All offseason, Diamond Digest writers will be taking a look at each team’s 2020 season and looking forward at what moves each team might have to make to set themselves up for improvement in 2021. Today, Sean Huff takes a look at the Tampa Bay Rays!
The Rays had the best season in their franchise’s history in 2020, despite its disappointing end. They won their third AL East title and their second AL pennant, mostly thanks to their tremendous depth and preparedness for every in-game scenario. Alas, they came up just short, falling to the Dodgers in 6 games in the World Series; still, they finished as the undisputed best team in the American League, with the league’s best record and its pennant. However, 2021 doesn’t look like it will be quite as rosy. Against a healthier Yankees team the Rays will have a tough path to another division title. Their financial constraints will limit what they do over the offseason, but they’ll make the small, under the radar moves characteristic of the franchise, and a few months later they’ll look brilliant for doing so.
The Rays breezed to an AL East title, particularly due to their dominance of the Yankees (8-2 against them in the regular season). An easy sweep of the Blue Jays in the Wild Card round was followed by hard fought series wins against the American League’s two super teams, the Yankees and Astros. The Rays vanquished the former in five ALDS games before besting the Astros in seven in the ALCS. The third and final super team they had to beat, however, was their National League counterpart (except with money), the Dodgers. The Rays fell 4-2, but they went down fighting every game.
What is more worth discussing about the 2020 Rays is the cast of players who almost propelled them to the pinnacle of the sport. Their offense was led by Lowe, who finished eighth in AL MVP voting after tallying 2.3 fWAR and bashing out a 150 wRC+. Lowe’s double play partner, Willy Adames, benefited from good fortune all year, riding a .388 BABIP to a 124 wRC+ and 1.5 fWAR. Defensive stalwart Kevin Kiermaier gloved his way to 1.3 fWAR. After those three it was the same old situation we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in the Trop: a motley crew of platoon bats and role players shining thanks to the Rays putting them in the best spots to succeed. Their first base platoon of Ji-Man Choi and Mike Brosseau combined for 125 wRC+ and 1.4 fWAR; likewise at third Yandy Díaz and Joey Wendle joined forces with 125 wRC+ and 1.8 fWAR. As for corner outfield and DH, there were more moving parts that didn’t succeed quite so well, as you’ll see in the table below.
Even before he was exposed to Earth’s yellow sun in the Postseason, Arozarena was a masher. The other bats, however, weren’t quite so super. Meadows was hurt, Tsutsugo failed to translate his international success, and Renfroe proved the Rays can make mistakes, among other various player failings. Still, all told, the Rays had a team 109 wRC+ and ranked 9th in MLB in position player fWAR.
Offense isn’t the Rays calling card, nor was it the part of the 2020 team that sent chills down opponent’s spines. Their rotation was anchored by a four-headed behemoth in Tyler Glasnow (2.69 xERA, 2019-2020), Blake Snell (3.32), Charlie Morton (3.40), and Ryan Yarbrough (3.82). Even more frightening was the back end of the bullpen. Anderson has a 2.15 FIP over the past two seasons, and might be the best reliever in MLB, postseason issues aside. Rookie Pete Fairbanks struck out 13.16 per 9, while another freshman in John Curtiss had a minuscule 1.08 BB/9. On the whole, the Rays had the highest bullpen fWAR in MLB.
This wasn’t the season most people expected from the Rays. They were predicted to make the Postseason as a wild card, but their odds to win the World Series, or even the pennant, were long. They exceeded the expectations of pretty much everyone. I, however, must confess some disappointment. Pre-season, the Rays were my pick to win the World Series. This was the second straight year that I picked the series matchup correctly with the wrong winner. Glasnow was my Cy Young, and he didn’t come close. So, yes, the Rays had a great year, but I still had hoped for more.
2020-2021 Offseason Preview
The Rays are a tough team to try and predict. They consistently operate with nearly the lowest payroll in the sport, both because they can and because their owners are unnecessarily frugal. Yet it works; they’re likely the smartest team in baseball and succeed frequently and spectacularly despite never showing a display of financial muscle. They’re also a team of very few weaknesses. The Rays have a player to plug in every spot who will likely outperform expectations.
