The Rays won 96 games to return to the postseason in style, defeating the A’s in the wild card game and then taking the Astros to five games in the ALDS. Tampa Bay will now look to put the final touches on a roster that can get the franchise back into the World Series.
- Blake Snell, SP: $46MM through 2023
- Kevin Kiermaier, CF: $36MM through 2022 (includes $2.5MM buyout of $13MM club option for 2023)
- Brandon Lowe, 2B: $23MM through 2024 (includes $1MM buyout of $10.5MM club option for 2025)
- Charlie Morton, SP: $15MM through 2020 (plus vesting option for 2021)
Arbitration-Eligible Players (projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
- Mike Zunino – $4.9MM
- Matt Duffy – $2.9MM
- Tommy Pham – $8.6MM
- Chaz Roe – $2.2MM
- Jesus Aguilar – $2.5MM
- Guillermo Heredia – $1.1MM
- Oliver Drake – $1.1MM
- Tyler Glasnow – $1.9MM
- Daniel Robertson – $1.1MM
- Non-tender candidates: Zunino, Aguilar, Duffy, Heredia
The Rays suffered one major departure before the offseason even began, as senior VP of baseball operations Chaim Bloom left the organization to become the new Red Sox chief baseball officer. Losing a longtime member of the front office is a blow, and losing Bloom to a deep-pocketed division rival is an even tougher pill to swallow, though the Rays will look to fill the void with internal promotions.
In a way, it’s not unlike how the Rays have historically dealt with losing a big name on the field — simply rely on the organizational depth and try to keep moving forward. We saw that philosophy in action in 2019, as the Rays tied for the second-winningest season in franchise history even while missing key players like Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow, Yandy Diaz, Brandon Lowe, Joey Wendle, and Matt Duffy to the injured list for extended periods of time.
With so much talent already in place and (in theory) better health, it’s possible this winter might not feature quite as much roster churn as past Tampa Bay offseasons. That said, GM Erik Neander and his staff are forever mindful of maximizing their talent core and managing the payroll at the same time. As per Roster Resource, the Rays currently have just under $73.8MM committed for 2020 salaries, something of a high figure by Tampa’s standards — the Rays’ Opening Day payroll has exceeded the $70MM mark only five times in club history.
That projected payroll will be lowered due to at least a couple of non-tenders, with Zunino and Duffy standing out as the most obvious candidates. The former lost his starting catching job to Travis d’Arnaud and the latter struggled through yet another injury-plagued year.
A case could also be made that Guillermo Heredia or Jesus Aguilar could be non-tendered or perhaps traded prior to the arbitration deadline. The Rays could feel they can do better than Heredia in the backup outfield role, and Aguilar could be expendable with both Ji-Man Choi, Nate Lowe and perhaps another acquisition (more on that shortly) in the first base/DH mix. Since the Rays are also facing a 40-man roster crunch in advance of the Rule 5 Draft, they could be aggressive in their non-tender decisions as a way of both creating roster space and saving a few dollars at the same time. The Rays could also explore bringing back any non-tendered players on lower salaries later in the offseason.
Looking around the everyday lineup, the trio of Tommy Pham, Kevin Kiermaier, and Austin Meadows will return in the outfield. Pham and Meadows were big pluses for the Rays last year, though Kiermaier struggled through his second consecutive subpar year at the plate. Given that Kiermaier is Tampa’s highest-paid position player but has constantly been plagued with injuries and an inconsistent bat, it wouldn’t be outlandish to imagine that the Rays would explore trade possibilities, if any reasonable offers could be found. However, the likelier scenario is that Kiermaier returns, as the Rays don’t have any other real center field candidates in the offing.
Around the infield, Willy Adames is locked in at shortstop, though super-prospect Wander Franco could potentially start to make his presence felt by late 2020. Diaz and Brandon Lowe are respectively penciled in for the bulk of third base and second base duties, with Joey Wendle bouncing between the two positions and Lowe also capable of seeing some time at first base or in the corner outfield. If Duffy returns, he’d be deployed at third base, opening Diaz up to spend some time as a right-handed counterpoint to Choi and Nate Lowe at first base and DH. Daniel Robertson and Mike Brosseau would also be hand for bench roles.
