MLBTR will provide a broader view of each club’s winter plans when our annual Offseason Outlook series kicks off at the end of the regular season. Until then, the Rays are the latest team to be featured in our quick look at this season’s non-contenders. We’ve already covered the Angels, Brewers, and Twins.
Things fell apart this year for Tampa Bay, which entered with hopes that a deep rotation and bolstered offense would spur a return to the playoffs. Instead, the club vanished into the basement of the AL East — a place it hadn’t visited since 2007 — and ended up dealing away Matt Moore, Brandon Guyer, and Steve Pearce at the trade deadline.
Still, the most significant of those trades, the Moore swap, brought back a controllable major league asset in Matt Duffy — who, they hope, will fill a need at shortstop — and the organization continues to field a number of affordable players with reasonable promise. A full-blown rebuild seems unlikely for a team that has typically focused on remaining competitive even while hunting for value and exchanging increasingly expensive veterans for youthful talent.
Operating on the presumption that the Rays don’t intend to shop their best assets this winter, preferring instead to build around their core, here are three areas where the team has significant needs this winter:
1. Make a good investment to bolster the lineup.
The Rays have been an approximately average offensive team this year — 11th in wRC+ but 21st in runs scored — but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an opportunity for improvement. Tampa Bay has just $25MM committed in 2017, excepting some reasonably significant arbitration bills coming due, and it has several areas ripe for acquisitions.
Logan Morrison is vacating the first base position, as James Loney did before him, and the team could stand to add some punch to a position that has been a problem for the last three seasons. There are several ways to go. Brad Miller delivered a .258 isolated slugging mark against right-handed pitching this year, and could be paired with a lefty-killing slugger to create a strong platoon. Or, Miller could be utilized in a more free-ranging utility role (along with Nick Franklin), with the club angling to find a bigger bat to handle the bulk of work at first and/or DH.
The other area crying out for a bat is the corner outfield. As with the first base position, recent acquisitions (Corey Dickerson, Steven Souza) haven’t been as productive as hoped. Dickerson proved completely unable to hit left-handed pitching this year, while Souza wasn’t capable of reeling in the strikeouts and also saw his walk rate plunge. Getting these players on the right path remains a priority, but finding suitable platoon partners and/or signing a new everyday corner piece should be firmly on the table.
True, there are some internal options on the horizon to bolster the offense. Jake Bauers just finished a full Double-A season at only 20 years of age, so he’s probably still got some growing to do. But Casey Gillaspie posted a .307/.389/.520 line in 203 plate appearances after moving up to Triple-A, so he could challenge for some time at first base or in the DH slot in camp.
Whichever paths are pursued here, there’s clearly opportunity to put together a productive lineup, with Evan Longoria and Logan Forsythe leading the way. The upcoming market for free agents includes many more viable hitters than starting pitchers. But Tampa Bay will need to make more judicious use of its limited resources to make that happen. Unearthing the next Steve Pearce-like bounceback candidate would obviously help, but a bigger and better investment in the offense may be warranted.
2. Sort out the catching situation.
Tampa Bay is the only team in baseball with negative WAR behind the plate over the last three years. While that metric doesn’t incorporate framing, Rays catchers haven’t exactly excelled in that regard either (see Stat Corner, Baseball Prospectus).
The current group was plainly inadequate this season. Hank Conger was outrighted after his poor offensive showing and well-documented throwing problems. Curt Casali’s overall offensive output was about one-third as valuable on a rate basis (51 OPS+ vs. 143 OPS+) as his promising (but brief) work in 2015. Luke Maile hasn’t been much better in his 37 games of action. Bobby Wilson does carry a useful .247/.295/.438 slash since finding his way to the Rays, but he’s on his third team of the year and doesn’t figure to be much of a future asset (though he can be retained through arbitration).
Looking forward, former first-round pick Justin O’Conner has shown promise in the past, but he was significantly limited by a back injury this year and still needs seasoning. Even if he or another youngster (such as Jonah Heim, acquired in the Pearce deal) can provide an answer down the line, there’s a glaring need in the near-term. There are a fair number of potentially useful free agent candidates — including Matt Wieters, Jason Castro, Nick Hundley, Geovany Soto, Alex Avila, and Jarrod Saltalamacchia — though Tampa Bay likely won’t play at the top of the market for Wilson Ramos.
Turning the catching position into a strength is going to be a major challenge, and it’s one that Rays president of baseball ops Matt Silverman will likely attempt to tackle creatively, but getting some kind of functional solution is imperative if the team hopes to compete.
3. Deepen the bullpen.
The rotation may not have been quite the strength the Rays hoped it would be in 2016, but the staff was solid enough and holds the promise for much more — especially with Alex Cobb back and Blake Snell entering what will likely be his first full year of major league action. It’s the relief corps that has struggled.
Wins above replacement probably isn’t the best way to judge relievers, but Tampa Bay’s unit was markedly poor by that measure. Despite carrying one of the lighter workloads around the game (462 innings), the Rays’ pen landed in the back third of the league in RA9-WAR, too, as well as ERA and ERA estimators FIP, xFIP, and SIERA.
There are some positives, of course. Alex Colome proved to be a lights-out closer, Xavier Cedeno continued to be a quality southpaw, Matt Andriese was excellent when throwing from the pen, and Danny Farquhar has been rather dominant since his return from the minors (three earned runs on 17 hits and nine walks with 31 strikeouts in 20 2/3 innings).
Beyond that, though, it has been rather ugly. The season was a disaster for former closer Brad Boxberger, who has given up gobs of walks when he has been healthy enough to pitch. Erasmo Ramirez may have been used as a “super-reliever,” but he wasn’t exactly super in that capacity. And the other pitchers who handled the bulk of the load — Ryan Garton, Enny Romero, Steve Geltz and Dana Eveland all topped twenty innings — were generally unsuccessful.
Adding some new arms to the picture seems like a necessity, though some could come from within. If Brent Honeywell and/or Jacob Faria can finish their development, they could reach the rotation and bump Andriese or Drew Smyly to the pen. And other arms, including Dylan Floro, Ryne Stanek, and Taylor Guerrieri, could enter the picture as well.
But it’s not at all clear that any of those internal options can be relied upon, particularly early in the season. Tampa Bay may need to bring in some talent via trade and/or free agency to compile a unit capable of keeping the team in the running in what promises to be a tough AL East division.