Yet there are a few points where the Rays vaunted preparedness is running a bit thin. The (maybe) loss of Charlie Morton highlights the fact that they’re running low on conventional starters. Snell, Glasnow, and potentially Yarbrough are a good top of the rotation. Beyond them are prospects and bulk guys in the arms of Josh Fleming, Shane McClanahan, Brent Honeywell Jr., and Yonny Chirinos, if he returns healthy in time. This cadre of potential is possibly good enough to fill out the rest of the rotation, but they could definitely use reinforcements.
While Zunino wasn’t very good in his two seasons as a Ray (49 wRC+, 0.3 fWAR over 373 PA), cutting him means the team is left with zero catchers who have MLB experience. Ronaldo Hernández is a 45 FV prospect and Chris Betts is a 40. Both of them are within the organization’s top 40 prospects, but neither is anything resembling an ideal starting catcher for a World Series contender. That makes Zunino a massive, even though voluntary, loss for the Rays, and tags catcher as the only true hole on the club.
As for the outfield, Arozarena and Kiermaier are locked in as starters; Meadows likely is too, at least against right handers. After those options, the depth is weak. Margot and Tsutsugo are essentially guaranteed roster spots, Renfroe is a lock to be non-tendered, and beyond that it’s tough to guess. Knowing the Rays, they’ll be looking for platoon bats, particularly ones to use against lefties.
The Rays are well known for their ability to pull excellent pitchers out of nowhere. Their bullpen is full of good reliever after good reliever, each with a different mix of stuff and arm angle. The losses of Loup, Drake, and Chaz Roe certainly eat into this vast arsenal, yet if any team can sustain losing three high quality late innings men, it’s Tampa.
Re-signing Morton is the number one move the Rays should make this offseason. He’s indicated a desire to retire if he can’t stay in Tampa Bay, so it’s not like they’ll have to get into a bidding war they can’t win. Plus, they already know that he fits extremely well on the team, since he’s been a great fit for the past two years. Morton is going into his age-37 season, so giving him a one year deal is a no-brainer; the Rays will likely retain him on a contract such as 1-yr/$8M.
Another re-signing that makes a ton of sense is that of Roe (age-34 season). From 2018-2020, Roe was quite solid, with 87 ERA- and 85 FIP- over 110.2 total IP. He was waived by the Rays due to elbow injury, but a return on a 1-yr/$4M deal makes sense for both sides.
Perhaps the thing the Rays are most known for is “fixing” pitchers: taking unspectacular arms and turning them into above-average producers. One man in this free agent class who fits that mold is former hot commodity Michael Wacha (age-29 season). Wacha increased his strikeouts and dropped his walks considerably in 2020, but a rash of home runs obscured his breakout. This resurgence was fueled by an excellent changeup (.243 xwOBA). Increasing the usage of this pitch would turn Wacha into at least a solid mid-rotation starter, and the FanGraphs projection of 1-yr/$3M on him is a worthwhile gamble. Similarly, Mike Foltynewicz (age-29 season), who made just 1 start in 2020, is a Rays-style reclamation chance, with about the same price tag. Brad Peacock (age-33 season) missed much of 2020 as well, but in the prior three seasons he put up 81 ERA- and 82 FIP- as a swing man, and he too would come cheaply. The Rays would do very well to sign one or more of these projects.
On the side of offense, the Rays badly need an experienced catcher. They should look no further than Tyler Flowers (age-35 season). FanGraphs expects him to cost just 1-yr/$4M, an affordable price for a miserly team. Flowers is not a good hitter (91 wRC+ over 686 PA, 2018-2020), but he is an elite pitch framer. Over the past decade only 4 catchers have more framing runs than Flowers, and he has fewer innings caught than all of them. He’d aid an already great pitching stuff, supplementing them with extra strike here and there, and could do the bulk of the catching while the younger options discussed earlier acclimate themselves to MLB competition.
