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In one of the most fascinating seasons in recent memory, the Rays overhauled their roster, rid themselves of virtually all major financial commitments, experimented with a new way of how to view a “starting pitcher”…and were all the better on the field for it. The Rays shocked baseball with a 90-win season, defying the preseason belief in some quarters that they’d be one of the league’s worst teams. Instead, Tampa will now look to augment an already-talented core group with a few more pieces that can get the club back into the playoffs.
- Kevin Kiermaier, CF: $44MM through 2022 (includes $2.5MM buyout of $13MM club option for 2023)
Arbitration Eligible Players (projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
- Jesus Sucre — $1.2MM
- Vidal Nuno — $900K
- C.J. Cron — $5.2MM
- Matt Duffy — $2.6MM
- Tommy Pham — $4MM
- Chaz Roe — $1.4MM
- Non-tender candidates: Nuno, Sucre, Cron
After going into fire-sale mode last winter, the Rays continued to unload veteran names throughout the 2018 season, ultimately sending Alex Colome, Denard Span, Brad Miller, Matt Andriese, Nathan Eovaldi, Wilson Ramos, Adeiny Hechavarria, and Chris Archer out of town in a series of trades. It was the Archer deal, completed on deadline day, that really seemed to mark an end of an era in Rays baseball, as Tampa finally dealt its long-time top starter and firmly looked ahead to the future.
One could hardly have guessed, however, that the “future” would come so soon. Tampa’s 54-53 record on July 31 was already enough of a surprise for a team widely predicted to be a non-contender, yet the Rays went into overdrive over the final two months, posting a 36-19 mark in August and September that allowed the team to reach the 90-win plateau for just the sixth time in franchise history.
Almost all of the core group that contributed to that late-season hot streak will be returning in 2019. Matt Duffy, Willy Adames, Joey Wendle, and Jake Bauers currently project as the starting infield, with Daniel Robertson and Brandon Lowe providing utility depth. Robertson (who was hampered by injuries last year) could very well push Duffy or Adames for regular duty at third base or shortstop, while prospects Christian Arroyo and Nathaniel Lowe could be in the mix for playing time. Wendle’s breakout year as a super-utility weapon can also put him and Lowe in the corner outfield mix, as they’ll join Austin Meadows as the backup choices behind Tommy Pham, Kevin Kiermaier, and Mallex Smith.
Of course, recently-extended skipper Kevin Cash will have plenty of opportunity to mix and match in search of favorable match-ups. And it seems likely that the front office braintrust, led by GM Erik Neander and senior baseball ops VP Chaim Bloom, isn’t quite done tinkering with this mix. Just how they’ll approach the offseason isn’t easy to guess from the outside, but it stands to reason they’ll both target some areas of need and explore opportunities to achieve value.
One area that seems ripe for some change is the catching position. Michael Perez has the inside track on at least a share of the regular role behind the dish, though the team is likely to acquire a veteran to compete with Nick Ciuffo for the right to work as Perez’s platoon partner or backup. A right-handed hitting catcher could be a better fit, as both Perez and Ciuffo hit from the left side.
The Tampa Bay brass will have some decisions to make at first base. Ji-Man Choi exploded after joining the Rays in a minor midseason deal with Milwaukee, posting an .877 OPS over 189 plate appearances in a Tampa Bay uniform. While Choi has played first base and left field in his brief MLB career, the Rays used him almost exclusively as a designated hitter and against right-handed pitching, so there’s room on the bench for another first-base capable righty bat to spell either Choi or Bauers. It’s possible Tampa could simply rotate its internal options through the DH spot to keep everyone fresh, or further take advantage of the versatility offered by Wendle or Robertson by giving either the occasional start at first base.
The other option would be to pursue a relatively low-cost first baseman in free agency or on the trade market, or simply to retain C.J. Cron in arbitration. Though Cron hit .253/.323/.493 with a career-high 30 homers over 560 PA last season, Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times, suggested that Cron will probably be dealt or even non-tendered. It could be that Cron’s somewhat one-dimensional offensive game and ability to only play one position make him an odd fit on a club that ended up prioritizing lineup flexibility and almost eschewing power (27th of 30 teams in home runs) to create a more diverse offense based around contact hitting, speed, and reaching base. (While Choi has many of the same limitations as Cron, Choi is also a pre-arb player with five years of team control.)
There’s also the fact that Cron’s projected arbitration salary is $5.2MM, so the Rays may believe they can find similar production in a power-heavy league for a lower price. Depending on how the rest of the first base market shakes out, Tampa Bay could also non-tender Cron and then try to re-sign him for less money. This may seem like a tough fate for Cron in the wake of a 30-homer, 122 wRC+ season, but as we’ve seen over the last two offseasons, teams simply haven’t been willing to pay much for non-elite first base/DH bats.
After unloading so many of their more expensive players who were already under contract or in line for higher arbitration numbers, this will be the first offseason in a while where payroll isn’t necessarily of the utmost concern for the Rays front office. Kiermaier is the only player guaranteed money in 2019 and beyond, putting the Rays on pace for a 2019 payroll not even half the size of their $76.39MM payroll from Opening Day 2018. This “allows greater flexibility” for the Rays in their offseason acquisitions, as Neander told Topkin and other reporters, though I wouldn’t expect Tampa Bay to spend anywhere close to $76MM in player salaries. You could see the Rays spread some money around on a few players rather than a singular big splash, and maybe save a bit more for midseason additions if necessary.
