At 96-66, the Rays finished a distant second to the Yankees last year. It was a nice season for the upstart Tampa Bay squad, but nothing to write home about (even though they’ll surely raise a Wild Card banner). And after defeating Oakland in the Wild Card game, Tampa Bay’s season ended at the hands of the Astros in the ALDS.
One would assume that a team in the Rays’ position would attempt to close the gap with the Yankees (and Red Sox?) this winter. The organization has been very active this offseason, but it hasn’t done anything to significantly move the needle.
An outfield makeover…for some reason
Tampa Bay had the 8th-best outfield wRC+ and 10th-best outfield fWAR last season, but made significant changes anyway. Out went Avisaíl García, Tommy Pham, and Guillermo Heredia. In came Hunter Renfroe, Randy Arozarena, and José Martínez to join incumbents Austin Meadows and Kevin Kiermaier. Perhaps Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, who I’ll cover momentarily, will play some outfield as well.
Could the 2020 group be better? Maybe! But this feels like merely making a handful of moves for the sake of it. Here’s what Steamer thinks of the newcomers in 2020:
No projection for Tsutsugo unfortunately, though he’s listed as a third baseman on the Rays’ website and may not play much outfield anyway.
And the guys departing?
I know the Rays are supposed to be one of the league’s “smart” teams, but this shakeup seems like a clear downgrade, no? The Pham for Renfore deal was a head-scratcher right away; just ask Blake Snell!
More corner bats
When the offseason began, Tampa Bay already had Ji-Man Choi, Nate Lowe, Yandy Díaz, and Jesús Aguilar to handle first base and designated hitter duties. Naturally, they decided to complicate things further. Though the Rays cut Aguilar loose, the team added two more names to the mix in the aforementioned Martínez and free agent Yoshitomo Tsutsugo.
Martínez is a big negative in the field, so there’s a good chance he spends a most of his time at DH. That leaves a handful of players competing for time at first base, including Choi, Lowe, Tsutsugo, and Díaz. In fairness, Tsutsugo and Diaz should spend time at the hot corner, which will alleviate the first base logjam to a degree. Tsutsugo could even see some time in left field. Nonetheless, there’s plenty for manager Kevin Cash to sort out on the lineup card each day. Still, it could turn out to be a good problem. There’s big offensive upside here, moreso than last year’s crew.
Let’s talk about what the new names can bring to the table. Martínez’s aforementioned projection may not be terribly exciting, but keep in mind that he was a lifetime .309/.372/.478 (131 wRC+) hitter entering the 2019 season. Then there’s Tsutsugo, who’s got big time power, though whether he can handle high velocity is up for debate. Here’s a snippet of what Baseball Prospectus’s Kazuto Yamazaki had to say about Tsutsugo following the signing:
…The raw power grades out at 80 in NPB and can easily be double-plus by MLB standards…One question remains, however, as to whether he’ll be able to catch up to big-league velocity. I have seen him swing through fastballs in the mid-90s and above, particularly in the inner third of the plate, which was not a huge problem in the Central League, where hurlers averaged at a measly 90 MPH with their four-seam fastballs…
If Martínez can’t find his old form and Tsutsugo can’t handle high velocity, at least the Rays have protection. Choi (112 wRC+ Steamer projection), Diaz (111 wRC+ projection), and Lowe (115 wRC+ projection) should be just fine as fallback options.
Standing pat on the mound
The Rays are bringing back the same gang that had the third-lowest ERA in the league in 2019. Remarkably, that came with Blake Snell (arthroscopic elbow surgery) and Tyler Glasnow (forearm strain) on the injured list for most of the year. The two ended last year with a clean bill of health, at least.
A healthy Snell and Glasnow, along with 36 year-old Charlie Morton, makes a stellar front three for Tampa Bay. Tack on a terrific bullpen spearheaded by Nick Anderson too, and it’s easy to see why the Rays’ front office is so confident in this group. Still, to not add any depth is a bit surprising.
There’s a case to be made that Brendan McKay, Yonny Chirinos, and Ryan Yarbrough are good back-end of the rotation and/or “bulk” guys. Per Steamer, that trio projects to rack up between four and five WAR in 2020 in just under 350 innings. That’s roughly the same as what they delivered in 2019, which proved to be sufficient. But again, if the Rays want to catch the Yankees, they could have improved upon this group.
Ultimately, a lot is riding on Snell and Glasnow staying healthy. The Rays are also counting on Morton to defy traditional aging curves. Yes, all that could happen and make for a terrific pitching staff again. Plus, the team weathered the storm last season, so why can’t it’s current depth do so again if needed? Well, if they want to catch the Yankees, it’s probably not enough. Remember that old baseball adage: you can never have enough pitching.
Lastly, here’s a quick look at the changes to the Rays major league roster.
- Hunter Renfroe
- Yoshitomo Tsutsugo
- José Martínez
- Randy Arozarena
- Tommy Pham
- Avisaíl García
- Eric Sogard
- Travis d’Arnaud
- Matt Duffy
- Jesús Aguilar
- Austin Pruitt
- Guillermo Heredia