By: Noah Wright
The Tampa Bay Rays just came off a surprising 2018 season. They won 90 games when many projected them to not even be .500. Now, they could even be looking to compete with big clubs like inner division rivals the Yankees and Red Sox. However entering 2019, they’re not a complete team. They still have a few holes to fill. This off season, I’m going to look at some teams’ current status that are going to, or are on the verge of playoff competition. With that being said, let’s get started.
Catcher is pretty much secured for the Rays. At the beginning of November, they acquired slugger Mike Zunino from the Mariners. Zunino is known for being a power hitting catcher with a very good glove behind the plate. While he did have a down season with the bat compared to 2017, he still hit 20 home runs and is entering his age 28 season, so he is still youthful. His glove is the main attraction though. 2018 saw Zunino record 12 DRS, and catch 35% of runners trying to move themselves into scoring position. He was also with 7.5 framing runs, which ranked 16th according to Baseball Prospectus. While the team doesn’t really have a set answer for the second catcher, that should not be a big concern for the team right now.
The Rays will likely utilize youngster Jake Bauers over at first most of the time. However, he only batted .201/.316/.384 with 11 home runs and had a 95 wRC+ in his first 388 rookie PA’s. While I don’t think that they’ll look for a replacement, the team may look for a plan B or platoon partner in case Bauers struggles again in 2019. They currently have Ji-Man Choi who could fill that role, but he isn’t too proven. If the Rays do decide to go and get a platoon/bench option at first, the 1B/DH market is overflowing with options.
The Rays have second base on lock down with 2018 rookie Joey Wendle. Wendle got a shot with the Rays in 2018 to be their main 2B, and he took advantage of it big time. In 545 plate appearances, he batted .300/.354/.435 with a 116 wRC+. His wRC+ ranked 7th among all second basemen last year. He showed decent speed with his 16 stolen bags, and his average sprint speed being 28.3 feet/second. His defense was gold glove leven as well. Wendle recorded 5 DRS and a 4.3 UZR. In total, his defense was worth 1.0 dWAR. Overall, Wendle gave the Rays 4.3 bWAR.
At the hot corner, the Rays have former Giant, Matt Duffy. After having a down year in 2016, and missing all of 2017, Duffy bounced back in 2018 and turned in a solid campaign. In 560 plate appearances, Matt batted .294/.361/.366. with 106 wRC+. His overall defense was about average at third base, with -4 DRS, .6 UZR, and a 0.0 dWAR, but he was worth 2.7 bWAR. Duffy did reach double digits in stolen bases at 12, so he provides some speed. Though the Rays may not look to find an upgrade over Duffy, they could turn to some internal options like Christian Arroyo and Daniel Robertson to man third.
The Rays also have shortstop on lock down with another 2018 rookie. Willy Adames. Adames was a former top prospect who’s blossomed into a regular in the Rays line-up. In 2018, Adames batted .278/.348/.406 with a 109 wRC+. He also swatted 10 home runs out of the park. His defense at short was solid but not fantastic. Overall, he had -1 DRS, -5.4 UZR and .7 dWAR at short. However entering his age 23 season, there’s plenty of reason on why he can improve his overall game.
Tampa Bay likely know who will man the three outfield spots. Most likely it will be a combination of Kevin Kiermaier in center field, with Tommy Pham and Austin Meadows in the corners. Starting with Kiermaier, he’s still a top notch fielding outfielder. Though he was limited to only 88 games, Kevin still had 14 DRS, 9.8 UZR, and overall 1.8 dWAR. While he may never be a large bat in the line-up, he can still be relied upon to hit .250/.320/.420 with 15 home runs and 15 stolen bases, along with 20/20 potential. The Rays acquired Tommy Pham at the deadline last season, and it’s seems to have paid off. In 2017, Pham broke out, and looked to be a piece the Cardinals could use in their outfield for a handful more years. Entering 2018, Pham was the team’s starting center fielder, but he struggled both offensively and defensively. He only had a .248/.331/.399 batting line and was worth -6 DRS in CF. That’s when they shipped him over to Tampa Bay, and he turned things around big time. In his next 174 plate appearances, Pham batted .343/.448/.662, while also hitting 7 home runs and stealing 5 bases. The most unproven of the trio is Austin Meadows. Meadows is one of the 3 players the Rays got back in the Chris Archer-to-Pirates deal back at the 2018 trade deadline. However while unproven, he did show glimpses of a future star in Pittsburgh, and in the high level of the minors.
