Analysis

The Dog Days are Here; How do the Rays Stack Up?

Entering Thursday, the Tampa Bay Rays have a record of 66-50, holding onto the coveted second wild card spot in the American League, a half game over the Oakland A’s and 3 games back of the Cleveland Indians for the first wild card. Under the tutelage of manager Kevin Cash, who is now in his fourth year as manager, Tampa finds themselves in the thick of the playoff race this summer. After re-tooling at the new capped trade deadline, dealing with injuries to core players all throughout the year, and navigating tough decisions from both the 25- and 40-man roster, the Rays and their favorable August schedule are primed for some good September (and hopefully October) baseball. Let’s take a step back and analyze how the Rays have gotten to where they are how they’ll fare in the rest of the season.

Medical Matters

The Rays in 2019 have found ill-timed luck in the injury department, most of which happening to players the front office would deem part of the core. To begin with, breakout stud Tyler Glasnow hit the injured list with a forearm strain on May 11th. The injury figured to not be too serious at the time, especially considering that the Rays have shown a precedent to take things very slow when it comes to their pitchers and arm injuries with good reason. Glasnow has missed much more time than that, though, only now beginning to make his way back towards a return. According to Juan Toribo of The Athletic, Glasnow threw from 60 feet the other day and felt good, and he’s optimistic of a return this season. Glasnow was proving to be a part of a lethal three headed monster in the rotation before going down, pitching to a 6-1 record with a 1.86 ERA in 8 games started. With 10.2 K/9 and sub 1 whip, he had already accumulated a 1.8 bWAR and put all of baseball on notice. 

As for position players, the Rays have seen just about everyone hit the shelf at one time or another. Matt Duffy just made his season debut after a slew of nagging injuries going into the year had fans wondering if he consisted of paper skin and glass bones. Rookie of the Year candidate Brandon Lowe and Yandy Diaz, both fixtures on the infield, have been out over a month for bruised lower extremities after fouling balls off their respective legs. This is Diaz’s second extended stay on the injured list this year. Last year’s revelation, Joey Wendle, has missed 70 of the team’s 116 games and has seen his OPS drop over 240 points from 2018. Not to mention the Rays used a team record 6 catchers by mid-June after both Mike Zunino and backup Michael Perez got injured within a week of one another. The silver lining of that was the acquisition of Travis D’arnaud, who has transformed himself into the player the Mets always hoped he could be. The offense has been fine given the reoccurring injuries to position players, and the 2019 Yankees have proven that things could be worse in that regard (although they may be a better team for it). 

The bullpen by committee approach is not an ideal one to begin with and it could’ve only gotten worse for the Rays, who have seen high leverage relievers Diego Castillo and Jose Alvarado both miss a significant amount of time this year. Though they’ve held their own as a group, the bullpen still has a long stretch ahead of them to close out the season. Alvarado, who hasn’t taken a step up from a promising 2018 season, is still out with an oblique injury, allowing guys like Emilio Pagan to serve as the latest default closer. Castillo has looked sharp since his return from the IL in both late inning appearances as well as openers, and newly acquired righty Nick Anderson appears ready to take some reps late in games. Getting Chaz Roe and his circus slider back to 2018 form and rookie Colin Poche to keep the ball in the park serve as priorities due to the extreme usage demanded out of the bullpen for this pitching staff to thrive.  

Charlie Morton and Blake Snell were forced to pick up the slack in terms of traditional starts to relieve the heavy workload the bullpen was already expected to take. Morton has been as advertised coming over from Houston, placing himself in Cy Young contention while reigning 2018 Cy Young award winner, Blake Snell, experienced some bumps along the road after suffering a broken toe early in the season from an obscure bathroom counter incident which forced him to miss some starts. Once he came back, it was mixed results until July, when Snell seemed to turn a corner. Zilla had a 3.51 ERA and .627 opponents’ OPS in May, 9.64 ERA/ .908 OPS in June, and 1.13 ERA and .631 OPS in July. Most recently, the southpaw had to undergo elbow surgery to remove loose bodies in late July. His former teammate and now division foe Nate Eovaldi had similar surgery and left Snell with some words of encouragement. He was ultimately given a 6-8-week recovery timeline with hopes to return to the rotation before the season’s end. 

At this point the only fixtures in the starting rotation are Charlie Morton, two-way prospect Brendan McKay and the bulk-reliever-turned-starter Yonny Chirinos. Chirinos has been promoted to a traditional starter partly due to injuries but also because of his impressive 110:28 K/BB ratio with a more than serviceable 3.62 ERA and 4.17 FIP. The Rays are beginning to rely heavily upon the 6’2 240lb sinker baller in terms of innings, removing the training wheels by no longer using him following an opener. Limiting baserunners at an exceptional rate, especially in his latest outing against the Miami Marlins. Chirinos gave up his first of two hits of the day in the 4th including a Brian Anderson solo homerun, striking out 4 and walking 1 before having to be removed from the game before the 6th due to a right middle finger injury. An MRI later revealed no structural damage, so naturally the Rays shut him down for two weeks leaving him with a best-case scenario of 4 weeks on the IL (due to resuming throwing and rehab appearances).

Unless the Rays use bulk-guy extraordinaire Ryan Yarbrough in a more traditional manner, this leaves the Rays with a two-man starting rotation, relying heavily upon opener lead games as well as straight up bullpen games for the foreseeable future. Other options include spot starting Jalen Beeks, who has been getting rocked lately in a bulk outing or calling up Tommy-John rehabees in Anthony Banda and Jose DeLeon, or the newly acquired Trevor Richards. Which brings me to my next section…..