More room could be created if a trade partner could be found for Kiermaier, who is owed $44MM through 2022 (this figure includes the $2.5MM buyout of a $13MM club option for 2023) and may be expendable since Smith and Meadows can both play center field. The Rays would be selling low on Kiermaier in the wake of another injury-plagued year for the defensive standout, as he was limited to 88 games due to thumb surgery and then a hairline fracture in his foot in the season’s final week.
Kiermaier has played in just 291 of a possible 486 games over the last three seasons, and his hitting numbers took a drop in 2018 after climbing above average (108 wRC+) in 2016-17. A healthy Kiermaier who delivers even moderate offense along with his elite glovework can be a major plus in any lineup, so it could be that the Rays hang onto the 28-year-old into next season to see if he can help them contend, or to let him rebuild value for a potential swap.
Whether Kiermaier is one of the players on the move or not, expect Neander and company to again heavily focus on the trade market for the bulk of their winter activity. (The Mariners and Diamondbacks, in particular, should be on alert for calls from a 727 or 813 area code.) Some deals will be necessary just to create some 40-man roster space, as the Rays are facing a crunch to protect enough of their prospects before the Rule 5 draft, though Tampa could also make trade chips of some of these well-regarded minor leaguers plus any Major League roster members that the team doesn’t see as long-term pieces.
It will be particularly interesting to see how the Rays address their rotation, such as it is, as the team has already said that the “opener” strategy will again be deployed in 2019. The Rays’ unconventional use of a short reliever to start a game’s first inning or two before giving way to a long reliever (a.k.a. the “headliner”) generated much controversy around baseball — some praised the creativity, while others questioned whether the strategy would prove too taxing on a bullpen over the long haul, in addition to criticism that Tampa was ruining the starting pitcher’s status within the game.
Given the results, however, the Rays would’ve probably faced more criticism if they abandoned what proved to be a winning method. The Rays posted the sixth-lowest team ERA in baseball, and their strong finishes in various fielding-independent pitching metrics (fifth in FIP, seventh in SIERA, ninth in xFIP) and a .297 wOBA-against that almost directly matched their .300 xwOBA-against indicated that the performance wasn’t built on good fortune.
One big reason the Rays were able to succeed with their openers, of course, was the fact that they had a more traditional ace develop in the form of AL Cy Young Award contender Blake Snell. Attempting to sign Snell to an extension would mean negotiating with him after a breakout season, though he and his reps will surely have at least some interest in locking in some earnings and protecting against the risk that comes with the job. Certainly, the Rays have proven able in the past to strike such deals when they wish to, a practice that has saved the club loads of money in the long run and ultimately facilitated some notable trades. Even if Snell doesn’t quite match his 2018 production going forward, a young starter signed to a reasonable contract can still be quite a valuable asset, as we saw with the strong haul that Tampa Bay received for Archer.
Going into 2019, Snell and Tyler Glasnow are the only projected full-time starters in the rotation. Yonny Chirinos and Ryan Yarbrough were the most successful of the headliners and could be fully stretched out to be proper starters, or the Rays could simply continue to use them in their 2018 roles. Top pitching prospects Brent Honeywell and Jose De Leon should be available by midseason as they return from Tommy John surgery, though it seems likely that they’ll be used as headliners in order to ease them back into regular pitching duty. Such a long relief job might also be the best use of young right-hander Jake Faria, who is trying to rebound from a disappointing and injury-shortened season.
Normally, a low-payroll team with just two set starters would seem like an ideal candidate to acquire a veteran arm to eat innings. If the opener strategy has taught us anything, however, it’s that such expenditures might not be worth it for a team looking to save their dollars — why pay a veteran even a modest $5MM or $6MM per season to chew up innings once every five games when a shrewdly-deployed bullpen can do the same at a fraction of the cost, and with likely better results? If anything, the Rays could look to sign a veteran arm coming off a rough season or an injury with an eye towards turning them into a headliner to rebuild their value, as it did recently with Eovaldi.
The Rays could also spend on their bullpen by bringing in more swingmen capable of tossing multiple innings, or a veteran with closing experience to replace free agent Sergio Romo. Jose Alvarado earned an increasing number of save opportunities down the stretch and is probably the Rays’ top in-house choice to take over the closer’s job, though hard-throwing Ryne Stanek (the most frequent of the openers, “starting” 29 games) has also often been tabbed a closer of the future. Given these varying needs, Trevor Rosenthal could be an interesting target. Not only is he likely to present some value upside as a Tommy John rehabber, but he has plenty of high-leverage experience and a well-documented desire to be given a chance to throw more innings.
Of course, it’s probably not safe to assume that the Rays will use a traditional closer rather than mix and match their ninth inning plans based on matchups. After all, nothing can really be ruled out when it comes to the Rays and data-driven strategies. The team already took care of one bit of business by extending Cash, ensuring that the Rays’ creativity pipeline will continue to flow as usual within both the front office and the dugout. It could be that opponents will start to figure out the Rays’ tricks over the course of a full season, though the team’s deep wealth of multi-positional players and multi-role pitchers make them a difficult team to prepare against.
The success of this in-season rebuild on the fly has put the Rays in position to compete for a wild card spot in 2019, or perhaps even mount a challenge to the Red Sox and Yankees for AL East supremacy if everything absolutely breaks right. As eye-opening as the Rays’ tactics were in 2018, it will be just as interesting to see how they take the next step forward this winter.