Assessing the Rays’ Trade Deadline

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Friday’s 4pm trade deadline came and went, and the big move I predicted (springing for a solid starting pitcher) didn’t exactly materialize, but the Rays were not completely quiet—making a series of minor moves over the final days prior that continue to raise questions about their overall strategy.

A Flurry of Moves

The Rays kicked things off way back on July 15th with a blockbuster move: sending minor league catcher Deivy Grullón to the White Sox for cash. The Sox have been desperate for catching depth after Yasmani Grandal‘s injury, and Grullón likely did not figure into the Rays’ postseason plans much anyway. Overall, this one is basically irrelevant.

A week later, the Rays pulled off an actual blockbuster trade. The Rays acquired veteran slugger Nelson Cruz to provide a full-time designated hitter in their lineup. They also received a RHP in Calvin Faucher, who is still in Double-A and won’t figure into the 2021 season. Cruz, on a one-year deal, signals that the Rays are looking to bolster their offense in hopes of making a late-season run.

Cruz did not come cheaply, either. The Rays parted with two Triple-A right-handers, their two highest-rated and closest to MLB-ready prospects in Joe Ryan and Drew Strotman. Both were having great seasons in Triple-A Durham and will be major-league ready sooner than later. It was a surprisingly high cost for the notoriously stingy Rays, and by giving up two highly-regarded prospects they are clearly looking to push their chips into the middle for 2021.

Which makes some of the following moves that much stranger. The next day, Tampa Bay dealt Father Time himself, LHP Rich Hill, to the Mets for a reliever unlikely to throw a pitch this season and a catching prospect still in Single-A. While Hill had shown some signs of decline in the last month or two, the Rays do not exactly have the rotation depth to easily replace a 3.87 ERA every five games. Tampa Bay was evidently giving up on Hill—prompting my own speculation that they would aggressively target a starter over the final week before the deadline.

The day before the deadline, the Rays made yet another seemingly contradictory move. They sent RHP Diego Castillo, the closest thing the Rays currently have to a bonafide closer (Castillo has 14 saves on the season for the Rays—the next highest is Pete Fairbanks with just five), to the Mariners. In exchange, Tampa Bay received a right-handed reliever in JT Chargois and 3B Austin Shenton. Chargois is 30 years old, with some MLB experience, and has pitched well for Seattle in 2021, compiling a 3.00 ERA in 30 IP this season. Shenton was the Mariners’ #17 prospect but only just now reaching Double-A.

While Castillo has shown a bit of a velocity drop over the last few seasons, he has remained quite effective for the Rays. The 27-year-old will not be a free agent until 2025, so the Rays apparently have decided now is the time to get the best trade value for him. While Chargois has been solid, he is not exactly a one-to-one replacement, so the Rays are evidently banking on closer Nick Anderson (scheduled to begin a rehab assignment after missing the entire season to injury) returning to take the reins while receiving a solid prospect in Shenton in the process. Even so, one cannot have too much bullpen depth come October, and Castillo has been a big part of their bullpen’s success.

On Friday, it came out early in the day that the Rays had acquired RHP Shawn Armstrong from the Orioles for cash. 30 years old, Armstrong struggled in his limited appearances with the Orioles this season to the tune of an 8.55 ERA in 20 innings. The Rays see potential and will work with him in Triple-A Durham in hopes that he can become a contributor by postseason play. A small move, but a low-risk, high-reward one that could pay off nicely for Tampa.

Just after 4pm, reports came in that the Rays had made a final move, dealing their #29 prospect in RHP Peyton Battenfield to Cleveland. Battenfield was drafted out of Oklahoma State in 2019 by the Astros and has pitched to an impressive 2.14 ERA across 67.1 innings in High-A and Double-AA this season.

In return, the Rays received OF Jordan Luplow and RHP DJ Johnson. Luplow has some major league experience, including a breakout 2019 where he produced a 138 wRC+, hitting 15 homers across roughly half of a full season. Since then he has faltered, but is still just 27 years old. He functions as a solid platoon against right-handers and provides outfield depth for Tampa.

Johnson, meanwhile, has 33 career major league innings with a 4.91 ERA. He spent the 2020 season in Japan, pitching to a respectable 3.35 ERA in 40.1 innings. He has had just one appearance with Cleveland this season, spending most in Triple-A where he has 3.32 ERA. He is another middle-inning relief project that could pay dividends if the Rays are able to unlock his potential in the manner they have with so many other pitchers.

Looking Ahead

This brings us to the present, where Tampa Bay is one game ahead of Boston in the AL East standings after sweeping the Red Sox over the weekend. They’ll need every win they can get, as the Yankees and Blue Jays are sniffing from behind in what has been an incredibly competitive division. The Rays could finish with the second-highest record in the AL—and it might only result in a wild card.

Offensively, the Rays are sitting pretty. The addition of Nelson Cruz is an immediate boost to their offense, as he has already smacked a pair of homers since arriving in Tampa Bay a week and a half ago. Luplow will provide outfield depth, as might Josh Lowe, who is still in Triple-A Durham. The #9 prospect for the Rays has been electric in the minors, and should be ready sooner than later.

The Rays have a trio of top prospects with major league time this season in Wander Franco, Taylor Walls, and Vidal Bruján. While Bruján has been sent back to Triple-A, all three will likely figure into the Rays’ potential October plans and should continue to improve in the meantime.

On the pitching side, it’s not so clear. While they lost Castillo, their bullpen—one of the best in the league—is still powerful and the impending return of last year’s closer in Nick Anderson will provide a huge boost. They also received a few interesting pieces over the last couple of weeks that could end up as legitimate contributors, particularly the right-hander JT Chargois. It’s a bit of a gamble from Tampa, but they certainly could finish the season with just as strong of a bullpen as they started.

The rotation is the big point of concern. Glasnow is expected to undergo Tommy John surgery and miss the rest of the season (and most, if not all, of 2022 as well). Without Glasnow, the Rays have no true ace. Rookie Shane McClanahan has been great but already has thrown more innings than any season prior and Tampa Bay will be awfully cautious with his innings count. Fellow rookie Luis Patiño has made his return to the majors and has looked much better of late—he’s gone five or more innings in seven of his last eight starts between Tampa Bay and Triple-A Durham, so the Rays are clearly stretching him out for a starting role in the latter half of 2021. His results have been mixed, though, and he’s far from a reliable option, but his dominant performance against the Yankees last Thursday (6 IP, 8 K, 0 ER) is cause for optimism.

Ryan Yarbrough, Michael Wacha, and Josh Fleming have all been fine but none have quite the level of consistency or potential for a true contender. The Rays are banking on Chris Archer‘s impending return from injury to be a boost to their rotation. Archer threw only 4.1 innings this season before missing time for injury, so he remains a huge question mark. He recently had what was supposed to be his final rehab start cut short due to injury. The extent of the injury is unclear, but it could be another huge blow to the Rays.

Tampa Bay has a few prospects who could contribute before the season’s end in Brendan McKay (still working back from shoulder surgery), Brent Honeywell (solid in Triple-A but only 4.1 innings of MLB experience), and Shane Baz (#5 prospect and in Triple-A but unlikely to reach the majors this season).

The opportunity to find a reliable starter has passed, so the Rays are stuck with what they have—which is a lot of unknowns. However, for a team famous for doing a lot with a little, it would be foolish to count them out yet.

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Dylan Burris has been a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan since 2015, but covers the Rays on Overtime Heroics. A graduate of the University of North Carolina, he directs most of his non-baseball attention towards college basketball.