With less than a week until the 2021 MLB trade deadline on July 30, the Tampa Bay Rays are making moves. Yet in classic Rays fashion, their strategy of maximizing value over all else results in actions that can often seem contradictory for a team chasing the AL East crown.
Move #1: Cruz to Tampa
Just a few days ago, Tampa Bay finalized a deal to acquire veteran slugger Nelson Cruz from the Twins. It fills an important void in the Rays lineup, which had been operating without a “true” designated hitter. The lion’s share of 2021 DH starts has gone to outfielder Austin Meadows, who has logged about half of the team’s DH starts. He’s compiled a solid 123 wRC+ on the season but is serviceable in the field. Otherwise, Tampa Bay has primarily used the DH spot to play the matchups—providing rest days for position players or getting platoon bats into the lineup.
With Cruz, the Rays have a power bat anchored in the heart of the lineup that offers reliability and stability regardless of the pitching matchup. The 41-year-old sports a 140 wRC+ on the season, instantly slotting in as the #1 offensive weapon in Tampa despite having his “worst” season since 2018. While he has an advantage against southpaws with a 154 career wRC+ against lefties, he is by no means a liability against RHP with a 124 career wRC+. Cruz has made an immediate impact in Tampa, smacking two homers in his first three games with the Rays.
It marks a clear “win now” moment for the Rays, who gave up two of their top pitching prospects in Joe Ryan and Drew Strotman to make the trade. Both pitchers have been starters at AAA-Durham and will be MLB-ready sooner than later, and are significant pieces to give up in exchange for a partial-season rental in Cruz, who is on a one-year deal. Just one game back of the division lead in an extremely competitive AL East, Tampa Bay is showing a level of aggression not typically seen in one of the most calculating and stingy teams in the league.
Move #2: Rich Hill to New York
24 hours later, the Rays reminded the baseball world that they are, well, still the Rays. Despite signalling a “win now” mentality, Tampa Bay traded away one of the anchors of their rotation in Rich Hill. Hill—41 years old himself—has made the most starts of any Tampa Bay pitcher with 19 on the season, compiling a 3.87 ERA for Tampa Bay and a 6-4 record.
In his last seven starts, Hill has started to show a few cracks, allowing 20 earned runs and logging more than five innings only once. With ace Tyler Glasnow out for the foreseeable future, Tampa Bay is desperate for any serviceable starters they can get, making the deal a bit odd for a team that was just one day removed from sacrificing a big chunk of their pitching future to increase their 2021 offensive capabilities. It’s unlikely the Rays would have been willing to sacrifice one of the stalwarts of their rotation without having serious doubts about Hill’s ability to finish the season as strong as he started.
In return for Hill, the Rays received a single-A catcher/infielder prospect in Matt Dyer and the 35-year-old veteran reliever Tommy Hunter. Dyer is at least a year removed from the majors at the most optimistic and Hunter is currently on the 60-day IL and unlikely to pitch again this season.
With the loss of Hill, the Rays rotation is, to put it bluntly, thin. While rookie Shane McClanahan has impressed in his debut season to the tune of a 3.88 ERA, he has already thrown more innings than any other season of his professional career and has only cracked the sixth inning four times all season. The Rays will continue to carefully monitor his inning count to ensure he can continue into a potential postseason run. The rotation is rounded out by Ryan Yarbrough, Michael Wacha, and Josh Fleming—none of whom have shown the lockdown reliability needed for a contender.
Tampa Bay has a few options to fill the fifth spot. 21-year-old Luis Patiño has a high ceiling but in his two July starts since returning from AAA-Durham, he’s allowed nine earned runs in 10.2 IP. Offseason acquisition Chris Archer is likely to rejoin the team after a few more rehab starts but remains a huge question mark with just 4.1 innings logged before going down to injury. Top pitching prospect Brendan McKay has significant recovery time remaining as he works his way back from shoulder surgery. Glasnow has an outside chance at returning this season, but it’s far from a sure thing.
Perhaps a starting pitcher acquisition is in the mix? With Friday’s 4 pm deadline looming, the Rays will need to shore up their rotation if they want to stay in the hunt for the division lead. Even if they make the postseason, it seems likely that Tampa Bay will struggle to make a deep run without more reliable starting pitching. Keep a close eye on the Rays this week—I would be willing to be they are not quite done.
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