In their outfield, what the Rays need are platoon-friendly, inexpensive bats. Hernández (age-29 season), who I also discussed as a free agent target for the Phillies, fits the Rays mold perfectly. He plays almost every position at least passably, and has a career 120 wRC+ against left handed pitchers. For an agreement in the range of 2-yr/$15M the Rays would have themselves yet another weapon to deploy situationally. The lefty swinging option, which isn’t as sorely needed due to the presence of Meadows, is veteran Matt Joyce (age-36 season). Over 1034 PA versus righties from 2017-2020, Joyce has a cumulative 118 wRC+, making him a real threat against them. He’s not a good fielder, and his Statcast numbers took a frightening tumble in 2020, but if Joyce regains his prior form, he’s an excellent LF/RF/DH option to be the strong half of a platoon, and he’ll come for a pittance, maybe 1-yr/$3M.
Trying to predict the trades the Rays are going to make is a fool’s errand. For that matter, so is trading with them. Don’t trade with the Rays, just don’t do it. Luckily for all of you, my esteemed readers, I’m a fool, and so are a lot of MLB front office decision makers.
One thing, however, seems pretty clear: the Rays will trade Willy Adames. Adames is pre-arbitration, and he’s coming off a career best season. His value will never be higher. More importantly, he’s blocking baseball’s best prospect, Wander Franco. There are a lot of potential landing spots for Adames, so I will list a few of the ones I’ve predicted, then dive into a few other possible swaps the Rays could make.
Reds get: Adames; Rays get: Tejay Antone
This is a simple one-for-one trade. The Reds need offense badly, and they have a surplus of relievers who can be used for multiple innings. They haven’t had a good shortstop in quite some time. Adames certainly aids their offense, and is at minimum an everyday caliber starting shortstop. He fills a real hole for a fringe contender.
The Rays, meanwhile, get a swingman with filthy stuff. In his 2020 rookie season, Antone put up a 3.64 FIP and 2.99 xERA in 35.1 IP. Antone throws hard, with a sinker averaging nearly 96mph, and a devastating curveball (.118 xwOBA, 34.9 Whiff%) slider (.237 xwOBA, 46.7 Whiff%) combination. There are control issues, to the tune of 4.08 BB/9, but the great pitch mix combined with Rays pitching science could easily turn Antone into one of baseball’s very best relievers.
A hefty price to pay, but the Angels are another fringe contender with a big hole in the middle infield, and Adames commands a high price regardless. Stassi has never really gotten the starting chance he deserves, and likely won’t in Anaheim either with Anthony Bemboom, whom the Angels seem to favor, around. Stassi isn’t a great hitter, with a career 83 wRC+ in 591 PA. This isn’t good, of course, but it’s acceptable for a catcher. The main draw of Stassi is that he’s an elite framer: he has accrued +26.6 FRM since 2018. The Rays, of course, have no current starting catcher, and can afford the void of offense when it comes with that glove.
Stassi is valuable, but the real prize for the Rays is closer Mayers. By adding a very good cutter and slashing the usage of his poor fastball, Mayers came out of nowhere to be one of baseball’s best relievers. In 30 IP his numbers were mind-boggling. A 2.10 ERA, 2.19 FIP, 3.38 xFIP, and 2.40 xERA were all very very good. Mayers has three years remaining of team control, during all of which he’ll be arbitration eligible. While he’s getting saves, Mayers’s arbitration salaries will likely be too expensive for the Rays, but letting him dominate for a year for them then flipping him before he gets too expensive is right out of the Rays playbook.
At first glance, Adames doesn’t seem a fit with the Dodgers. Yet, Corey Seager is fast approaching free agency, and the team seems to have lost faith in Gavin Lux, so they’ll be needing a long-term solution in the middle infield. They’re also losing several relievers to free agency this offseason, so the steady Curtiss, who posted above-average marks in all advanced metrics in 2020, would be useful, and could be dealt from the Rays area of strength.
On the other end, Ruiz is blocked by another young catcher in Chavez Ravine, and would be free to play in Tampa. He’s rated as a 50 FV prospect by FanGraphs, and has tremendous contact skills. Ruiz lacks in power, but he’s considered a fairly strong defender behind the plate, and could be a long-term answer at an important position for a team that profiles to be strong for quite some time.
