After reaching the ALDS last season, the Rays had their usual busy offseason in search of the roster mix that could bring them into championship contention.
Major League Signings
- Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, 3B/OF: Two years, $12MM (plus $2.4MM in posting/release fees to Yokohama DeNA BayStars)
- Total spend: $14.4MM
Trades And Claims
- Acquired OF Hunter Renfroe and IF prospect Xavier Edwards from the Padres for OF Tommy Pham and minor league IF/RP Jake Cronenworth
- Acquired 1B/OF Jose Martinez, OF Randy Arozarena, and a Competitive Balance Round A draft pick from the Cardinals for LHP prospect Matthew Liberatore, C prospect Edgardo Rodriguez, and a Competitive Balance Round B draft pick
- Acquired OF Manuel Margot and C/OF prospect Logan Driscoll from the Padres for RP Emilio Pagan
- Acquired OF prospect Cal Stevenson and RHP prospect Peyton Battenfield from the Astros for RP Austin Pruitt
- Acquired cash considerations and a player to be named later from the Reds for RHP Jose De Leon
- Acquired 1B/OF Brian O’Grady from the Reds for cash considerations and a player to be named later
- Acquired IF prospect Curtis Mead from the Phillies for LHP prospect Cristopher Sanchez
Notable Minor League Signings
- Kevan Smith, Aaron Loup, Chris Herrmann, Dylan Covey, Sean Gilmartin, Ryan LaMarre, Brooks Pounders, Aaron Slegers, Deck McGuire, John Curtiss, Johnny Davis, D.J. Snelten
- Avisail Garcia, Travis d’Arnaud, Eric Sogard, Guillermo Heredia, Jesus Aguilar, Matt Duffy, Pagan, Pruitt, Liberatore
After finishing second among Tampa Bay position players with a 3.3 fWAR in 2019, Tommy Pham found himself heading out of town, sent to the Padres as part of a four-player deal. The minor leaguers exchanged in that deal — highly-touted infielder Xavier Edwards and a potential two-way threat in Jake Cronenworth — are certainly noteworthy, with the Rays getting the slightly longer-term prospect in Edwards while Cronenworth could help San Diego as early as this season. But, looking at just the big-league return in the trade, the Rays sent an older, pricier, but more established hitter in Pham to the Padres for the powerful but less-polished young slugger in Hunter Renfroe.
With 70 homers over 1450 career plate appearances, we know Renfroe can mash, though his lifetime batting average (.235) and OBP (.294) leave much to be desired. 2019 saw Renfroe enjoy something of a breakout in the first half of the season before being hampered by injuries, though even Renfroe’s numbers prior to the All-Star break (.252/.308/.613 with 27 homers in 289 PA) showed only modest improvement in the average and on-base categories.
Nonetheless, Renfroe is almost four full years younger than Pham, brings more defensive versatility as an outfielder who can be deployed in center field in a pinch, and has a much lower price tag. Renfroe is controlled through the 2023 season as a Super Two player, and is set to earn $3.3MM in 2020, his first arbitration-eligible year. By contrast, Pham will earn $7.9MM in 2020, which is the second of three arb years.
In short, the deal almost seems like a prototypical Rays move — they got a bit younger, saved some money, and acquired a player in Renfroe who could offer enough untapped potential to be just as good or better than Pham in 2020 (plus, there’s also the lingering injury question of Pham’s elbow). Flexibility and depth continue to be paramount in Tampa’s approach to roster building, as the Rays can wield a lineup that offers a lot of different looks, and is stocked with players who could be moved around to different positions based on circumstances.
Consider the Rays’ major free agent signing of the winter, as they landed Japanese slugger Yoshitomo Tsutsugo after a focused recruitment process that convinced Tsutsugo to reject more expensive offers for Tampa Bay’s two-year, $12MM contract. Tsutsugo is a bit of a defensive question mark as a first baseman or left fielder, yet the Rays are planning to give Tsutsugo a look at third base; a position he hasn’t played since 2014.
It’s safe to assume that Yandy Diaz will end up getting the majority of playing time at third base, but if Tsutsugo can step in at the hot corner even once in a while to spell Diaz against a tough righty starter, that opens up a spot in the lineup for a left-handed hitting Joey Wendle, or perhaps another lefty bat in Nate Lowe (should Lowe make the Opening Day roster). Even if the Tsutsugo/third base experiment doesn’t work out, Wendle can play third base himself, and Tsutsugo could perhaps then just be slotted into the first base/DH mix.
