Can the Tampa Bay Rays Successfully Retool – Again?

The Tampa Bay Rays recently traded their ace, Blake Snell, to the San Diego Padres and are clearly embarking on an abrupt retooling project. Will it work?

Trading Snell, which corralled Tampa Bay 25-year-old catcher Francisco Mejia, catching prospect Blake Hunt, and young pitchers Luis Patino and Cole Wilcox, comes after veteran right-hander Charlie Morton departed Tampa Bay for the Atlanta Braves earlier in the offseason.

Manager Kevin Cash has lost his two best starting pitchers. His in-house options to fill out the rotation include Tyler Glasnow, Yonny Chirinos, Ryan Yarbrough, Trevor Richards, and Josh Fleming. Cash has typically rolled with three starters and two bullpen days. Pick three of the aforementioned arms and stick the other two into a bullpen that finished the 60-game Major League Baseball season with a 3.37 ERA and the Rays still have a plausible pitching staff.

Yes, they can still field a reliable pitching staff without Snell and Morton. Incorporate an improved Glasnow and perhaps two of Brendan McKay, Shane Baz, and Brent Honeywell, three of the organization’s top pitching prospects, making the big-league roster and their staff is further enhanced.

The Rays’ model is having a plethora of versatile arms: some that flex start, a couple that pitch multiple innings, and a select few that jam individual hitters. This model has helped the Rays continually field one of the elite pitching staffs in baseball. That said, being down two backbone pitchers is a brutal blow.

Snell has been the heart and soul of their pitching staff since 2017, and Morton was an indispensable piece to their previous two playoff teams. It’s anything but a given that their importance to the Rays is offset by internal improvement.

However, there could very well be an in-house arrogance, if you will, with the Rays. For what it’s worth, Snell and the bulk of Tampa Bay pitchers have been refrained from pitching through an order three times and/or seeing the seventh inning. For example, Snell averaged just 4.2 innings per outing across his 11 regular season starts last season. He posted a 3.24 ERA and 63 strikeouts across those outings. Despite his superb regular season efforts (a 3.05 ERA and 240 strikeouts), Morton averaged slightly below six innings per start in 2019.

Snell and Morton weren’t removed from the hill due to performance: they were removed because of modern-day, bullpen logic which favors multiple arms taking the hill.

The production Snell and Morton put forth mostly came in four-to-five-inning outings. Most MLB teams could get Snell and Morton’s production through said length. The difference is the Rays’ organizational pitching depth. Chances are they feel what they have in the building can fill the void the hurlers’ departures create from a body and production standpoint.

Nonetheless, this offseason has seen the Rays go to extremes. Whatever their 2021 fate may be rests on the shoulders of a young pitching staff answering the bell across a 162-game season.

Yes, Randy Arozarena had a historic postseason, Austin Meadows should be healthy for spring training, and Brandon Lowe and Willy Adames are coming off encouraging seasons at the plate. At the same time, this is a Rays offense in the middle of the pack, comparatively speaking. They finished the 2020 regular season between 11-21 in MLB in runs, hits, home runs, batting average, and OPS.

They need their starters to pitch at the level those before them did. It’s asking a lot of an overall inexperienced rotation.

The Rays won 90-plus games for a fourth consecutive season in the 2013 MLB season and lost to the Boston Red Sox in the American League Divisional Series. In the year and a half that followed, they traded David Price (an ace), Wil Myers (a budding youngster), and Ben Zobrist (a super utility player).

In 2017 the Rays went 80-82. Over the next year and a half, they traded/lost/released a slew of veterans including Evan Longoria, Corey Dickerson, Jake Odorizzi, Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, and Adeiny Hechavarria. They finished the 2018 season with 90 wins. That was followed by a 96-win season and then a World Series appearance.

While this offseason hasn’t been as drastic as the given examples, the Rays have moved on from significant members of their ballclub. Perhaps they feel Patino and/or Wilcox can develop into an arm for their pitching staff and either Mejia or Hunt can be their starting catcher in the near future? One way or another, the American League East looks vastly different in the short term with the Rays’ recent moves.

While DJ LeMahieu, their best player, remains a free agent and their starting rotation is a guessing game outside of Gerrit Cole, the New York Yankees look like more of a sure thing than the Rays. The Toronto Blue Jays, who cracked the playoffs last season, have a loaded, young positional core, an improving rotation, and payroll flexibility. One could argue that the Blue Jays are on the Rays’ tail this season.

Blake Snell, David Price, James Shields, and Scott Kazmir, who are/were ace-to-top-of-the-rotation starting pitchers, all spent roughly six years with the Rays before being traded. This isn’t anything the Rays haven’t done before; they’re just doing it at a sensitive moment in franchise history. It doesn’t help that Snell’s last appearance with the Rays will be him getting pulled in Game 6 of the World Series after surrendering a mere single in the sixth inning while shutting down the Los Angeles Dodgers’ formidable offense.

Can the Rays make the playoffs next season? Yes, especially if MLB runs it back with the three-game Wild Card Series round. Will the Rays do much more than get past said round? It’s difficult to hop on that bandwagon.

For better or worse, this is Tampa Bay being Tampa Bay. Unfortunately for the fan base, they’re going forth with a Rays-like move after losing a gut-wrenching World Series.

Time will tell whether this is the Rays’ latest trade mastery or a regrettable business-over-emotion transaction.

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