Re-tooling at the deadline 

Going into the July 31st trade deadline the Rays had many small holes to fill. Whether the front office was prepared to fill them and how they would do so seemed to be an indicator for how the team would fare the rest of the season. In total the Rays made 8 trades leading up to the deadline. Some were made to help the big-league club now and some for later. The Rays had a unique situation in which they needed to acquire MLB players while also freeing up 40-man roster spots for both the newly acquired guys and to protect a handful of prospects for the Rule 5 draft in November. For a team that relies on their bullpen so heavily, it’s a bit confounding that they traded away 5 relievers that had made at least one appearance for the big-league club and only received 1 (maybe 2 depending on usage) in exchange. 

Shipping (a dying breed in) LOOGY Adam Kolarek, who leads the team in relief appearances to the Dodgers for a low-level minor-league outfielder was odd, but not overly concerning. Dealing Hunter Wood and his sub 3 ERA along with former top prospect Christian Arroyo to Cleveland for a low-level minor-league outfielder and PTBNL was more about clearing 40-man roster space than anything. Not to mention the once-promising top 30 prospect Ian Gibaut getting DFA’d and dealt to Texas for 2 PTBNL, another move in which future 40-man considerations took the precedent over current 25-man roster needs. 

The only trades of relievers to garner major league returns were those of swingman Jake Faria and the OG opener Ryne Stanek. Faria, who never settled into Kevin Cash’s rotation of available arms, but seemed very capable at the major league level, was sent to Milwaukee for slugger Jesus Aguilar. A buy low trade for both sides, each player has plenty of club control left and is a nice change of scenery candidate for their new team where they figure to get a lot of playing time. Aguilar slides into a nice platoon opportunity with Ji-Man Choi at first base and DH as well as Nate Lowe who is back in AAA since the trade. Check out Eric Albers’s excellent in-depth look at this trade here.

   *Stats for their career*
 Rays First Base Platoon Split
 Ji Man ChoiJesus Aguilar
 WRC+ vs RHP118113
 OPS vs RHP0.8060.818
 WRC+ vs LHP48110
 OPS vs LHP0.5280.801

Stanek, along with top 100 prospect Jesus Sanchez, was traded to Miami for pitchers Nick Anderson and Trevor Richards. Anderson and his plus fastball have settled in nicely in the backend of the Rays bullpen. As for Richards, it remains to be seen how the team will utilize the righty and his deceptive change-up. Miami had used him as both a starter and reliever, and you figure the Rays, who have a need in both areas, will call him up shortly to get him acclimated for the playoff push. The acquisition cost may seem high for two pitchers with little experience, but that is partly in due to their 4+ years of club control.

The only other major trade the Rays made was for veteran utilityman Eric Sogard who is in the midst of a career year, with a low acquisition cost of two PTBNL, the Rays swung this deal before the craziness of deadline day with Toronto and acquired the ultimate professional with an all time nick name in Nerd Power. All in all, these moves trimmed the fat off this roster and shaped it up nicely for added depth down the stretch and bolstered up areas of need across the entire roster, while maintaining if not boosting their already cohesive clubhouse culture. Sogard is known as one of the nicest teammates in all of MLB, a bring your lunch-pail (and reading glasses) to work kind of guy, and Aguilar had rave reviews from the likes of Ryan Braun, Lorenzo Cain and other members of the Brewers and appears to fit right in with the Rays already. 

Jesus Aguilar and Guillermo Heredia celebrating after an Aguilar home run, his first in a Rays uniform.

The Dog Days

The trade deadline has come and gone, and now with the new rules in place there shouldn’t be any shocking roster moves made between now and the playoffs with the elimination of August trades. The Rays find themselves in a 4-team wild card race for two spots. Even though Boston is shooting themselves in the feet currently, they shouldn’t be counted out quite yet. As it stands, whichever of Minnesota and Cleveland doesn’t win the AL Central will have a claim to a wild card spot, leaving Tampa Bay and Oakland fighting for that second spot with Boston trailing not too far behind that.

Of the 27 games on the schedule in August for Tampa, 21 of them are against teams in 2nd to last or last in their respective divisions. With a handful of sweeps hopefully in play, Tampa should be vying for at least a .667 winning percentage out of those games against subpar teams, giving them a firm say in their playoff position come September. September holds much of the same look with over half of their games against sub .500 teams. The only thorn in their side will be the fact that this two month stretch includes two west coast trips, making it no easy task. With a little luck and some speedy recoveries from the IL the Rays may find themselves with another 90+ win season, except this time, they’ll be in the Playoffs. 

The active 25 man stands as follows:

Starting Pitchers:

            Charlie Morton

            Brendan McKay

Openers/Relievers:

            Andrew Kittredge

            Diego Castillo

Bulk/Featured/Multi-inning Relievers:

            Ryan Yarbrough

            Jalen Beeks

            Austin Pruitt

Bullpen:

            Oliver Drake

            Emilio Pagan

            Nick Anderson

            Chaz Roe

            Colin Poche

Catchers:

            Mike Zunino

            Travis D’arnaud

Infielders:

            Jesus Aguilar

            Ji-Man Choi

            Michael Brosseau

            Matt Duffy

            Willy Adames

            Eric Sogard

Outfielders: 

            Tommy Pham

            Kevin Kiermaier

            Guillermo Heredia 

            Avisail Garcia

            Austin Meadows 

Players expected due back from injuries include Jose Alvarado, Yonny Chirinos, Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow, Yandy Diaz, Brandon Lowe, Joey Wendle, and Daniel Robertson

Potential September (or sooner) callups include Jose DeLeon, Anthony Banda, Trevor Richards, Peter Fairbanks, Michael Perez, Nate Lowe, Kean Wong, and Jake Cronenworth

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