The Rays had a solid option with C.J. Cron at DH. After an off season trade to The Rays that subsequently led to a questionable DFA of then all-star Corey Dickerson, Cron turned in a .253/.323/.493 batting line with 30 long balls and a 122 wRC+. However the Rays made another questionable decision, and DFA’d Cron, who was subsequently claimed by the Twins. The team has made it clear that they want an upgrade at the DH spot, and have been linked to Nelson Cruz. Cruz has been extremely consistent throughout his contract with the Mariners. Since 2015, his lowest home run total was 37 (last year), his lowest RBI total was 93 (2015) and he hit an overall .284/.362/.546 between. Last season was technically his worst season, but still very good overall. He batted .256/.342/.509 with a 134 wRC+. He could be that impact bat the Rays need. Even though Cruz is currently 38 and will 39 in July, there’s not too much risk in a one year or two year deal. I highly doubt that his offense will take a drastic downturn to a point where he’s on Albert Pujols levels.
This is definitely where the team needs to add and reinforce. There’s a reason the Rays invented the opener. They only had 3 real starters in the rotation in April. That was Blake Snell, Chris Archer, and Nathan Eovaldi. Now in November, they have one proven starter: AL Cy Young winner Blake Snell. While he may have had a 1.89 ERA, 2.94 FIP, and .974 WHIP, Snell is still only one man, and the Rays probably don’t want to use the opener for all the other spots. Tyler Glasnow, one of the other pieces the Rays received in the Archer deal, had a few good games in TB, but he still was inconsistent. While the Rays have a handful of top pitching prospects, including 2-way player Brendan McKay, Matthew Liberatore, Shane Baz (the third piece of the Archer trade), and Anthony Banda, they need to sign or trade for another proven pitcher. On the FA market, the team could try to resign Nathan Eovaldi. However with likely many other higher bidding teams, and better looking landing spots, Eovaldi could be a bit challenging to sign. A player the Rays should try to pursue is Dallas Keuchel. Keuchel is coming off another solid season, recording a 3.74 ERA, 3.69 FIP, and 1.314 WHIP. While the WHIP may be a career high, Keuchel, when healthy, can provide the Rays with 200+ innings of work in a season, and gives the Rays a veteran option in a fairly young pitching staff. Another option the Rays should go after is Derek Holland. After 3 seasons of injury and severe under performance, the Giants struck a minor league deal with Holland last off season. It would turn out to be one of the best minor league signings of 2018. In 171 and a third innings, Holland gave the Giants a 3.57 ERA, 3.87 FIP, and 1.290 WHIP. He also had a career high K/9 rate at 8.9.
The Rays right now need to look for a closer. Last season, Sergio Romo probably had the weirdest season of his life. He was mainly the team’s closing pitcher, but he was also the first offical opener in baseball, as he started 5 games. Plus he played a third of an inning at third base. While Romo was a solid closer, and could be brought back on a cheap deal, they need to find a better option. This off season, there’s a handful of decent relief pitchers who have closing experience. A good option for the Rays could be Cody Allen. Allen may be coming off a down season, but you can’t ignore his resume. Between 2013 and 2017, he consistently gave the Indians nearly 70 innings of work on the regular. Overall in that time span, he had a 2.59 ERA, 2.86 FIP, and 1.129 WHIP. Cody Allen may be entering his age 30 season, but there isn’t much reason to think he can’t turn things around. The rest of the bullpen is overall solid. Jose Alvarado will likely set-up whoever is closer. Last year, he gave the Rays a 2.39 ERA, 2.27 FIP, and 1.109 WHIP. He may have given up 4.1 walks per 9 on average, he gave up only 1 home run in 64 innings, and struck out 80 batters. It is conceivable that he could even take over closer duties. Past him, the Rays have Ryne Stanek and Diego Castillo. Both of whom saw time in the bullpen, and as openers. However if the Rays do decide to make a 5 man rotation, they’ll likely see much more bullpen time in 2019, giving the Rays 2 more solid options in the pen. Chaz Roe gave the Rays 50 and a third solid innings, and he could also be back with the Rays next season. Overall, the Rays current bullpen is solid. However they don’t have a proven closer, so while Alvarado could take over the role, the team may opt to acquire a more proven option. If the Rays decide to use Alvarado in the 9th instead, the Rays may look to bring in another option with closing experience, in case Alvarado struggles in the role. Perhaps maybe someone like Brad Brach, or Kelvin Herrera.
The Tampa Bay Rays are a team that could compete with some of the big names in the AL. That includes the 2 juggernauts in their own division, the Boston Red Sox, and NY Yankees. The team overall is solid. Right now, they’d likely compete for a wild card spot. However if this team can add an arm or two to the rotation, sign a few pieces to reinforce the bullpen, and go for that one big impact bat, they could be one of 2019’s sleeper teams.