By: Noah Wright
The Rays always have something fascinating going on. Whether it be their opener experiment, which seems to have been adopted by other teams with a lack of starting pitching, or their other trades for players who don’t seem like much at first, but eventually turn into something pretty important to the team. The Rays’ starting 9 are definitely fun to look through, and that’s what I’m here today to do.
Catcher: Mike Zunino
Zunino was the Seattle Mariners former first round pick. Throughout his time in Seattle, Zunino was very inconsistent. Sometimes, he looked like a top 10 catcher in the MLB. Other times, he looked like a busted prospect. Either you were going to get a .250/.330/.500 hitter with 25-30 bombs, or a .220/.250/.400 hitter with just 20 home run. While his bat was always spotty, his defense has always been top notch. Zunino has caught on average throughout his career, 29% of runners trying to take a base on him. Last season, Zunino ranked 16th overall in pitch framing runs saved, and his lowest single season DRS was 4. While Zunino looks like a .220/.250/.400 hitter with 20 home runs to start 2019, his defense is superb, having already racked up 5 DRS behind the plate.
First base: Ji-Man Choi
Choi was a former Mariner farmhand who bounced around the Orioles, LA Angels, Yankees, Brewers, and now the Rays. Throughout the minors, Choi showed some promise with his bat, but never delivered when he was in the majors. Last year, the Rays had a spot for him as their DH, and he took full advantage of it. In his 189 plate appearances in Tampa, Choi hit .269/.370/.506 with 8 home runs. That gave Choi the upper hand to land a full time spot as the Rays primary 1B and so far, he’s done pretty solid. Right now, the late blooming South Korean is slashing .286/.387/.444 in 75 PA’s. His power is down right now, but I don’t see why he couldn’t hit 20-25 home runs if he gets consistent playing time, and his power gets a boost.
Second Base: Brandon Lowe
Joey Wendel was slated to open the season as the team’s primary 2B, but after injuries occurred, top prospect, and 2015 third round pick, Brandon Lowe took over primary duties at second. The newly extended youngster is batting a strong .291/.347/.581 with a 145 wRC+ through 95 plate appearances. He has also been showing off good defensive prowess at second with 3 DRS, and 1.0 UZR.
Third Base: Yandy Diaz
Of all the acquisitions that went unnoticed, Yandy Diaz has been one of the best underrated players of 2019. Acquired by the Rays in a 3 team swap including the Indians and Mariners, Diaz had never been a top prospect. He was never super fast, never had tons of power, nor was he some sort of Matt Chapman or Paul Goldschmidt with the glove at the corners. However now that he has a path to consistent playing time, he’s making the most of it. Right now, Yandy is slashing a strong .289/.385/.600 with a 158 wRC+ in 109 plate appearances. He’s blasted 7 long balls, and has walked 16 times to just 20 K’s. Plus, Diaz has already got 1 DRS both at first and third base. Diaz right now is listed as the team’s DH since injuries have forced Avisail Garcia to right field, and Diaz’s bat better fits DH than Robertson’s.
Shortstop: Willy Adames
Willy Adames was once a Tigers amature free agent signee. At the 2014 deadline, Adames was part of the deal that sent former Tampa Bay ace David Price to Detroit. Coming into 2019, Adames was fresh off a solid rookie 2018 campaign. In his first 323 MLB plate appearances, Adames slashed .274/.348/.406 with a 109 wRC+, while providing solid defense at both shortstop (primary) and second base. Overall, his defense was worth .7 dWAR. While Adames has gotten off to a slow start in 2019, he is only 23 years old. Expect him to breakout in the coming months.
Left field: Tommy Pham
After a breakout 2017 campaign where Pham posted a 148 wRC+ and .931 OPS with the St. Louis Cardinals, the outfielder was slated for regular outfield duty with the Cards. However, Pham struggled, and was shipped off to Tampa Bay. The trade was good for Pham, as he performed very well in his 174 PA’s in Florida. This year, Pham is off to a blazing hot start. He has a .296/.417/.449 line in 120 PA’s. He’s showing he still has a good power speed combo with 4 long balls to pair with 6 stolen bases. Pham also has 2 DRS, -.2 UZR and has been worth .1 dWAR this year in LF, so the Rays shouldn’t have to worry about his defense at all.
Center field: Kevin Kiermaier
Kiermaier was drafted by the Rays in 2010, as a 31st round draft pick. While he was never any sort of highly touted prospect, that didn’t stop Kiermaier from becoming a great outfielder. In 2019, the defensively gifted center fielder is looking for a fully healthy campaign in 2019. Kiermaier has struggled to stay on the field in the past 3 seasons, but when he’s healthy, he can be a top 10 center fielder. Right now, Kiermaier is batting a solid .264/.314/.462, along with the already great defense. Kiermaier also is a good base runner, adding more value along with his solid bat and platinum glove level defense.
Right field: Austin Meadows:
Austin Meadows was one of the 3 players the Rays got in the trade that sent Chris Archer to the Pirates. Before he went on the injured reserve list, Meadows was probably the Rays best player. He was batting a fantastic .351/.422/.676 with 6 home runs and 3 stolen bases in 83 plate appearances. Though his defense in right field was below average, it’s pretty clear that Meadows looks like a future star for the Rays.