The reigning American League champions will deploy their usual strategy of tight payroll management and canny roster maneuvering as they look to take the final step of capturing a World Series.
- Blake Snell, SP: $39MM through 2023
- Kevin Kiermaier, CF: $26MM through 2022 (includes $2.5MM buyout of $13MM club option for 2023)
- Brandon Lowe, 2B/OF: $21.5MM through 2024 (includes $1MM buyout of $10.5MM club option for 2025; Rays also hold $11.5MM club option for 2026)
- Yoshi Tsutsugo, 3B/OF: $7MM through 2021
Note on arb-eligible players: this year’s arbitration projections are more volatile than ever, given the unprecedented revenue losses felt by clubs and the shortened 2020 schedule. MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz, who developed our arbitration projection model, used three different methods to calculate different projection numbers. You can see the full projections and an explanation of each if you click here, but for the purposes of our Outlook series, we’ll be using Matt’s 37-percent method — extrapolating what degree of raise a player’s 2020 rate of play would have earned him in a full 162-game slate and then awarding him 37 percent of that raise.
- Jose Alvarado – $1.0MM
- Yonny Chirinos – $1.6MM
- Ji-Man Choi – $1.6MM
- Tyler Glasnow – $3.2MM
- Manuel Margot – $2.9MM
- Joey Wendle – $1.6MM
- Ryan Yarbrough – $2.2MM
- Non-tender candidates: Chirinos, Alvarado
It’s possible that in a normal 2020 season with fans in the stands and some extra postseason revenue in hand, the Rays might have taken the plunge in exercising Charlie Morton’s $15MM option. Or, it’s just as possible that the Rays would have declined the option anyway, since trying to maximize value on any available payroll space is just how the team does business. This includes even tough decisions like parting ways with Morton, who delivered nothing but good results over his two years in Tampa Bay.
Given the Rays’ 226-158 record over the last three seasons and the fact that they finished just two games shy of a World Series title, it’s hard to argue with the club’s methods. It also makes their offseason moves both somewhat easy and somewhat difficult to predict. Obviously we can rule out any big free agent signings or acquisitions of high-salaried stars (without another big contract going back in return), yet pretty much anything else besides a Wander Franco trade is conceivably on the table.
For instance, it isn’t surprising that the Rays are open to discussing Blake Snell in trade talks. Should any future reports indicate that Tampa Bay is floating other guaranteed-salary players like Kevin Kiermaier, Yoshi Tsutsugo, or even Brandon Lowe in discussions with other teams, that also shouldn’t raise eyebrows. It remains to be seen if Snell or any of this group will actually be dealt, but GM Erik Neander has shown he is willing to deal even premium players for less-heralded talents who are much less expensive but end up being comparably productive.
Let’s begin with the rotation, which is the most natural area of need with Morton gone. The Rays had hopes of bringing Morton back on a lesser salary, but the veteran found another $15MM in the form of a one-year deal with the Braves. That leaves Snell, Ryan Yarbrough, Tyler Glasnow, and likely Josh Fleming as the projected top four starters, with a host of candidates for the fifth spot. Prospects Shane McClanahan and Joe Ryan are on the cusp of big league action — McClanahan debuted in this year’s postseason — and the hope is that former top prospect Brent Honeywell Jr. might finally be healthy after three years lost to major injuries. Brendan McKay isn’t expected to be ready for the start of the season after undergoing shoulder surgery, but is penciled in to pitch at some point in 2021.
While the Rays have shown they’re comfortable putting young starters into high-leverage positions, it’s probably safe to assume the team will look to add at least one veteran to the mix. We can likely rule out any eight-figure average annual salaries for that next veteran — Morton’s two-year, $30MM deal was a surprise — but several interesting names could emerge as candidates for lower-cost one-year deals. These free agents could be attracted at the idea of pitching for a contender.
Tampa figures to look into acquiring a veteran to the relief corps as well, probably a left-hander since the club’s current bullpen mix tilts to the right. Jose Alvarado is a potential non-tender and Aaron Loup is a free agent, so there would certainly be room for more southpaw help. But, the Rays will likely continue to rely on their farm system and their ever-active shuttle of fresh Triple-A pitcher to fill out their pitching staff, whether it’s starters, relievers, or openers.
