For a fourth consecutive season, Rays president of baseball operations Erik Neander held a press conference to discuss his team’s playoff exit — this time after seeing the Rays’ lineup held to just one run in 24 innings during a two-game Wild Card ousting at the hands of the Guardians (links via Adam Berry of MLB.com and Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times). In broad terms, Neander spoke of a need to improve the offense, particularly against right-handed pitching, while also praising the depth and quality of the returning pitching staff.
As a collective unit, Rays hitters batted just .234/.305/.373 against right-handed pitching. Their 24% strikeout rate against righties was seventh-worst in MLB (and trailing only one playoff club, Atlanta). Rays hitters connected on 108 homers against righties, placing them 22nd among MLB clubs.
There are varying reasons for the struggles against righties. Playing much of the season without injured lefty-swinging Brandon Lowe, a career .257/.353/.505 hitter when holding the platoon advantage, deprived the Rays of one of their top power threats against right-handed opposition. Wander Franco and Kevin Kiermaier also missed substantial time, and the Rays received a fairly pedestrian showing from deadline pickup David Peralta, who was largely acquired for his track record in this specific area. The spate of health issues pushed the Rays to lean on younger, unproven players more often than they’d have liked and also brought about more right-on-right matchups than the team would surely have preferred.
To that end, Neander indicated that changes are likely on the horizon. While of course declining to mention specific names, the team’s top decision-maker indicated a need to “raise” the team’s “offensive standards” and plainly indicated that the Rays cannot simply “stand pat and assume things will get better.” As ever with the Rays, an active offseason seemingly awaits.
Some degree of turnover was always to be expected, given the Rays’ massive slate of 19 arbitration-eligible players — the most of any team in Major League Baseball. That group will cost a projected $42MM next season, per MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz. Paired with the roughly $25MM in guaranteed contracts on next year’s books (Franco, Lowe, Manuel Margot, Tyler Glasnow and Brooks Raley), plus a handful of pre-arbitration players to round things out, that $42MM sum would push the Rays north of $70MM — a small payroll number for most organizations but one that’s more significant at Tropicana Field. The Rays ran out a franchise-record payroll in 2022 but still clocked in around $85-86MM, illustrating the relative heft of this year’s arbitration class.
As far as potential candidates for a change of scenery, Topkin unsurprisingly indicates that first baseman Ji-Man Choi “seems to be on the way out.” Given Choi’s projected $4.5MM salary, his proximity to free agency (next winter), and the fact that he’s seen his power dip while his strikeouts have risen over the past couple seasons, he stands out as a fairly obvious trade or non-tender candidate. The Rays regularly find low-cost platoon options at first base and designated hitter, which is how Choi landed in Tampa Bay in the first place. (Southpaw Ryan Yarbrough, who lost his rotation spot this year, is out of minor league options in 2023 and could earn more than $4MM in arbitration, seems like another clear candidate, in my view.)
More interestingly, Topkin suggests that the Rays will at least be open to the idea of trading Randy Arozarena this winter (though, to be clear, that’s a far cry from suggesting he’ll be shopped or that he’s likely to be moved). The 27-year-old is still controllable for another four seasons and is only projected to earn $4MM next season in the first of what’ll be four trips through arbitration as a Super Two player, so there shouldn’t be any urgency for the Rays to move him. At the same time, Arozarena could fetch some immediate MLB help in other areas if the Rays are either confident in their in-house outfield options or if they’re able to acquire some additional corner outfield help, be it via trade or free agency.
While subtractions from the arb class — be they via trade or free agency — will lower the club’s payroll, so will the expected departure of some veteran mainstays. Kiermaier’s $13MM club option will surely be declined in favor of a $2.5MM buyout after the perennial defensive standout saw his season truncated by July hip surgery. Catcher Mike Zunino, meanwhile, underwent surgery to alleviate thoracic outlet syndrome. That pair accounted for a combined $19MM in salary this past season.
Neander noted that both players have been important to the Rays over the past several seasons and that the team will be open to discussing returns with each of them. Obviously, with Kiermaier and Zunino both less than three months into their rehab from notable surgeries, the status of their recovery will be paramount both with regard to the potential fit and price point in free agency. Both figure to draw interest from other clubs, too, considering their defensive excellence and the near-perennial scarcity of quality open-market options in center field and behind the plate.