46 WHIP), but from July 3 on, he was making hitters look silly again (3.32 ERA, 1.04 WHIP).

Keep calm and slide on, BP says.

"Take solace in the advanced metrics that still peg him as a top-tier starter with world-class stuff. Hitters simply don't make contact against him; he was top-five in baseball among starters when it came to contact percentage, with names like Fernandez, Syndergaard and Scherzer ahead of him."

BP projects a 12-10 record, 10.7 strikeouts per nine innings, a 3.35 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP.

• • •

Will Blake Snell break out?

The 24-year-old southpaw has swing-and-miss stuff, but he has to rein in the free passes. His 5.2 walks per nine innings last season were the most among starters (minimum 80 innings).

The forecast: a still-wild 4.5 walks per nine innings, an 8-7 record, 9.9 strikeouts per nine innings, a 3.82 ERA and a 1.41 WHIP.

Look out in 2018, though. If BP's projection of 12.1 strikeouts per nine innings comes even close to being true, we might want to consider somehow harnessing the wind energy generated from all those whiffs.

• • •

What about the pitcher the Rays got from the Dodgers for Logan Forsythe?

The BP annual published before the trade, so the report for Jose De Leon, 24, was generated when he was in the Dodgers organization.

The pre-trade projections suggest a bright future, especially if the right-hander learns to keep his fastball down. He surrendered five home runs in 17 innings last season.

The 2018 forecast is eye-popping: a 10-9 record, 256 strikeouts in 188.2 innings, a 2.96 ERA and 1.09 WHIP.

• • •

Will Alex Cobb return to 2014 form?

BP is bearish on the 29-year-old righty, who returned in September after missing 2015 as he recovered from Tommy John surgery.

In 22 innings, Cobb's velocity was down and contact rate was up. He allowed 21 earned runs and 32 hits.

"It's a long layoff and a short sample," BP says, "but there's also enough here to worry we may not see that same pitcher again."

BP predicts Cobb will go 8-8 with 7.9 strikeouts per nine innings, a 3.95 ERA and a 1.35 WHIP.

Contact Thomas Bassinger at tbassinger@tampabay.com. Follow @tometrics.

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