At this point, I’m getting into the non-Adames trades I’ve forecast for the Rays. These are similar to those, in that the Rays are trading away MLB-level players, as if they were rebuilding, but acquiring assets they can use rather quickly and efficiently.
Nationals get: Ji-Man Choi; Rays get: Mason Denaburg
Currently, Choi represents the strong half of a platoon with Michael Brosseau, and he’s quite a good player. An extremely similar, albeit less fun, player waits in the wings for Tampa, however, in the form of Nate Lowe. Lowe could easily slot into the Rays starting lineup against righties immediately, making Choi expendable. Additionally, he’s entering arbitration now, thus the Rays will likely be trying to get rid of him within the next two years. The Nationals, though, are incredibly lacking in offense, and can afford to take on the arbitration salary of Choi. Their projected starting first baseman for 2021 is Jake Noll (I don’t know who he is either). Choi would fit nicely in the middle of the Nationals order, and an improved lineup is what they truly need to get back to the Postseason.
Mason Denaburg is a 45 FV prospect rated in the top 10 of the Nationals system. He’s listed as a 2023 ETA, yet this is as a starting pitcher. Denaburg’s fastball sits in the mid-90s and touches 98; his curve was given a 60 grade and is described as being MLB ready now. Command problems plague Denaburg, and he has only two real plus pitches. A move to the bullpen would significantly speed up his expected development, and he would likely be on the major league roster by the end of 2021. He would give the Rays yet another high octane arm for late innings.
It’s quite possible that the Cardinals enter 2021 as favorites in the NL Central, but aside from the excellent Giovanny Gallegos they’re very weak in the bullpen. Castillo, with his career 71 ERA- and 86 FIP- (147 IP) would be a more than welcome addition. So too would be Beeks, who will be out for likely all of 2021, but has three years of team control remaining after that. Beeks increased his changeup usage by nearly 40% in 2020, leading to career best marks of 1.79 FIP, 2.62 xFIP, 2.61 xERA, 12.10 K/9, and 1.86 BB/9. He would be the best relief arm they had, save for all-world talent Gallegos. Castillo is a depth arm for the Rays, and Beeks clearly isn’t even in their immediate plans. They can afford to lose them, and both would be much more valuable to the Cardinals.
In exchange for these two arms, the Cards can deal from an area of strength themselves. They have, arguably, 8 MLB quality outfielders. The toolsy O’Neill is stuck in a backup role there, but he’d be more properly appreciated in Tampa. O’Neill has massive raw power, with a maxEV of 113.1, and 99th percentile sprint speed (29.6 ft/s). He swings and misses a ton, but that rate fell considerably in 2020, possibly indicating improved plate discipline. He’s already an elite defender, +4 OAA in 2020, and is just one adjustment away from being a star. The Rays can afford to experiment with him and be wrong, and they stand to really gain if they get him right.
2021 Projected Roster
- Meadows, DH
- B. Lowe, 2B
- Arozarena, LF
- Choi, 1B
- Wendle, 3B
- Franco, SS
- Margot, RF
- Kiermaier, CF
- Flowers, C
- Betts, C
- Díaz, 1B/3B
- Brosseau, IF/OF
- O’Neill, OF
- Honeywell Jr.
There are a few things of note here. Most obviously, I predicted the trades with the Reds and Cardinals to both occur. Secondly, this is the lineup against right handed pitchers; the bench was included because of the many platoons the team uses. I’m expecting four big call-ups in Franco, Honeywell Jr., McClanahan, and Betts, and two re-signings, Morton and Roe. The only signing I’m saying will happen outside the organization is a safe pick, Flowers. For bullpen use, your guess is as good as mine with this group. They’re all great and all suitable for high-leverage appearances. On a final note, I did not include Tsutsugo on this roster, though I really don’t expect him to be traded, maybe sent down instead, as he has three minor league options remaining.
The Rays will be trying to follow-up an exceptional season with another one, and regardless of what moves they make this offseason, they’re going to be a World Series contender again. They do have a tendency to get very creative, to great effect, and doing this once more could very well be the thing that gets them over the hump—if they can find anyone who isn’t terrified to trade with them. I’ll certainly be expecting them to play deep into October for a second straight year.