The Tampa Bay Rays have been one of the busiest teams in Major League Baseball this offseason. And while it has involved lots of moving parts, make no mistake about it: the Rays are going to be an extremely dangerous playoff threat in 2019.
Last season the Rays surprised many, winning 90 games for the first time since 2013. It was impressive given how they were 57-57 in August and traded away prominent figures at the MLB trade deadline such as catcher Wilson Ramos and right-handers Chris Archer and Nathan Eovaldi, yet still finished 18 games above .500.
The most distinct aspect of the Rays is their pitching staff, more specifically their bullpen day strategy. They’re a staff of several long relievers, some backend arms, and a couple of proven starting pitchers — including Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell, who recorded an astonishing 1.89 ERA and 0.97 WHIP while totaling 221 strikeouts in 2018. While it has been a controversial approach, it’s hard to argue that bullpen day and the way manager Kevin Cash worked his pitching staff hasn’t worked. In 2018 the Rays were sixth in MLB in ERA (3.74) and third in opponent batting average (.230).
Arguably the biggest transaction the Rays have made this offseason is signing former Houston Astros right-hander Charlie Morton to a two-year, $30 million deal. After years of inconsistency and injury, Morton has come into his own as one of the best right-handers in the sport over the last two years. In the 2017 World Series he threw a combined 10.1 innings and surrendered just two earned runs and was on the hill in Game 7 for the Astros when they finished off the Los Angeles Dodgers; his postseason success carried into 2018. Recording a career-best 3.13 ERA and 1.16 WHIP while totaling 201 strikeouts in a career-high 30 starts, Morton made a stacked Astros starting rotation formidable.With an impressive 2018 and an active offseason, the Tampa Bay Rays are setting themselves up to be a dangerous postseason threat this season. @RPStratakos has more.Click To Tweet
A one-two pitching punch of Snell and Morton may be the best duo in the American League East. And if young right-hander Tyler Glasnow — who was acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates for Archer — can garner consistency, the Rays will have the makings of a reliable starting rotation to go along with the likes of Ryne Stanek, Jose Alvarado, Diego Castillo, Chaz Roe, and Jake Faria.
In terms of position players, the Rays have been all over the place this offseason. A puzzling decision made by management was designating first baseman C.J. Cron for assignment after he totaled 30 home runs and 74 RBIs in 2018. Meanwhile, they traded outfielders Mallex Smith and Jake Fraley to the Seattle Mariners for catcher Mike Zunino, outfielder Guillermo Heredia, and left-handed pitching prospect Michael Plassmeyer. While he hit just .201 in 2018, Zunino has totaled 45 home runs over the last two seasons and is a year removed from hitting .251; he will likely be the Rays opening day catcher while Heredia provides them with outfield depth and Plassmeyer deepens their farm system.
The other trade the Rays executed was a three-team deal with the Mariners and Cleveland Indians that included the Rays shipping out first baseman Jake Bauers and cash while receiving infielder Yandy Diaz and right-hander Cole Sulser. Diaz hit .312 with the Indians in 2018 and is capable of playing either corner infield position. He can platoon with Ji-Man Choi at first and/or serve as a utility player. Earlier this week the Rays agreed to a one-year, $3.5 million deal with outfielder Avisail Garcia. While he hit just .236 in 2019, Garcia is a year removed from hitting .330 while totaling 80 RBIs and has played all three outfield positions.
The Rays offense will also feature some budding young players, as well as other proven commodities. Last season third baseman Matt Duffy hit an impressive .294 while totaling a team-best 148 hits. Second baseman Joey Wendle hit a team-high .300 while totaling 61 RBIs in his first complete season at the MLB level. In the field, Wendle received reps at shortstop, third base, and left field — added onto the games he played at second. Rookie shortstop Willy Adames hit .278 while totaling 10 home runs and 34 RBIs in 85 games.
After coming over in a midseason trade with the St. Louis Cardinals, outfielder Tommy Pham tore it up with the Rays. Hitting .343 while totaling seven home runs and 22 RBIs in 39 games, he was arguably their most productive hitter down the stretch. The year prior Pham hit .306 with the Cardinals. There’s also the veteran Kevin Kiermaier. While he hit a career-worst .217 in 2018, Kiermaier, when healthy, is a steady contact hitter who is one of the best defensive outfielders in the sport; it’s difficult to envision him struggling at the rate he did last season for a second consecutive season.
Meanwhile, there’s the 23-year-old Austin Meadows — who came over with Glasnow in the Archer trade. In split time with the Pirates and Rays, he hit .287 while totaling six home runs and 17 RBIs in what was his rookie season. An outfield rotation of Garcia, Pham, Kiermaier, and Meadows gives Cash options when it comes to shuffling his everyday lineup.
So, what is the Rays ceiling? They’re coming off a 90-win season, have made several roster maneuvers, and are one of the youngest teams in the sport. With that said, they will have their hands full in the AL East.
The Boston Red Sox are fresh off winning the World Series, and although their bullpen is an area of concern with Joe Kelly signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Craig Kimbrel remaining on the open market, they still possess one of the most fearsome rosters in MLB. The New York Yankees have made the playoffs in each of the last two seasons and have added left-hander James Paxton, infielder DJ LeMahieu, and right-handed reliever Adam Ottavino while keeping the majority of their roster intact. With that said, the Rays played their division tough in 2018. They were a combined 17-21 against the Red Sox and Yankees and 41-35 against the AL East, as a whole.
In all likelihood, the road to the playoffs goes through the one-game playoff for the Rays. And their competition to get there doesn’t project to be stiff. Sure, the Minnesota Twins have improved and the Chicago White Sox appear to be in the thick of the Manny Machado sweepstakes, but the Cleveland Indians are the only surefire pennant threat in the AL Central for the time being, if there are any to begin with. The Oakland Athletics won 97 games and were the second Wild Card seeding in 2018, but their pitching staff has been decimated by both injuries and free agent departures, and they’ve lost some prominent position players such as Jed Lowrie and Jonathan Lucroy; returning to the AL Wild Card Game will be an uphill climb for the A’s.
In regards to the rest of the AL West, the Seattle Mariners have endured an offseason fire sale, there are concerns with the Los Angeles Angels pitching staff after an 80-win season, and the Texas Rangers are still multiple high-profile players away from competing for a playoff spot. The Astros are still the best team in the division even with the free agent losses of Morton and potentially Dallas Keuchel .
The Rays have momentum heading into 2019. They got on a roll late last season, played with confidence, and let their youth grow. This season it will be more of the same for the Rays, but with the addition of some established veterans. Over the last two years, they’ve traded Ramos, Eovaldi, Evan Longoria, Brad Boxberger, Jake Odorizzi, Corey Dickerson, Alex Colome, Denard Span, and Adeiny Hechavarria, among others. Incredibly, there isn’t a gaping hole on their roster.
On paper, they may not be the most exciting team in MLB, but the Rays have a deep roster with individuals who haven’t reached their full potential. And it may be enough for them to make the playoffs for the first time since 2013.