It isn’t a bad unit, though in the wake of 2019’s injuries, the Rays might prefer the stability of adding a big bat who can play every day. The first base/DH spot is the most logical space for such a player, particularly a right-handed bat. A player with multi-positional versatility would fit the Rays’ model, and Florida native and World Series hero Howie Kendrick is an interesting option on the free agent market.
If the Rays were content with a strict first baseman/DH, however, and were open to spending a bit more as they chase a potential championship, a free agent like Jose Abreu or Edwin Encarnacion could potentially be in play. It wouldn’t even be out of the question to see either Abreu or Encarnacion get only one-year offers given how the market has treated veteran first basemen in recent years, making such players more enticing to the Rays as a one-year splurge.
To address depth needs, the Rays haven’t ruled out reunions with free agents Avisail Garcia or Eric Sogard, depending on how the market shakes out for either player. Re-signing Sogard to the infield mix could push Diaz into the role as the right-handed complement to Choi and Lowe. Instead, Garcia could see some time at DH or in right field, allowing for Meadows or other players to cycle through the DH slot on partial rest days.
Travis d’Arnaud is another player the Rays would like to have back, though he might have priced himself out of Tampa’s range after a career-reviving 92-game stint with the team. d’Arnaud was both productive and healthy in 2019, and now looks to be the second-best option on the free agent catcher market after Yasmani Grandal.
Catcher has been enough of a problem area for the Rays over the years that they might be willing to engage in a minor bidding war if they like what they’ve seen in d’Arnaud, as otherwise, the club will again be looking for answers behind the plate. d’Arnaud signing elsewhere would make it perhaps almost a necessity that Zunino be retained, as otherwise, Michael Perez would be Tampa’s top in-house choice as the starting catcher, leaving the Rays sifting through the second- or third-tier options on the free agent or trade markets.
Tampa Bay’s bullpen pitched very well last season, and the team will bring just about its entire crop of arms back for another year of constant restocking and reshuffling between the majors and Triple-A Durham. Emilio Pagan had a big year and is again slated to receive the bulk of closing duties, though the Rays are flexible enough with their bullpen usage that Diego Castillo, Colin Poche, or perhaps a variety of other pitchers could receive save chances depending on the situation. The Rays are likely to add at least one veteran arm to their mix, though perhaps even just on a minor league contract.
One area that isn’t likely to receive much attention is starting pitching, as the Rays are tentatively hoping that a healthy rotation of Charlie Morton, Snell, Glasnow, Yonny Chirinos, and Ryan Yarbrough can be one of baseball’s best. It’s worth noting that even with all the injuries, the Rays already had one of the sport’s top rotations in 2019, as the Rays continued to achieve great results with their use of the opener for (as it turned out) multiple turns in the starting five. Chirinos and Yarbrough were both “promoted” to regular starter roles after being primarily used as bulk pitchers behind an opener, so the Rays could continue using them as normal starters, or perhaps again turn to an opener given how successful the strategy has been.
Top prospect and two-way player Brendan McKay made his MLB debut in 2019 and is an intriguing wild card for both the rotation or even the DH mix. Midseason pickup Trevor Richards, Austin Pruitt, or former top prospects Anthony Banda and Jose De Leon could also factor in as further depth options, or bulk pitchers.
The Rays’ playoff success isn’t likely to lead to any uncharacteristic spending, as the club’s last big splurge in the 2013-14 offseason (when Andrew Friedman still ran the baseball operations department) backfired, and indirectly contributed to four straight losing seasons from 2014-17. That said, after signing Morton to a $30MM deal last winter, one can’t deny the possibility that Neander could have another bold move or two in store in order to put the Rays over the top in the AL East.