Trading from this minor league depth is a definite possibility, if perhaps a less of an option for the Rays this offseason than in past winters. Between all of their pitching injuries last season and Morton’s departure, the Rays might prefer to keep most of their young arms in the fold rather than openly offer them as trade chips, though naturally that wouldn’t stop Neander and company from moving a pitching prospect if the right offer emerged.
In what has become almost an annual offseason tradition, the Rays will again be looking for catching help. Mike Zunino’s option was declined, Michael Perez was claimed by the Pirates, and Kevan Smith elected free agency, leaving Tampa Bay without a single catcher who appeared in a game for them in 2020. It’s possible Zunino could be re-signed at a lower cost than his $4.5MM option, though even if he is brought back, the Rays would be in some sense settling for a catcher who offers quality defense but whose offense has cratered over the last two seasons. Prospect Ronaldo Hernandez could get a look but is more likely to be broken in as a backup rather than thrust into a regular role.
There aren’t many truly expensive options within the free agent catching market, so the Rays could make a signing and land another one-year stopgap behind the plate. If Tampa Bay did decide to trade from its prospect depth, it could be argued that they should be using that trade capital to find a more longer-term catching option. There aren’t many teams with a surplus of young catching, of course, but the Padres or Dodgers seem like speculative trade partners. Since the Cubs seem open to trading any veteran making a significant salary, Willson Contreras would also seem like a trade target, though Contreras’ projected $5.6MM arbitration salary might give the Rays some pause.
Elsewhere around the diamond, Randy Arozarena’s status is up in the air given his recent detainment due to an alleged domestic incident. Details are still scarce about the exact nature of the incident or what charges Arozarena may face, though legal issues aside, Arozarena may still face a possible suspension under the MLB/MLBPA joint domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse policy.
The outfield was probably already going to be a target area since Hunter Renfroe was let go, but if Arozarena could also miss time, the Rays would have a starting outfield of Manuel Margot, Kiermaier, and Austin Meadows, with Brett Phillips as a potential fourth outfielder, and Tsutsugo, Lowe, and Mike Brosseau all getting some time in the corner spots. (Prospect Josh Lowe, Tampa Bay’s first-round pick in 2016, could also make his MLB debut in 2021.) A right-handed hitting outfielder would be a solid addition to that collection, and Arozarena’s situation could determine whether that outfielder is more of a part-timer, or a potential everyday type.
The Rays are pretty set around the infield, but it would fit Neander’s M.O. to trade any of these players if a (more) inexpensive upgrade could be found elsewhere. Depending on how the Rays feel about Nate Lowe’s readiness as a regular, it’s possible Ji-Man Choi could be replaced as the primary left-handed first base option, though Choi’s $1.6MM projected arbitration number isn’t onerous even for Tampa.
With so many controllable infielders already on hand, the Rays might feel more comfortable about moving some infield prospects in trade talks. Franco obviously isn’t going anywhere, but the likes of Vidal Brujan, Taylor Walls, or Xavier Edwards would definitely get the attention of other clubs.
Franco’s development looms over the Rays’ infield plans, and while he doesn’t even turn 20 years old until March and has yet to play above high-A ball, it wouldn’t be a shock if he made his big league debut before 2021 was over. Rays coaches and staffers did get a chance to evaluate Franco against higher-level talent at the team’s alternate training site over the summer, and Tampa has been aggressive in promoting its top prospects in the past. This all said, the smart money is on Willy Adames continuing to hold down the fort at shortstop while Franco gets another year of development under his belt.
Pre-pandemic, Tampa Bay had a projected Opening Day payroll of just under $72.5MM. Counting guaranteed contracts, projected arbitration salaries, and minimum salaries for pre-arb players, the Rays have approximately $63.68MM committed to their 2021 payroll. Considering revenue losses, getting back up to even the $70MM threshold seems like a stretch, leaving Neander (as usual) without many extra funds on hand this winter. The Rays front office’s ability to thrive within limited financial parameters will again be tested, but with much of a pennant-winning core already in place, Tampa could be just a piece or two away.