The Tampa Bay Rays surprised many in 2019 by clinching a Wild Card birth with a 96-66 record. They continued their success in the playoffs by knocking off the Oakland Athletics in the Wild Card game before losing to the Astros in Game 5 of the ALDS. However, the Rays managed to do this with the fifth-lowest payroll in the MLB at $68.98 million (according to Statista.com).
Despite the excellent performance, the Rays finished 29th in attendance with an average of 14,734 fans per game. Here is a look at their 2019 season in review.
The Pitching Staff:
With their unique pitching philosophy, the Rays are always unpredictable entering the season. Outside of Blake Snell and 2019 free agent Charlie Morton, there is uncertainty as to who will take the remaining innings. The Rays had 14 different pitchers start a game and 11 different pitchers record a save. Only three pitchers threw over 130 innings in 2019 and only three pitchers made 50 appearances on the season. The team as a whole finished second in ERA, third in strikeouts and third in opponent batting average. The stats are incredible, which leads some to believe the team has cracked the code.
Despite the success overall, Snell had a rough year between an injury and sub-par stats. Morton looked like a Cy Young candidate, spinning a very worthy 16-6 record and 3.05 ERA/2.81 FIP. Additionally, Tyler Glasnow came back from injury and look dominant in a somewhat small 60.2 inning sample (1.78 ERA/2.26 FIP). The emergence of young arms like Brendan McKay, Yonny Chirinos, and Jose Alverado could make the Rays a force to reckon with in the AL. Ultimately, the Rays are looking flush with arms for 2020 regardless of the role they are put in.
Entering 2019, there was a lot of uncertainty with the Rays lineup due to their age, 2018 performances, and health. Interestingly enough, Tommy Pham was the only lineup regular over 29 years of age (31 years old). The Rays had made a surprising trade in the offseason to bring in 1B/3B Yandy Diaz with hopes that he could thrive. They noted his exit velocity and thought if they changed his launch angle, he would become a force.
Yandy Diaz (2017-2018 w/ Indians) – 88 games, 265 at-bats, .283/.361/.366, 1 HR, 94 OPS+
Yandy Diaz (2019 w/ Rays) – 79 games, 307 at-bats, .267/.340/.476, 14 HR, 116 OPS+
This is the type of move a small-market franchise has to make in order to succeed.
In addition to Diaz and Pham, the Rays also needed a breakout season from OF Austin Meadows. The former Pirates prospect provided that and more. The 24-year-old outfielder made the All-Star team in his first full season, which attributed to a 3.4 WAR on the year. Additionally, 2B/UTIL Brandon Lowe showed promise before injuries cut his season short. Lowe finished third in the AL Rookie of the Year voting and also earned an All-Star nod. Both Meadows and Lowe will be fixtures in this Rays lineup for the next few years at least.
Overall, the team was middling in most offensive categories and will likely address these needs in the offseason. With C Travis D’Arnaud and RF Avisail Garcia hitting free agency, look for the Rays to upgrade these positions for 2020.
The Trade Deadline:
The Rays’ 2019 Trade Deadline was an interesting one. The team made four minor trades that came across as buying and selling at the same time.
The first trade the Rays made was for sorely-needed depth in the infield. The Rays traded two players to be named later to the Jays for UTIL Eric Sogard. Sogard managed to give slightly above-replacement value and was a versatile piece for the team down the stretch.
The second deal made was more straightforward, as the Rays acquired 1B Jesus Aguilar for RHP Jake Faria. Faria was an expendable arm in the system and the Rays needed a right-handed bat to balance the lineup. Aguilar played better upon arriving in Tampa, but he wasn’t going to move the needle much either way for the team.
In a third trade, the Rays sent RP Adam Kolarek to the Dodgers for 22-year-old prospect OF Nico Hulsizer. Kolarek was lights-out down the stretch for the Dodgers and will be an important piece for them moving forward. Hulsizer was an 18th round draft pick for the Dodgers in 2018 and was solid in the minors. However, he only made it to High-A last season and likely won’t contribute to the major league squad for at least a couple of years.
Fortifying The Bullpen
The final move at the deadline was unexpected, but it made sense for the Rays. The Rays traded “opener” Ryne Stanek and outfield prospect Jesus Sanchez to the Marlins for starting pitcher Trevor Richards and RP Nick Anderson. Anderson had ridiculous strikeout numbers (14.2 K/9) and fits the mold of what the Rays like in their bullpen. Unfortunately, Jesus Sanchez was close to MLB-ready and looked to be a perfect replacement for Avisail Garcia in 2020. One part of the trade to watch will be what Stanek will make in arbitration come 2021. The “opener” role lacks both the statistics of starters nor the safe numbers of late-inning relievers.
While the Rays are always ranked highly in terms of team prospect lists, this season’s system was one of their best. Tampa ended the year having six players in the MLB Top 100 Prospects with four ranking in the top-50. This class is headlined by #1 prospect SS Wander Franco and #12 SP/DH Brendan McKay. Additionally, it’s likely the Rays won’t lose any picks for signing players who received a qualifying offer this offseason. Also, they will likely net an extra pick via the lottery for low-revenue teams. This is in addition to picking 24th in the upcoming amateur draft.
The Offseason Ahead:
In a crucial offseason for the Rays, they don’t have much to focus on. The vacancy in right field and catcher via Avisail Garcia’s and Travis D’Arnaud’s free agency are the main areas to upgrade. Additionally, the ~$5 million projected for C Mike Zunino in his last year of arbitration is a steep number for the production he has provided.
If they are unable to re-sign D’Arnaud, they are likely to look in the 2nd or 3rd tier of free-agent catchers. Jason Castro and Yan Gomes would be relatively inexpensive and could provide a veteran presence for the young pitching staff. To replace Avisail Garcia’s bat, they could look at someone like Kole Calhoun, Nick Castellanos (born in Florida), or even Yasiel Puig.
Depending on the plans for 1B/DH in 2020, an upgrade could be made there if they feel Nate Lowe isn’t ready for a full-time role. There has been some early chatter about INF Howie Kendrick being pursued by Tampa. Coming off a torrid postseason, Kendrick is likely looking at a two-year deal at $6-8 million per year. He could play around the diamond with a lionshare of his time coming at 1B. If Kendrick doesn’t go to Tampa, 1B/DH Edwin Encarnacion makes a lot of sense for them too.
Lastly, the Rays could look to trade CF Kevin Kiemaier to free up some payroll. While he provides top-notch defense, his bat hasn’t come around and the roughly 3 years and $33 million remaining on his contract could be better utilized elsewhere. A defensive-minded CF along the lines of Juan Lagares could be far more cost-efficient than spending ~16% of your payroll on Kiermaier in 2020.
Regardless of how their offseason shapes up, the Rays have a bright future and should be exciting to watch again in 2020.
Author Twitter: @TheRealKraken24
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