Speaking of first base/DH candidates, the Rays added another prominent name to that list in acquiring Jose Martinez from the Cardinals. Rumors have swirled about the Rays’ interest in Martinez for well over a year, and the lefty-crushing slugger will now be the primary right-handed hitting first base/DH option, alongside the lefty-swinging Tsutsugo, Lowe, and Ji-Man Choi. While Martinez can play first base or a corner outfield spot, he is probably the rare Rays pickup who wasn’t targeted for his roster flexibility, due to Martinez’s longstanding defensive struggles.
Between Martinez, Tsutsugo, and Renfroe, the Rays hope they can replace or top the 57 home runs that departed last year’s lineup — Pham, Avisail Garcia (who signed with the Brewers) and Travis d’Arnaud (who signed with the Braves). The long ball wasn’t a big weapon for Tampa Bay in 2019, as their 217 homers ranked them 21st of the 30 teams, but that number could rise thanks to both the new faces and healthier seasons from the likes of Diaz, Wendle, and Brandon Lowe.
With Guillermo Heredia non-tendered and Garcia leaving in free agency, the Rays looked at such free agents as Yasiel Puig and Shogo Akiyama as options in the outfield. Instead, Tampa Bay bolstered its outfield depth by adding Randy Arozarena as part of the trade with the Cardinals, while also acquiring Manuel Margot in another trade with the Padres. It was only a few years ago that Margot was a consensus top-25 prospect in all of baseball, and while he has shown to be an excellent defender at the MLB level, his bat (84 wRC+, 87 OPS+) has yet to emerge. Since Margot is still only 25, it isn’t out of the question that he could be a late bloomer.
The Rays paid a pretty substantial price for Margot, sending their 2019 saves leader in Emilio Pagan westward. Pagan’s lone season in Tampa Bay was a very impressive one, as he recorded 20 saves while posting a 2.31 ERA, 7.38 K/BB rate, and 12.3 K/9 over 70 innings. Between Pagan, Austin Pruitt (dealt to the Astros), Jose De Leon, and Matthew Liberatore, the Rays did more subtracting than adding to their pitching, though Tampa is arguably one of the few teams deep enough in pitching options to handle dealing from a surplus.
To this end, the Rays will count on their collection of arms to manage the bullpen, with a closing committee of Diego Castillo, Nick Anderson, Jose Alvarado, and possibly others to handle save situations. As for the rotation, the Rays will can always fall back on using an opener if necessary, but the team looks ready to enter the season with a rotation of five proper starting pitchers: Charlie Morton, Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow, Yonny Chirinos, and likely one of Ryan Yarbrough or Brendan McKay. There is some uncertainty within that group given Glasnow’s injury-riddled 2019 and Snell’s nagging elbow problems, though both are expected to be ready by the time the 2020 season eventually gets underway.
As with basically any Rays player that makes a substantial salary, there was some speculation that Morton could be a trade chip now or in the near future, should Tampa Bay fall out of the pennant race. Morton is being paid $15MM in 2020 and (if he doesn’t retire) he has a vesting option on his services for 2021 that will be worth another $15MM if he spends less than 30 days on the injured list this season. The 36-year-old is still pitching at a very high level, and it makes sense why the Rays seemingly didn’t test the market for him this offseason, as Morton is even more valuable considering the lingering health questions surrounding Snell and Glasnow.
Pham ended up being the one larger salary moved off Tampa’s books, which was probably the more logical move than trading Morton since good outfield help is somewhat easier to find than a front-of-the-rotation pitcher. GM Erik Neander faces a difficult challenge in trying to manage a small budget while also trying to build a contender, and as such Rays trades are rarely as simple as a one-for-one swap. Getting young talent back in deals is of critical importance, whether it’s landing Edwards from San Diego, a higher Competitive Balance Round draft pick from St. Louis, or acquiring catching prospect Logan Driscoll from the Padres in the Pagan deal. Driscoll was the Padres’ second-round pick in the 2019 draft, and down the road he could develop into yet another “catcher of the future” candidate for a Rays franchise that has long looked for stability behind the plate.
After d’Arnaud signed with Atlanta, the Rays will head into 2020 with Mike Zunino as their starting catcher. Zunino’s struggles led to d’Arnaud taking over the regular job last season, leaving the Rays hoping that Zunino’s dreadful year was just an aberration. A couple of veteran backstops in Kevan Smith and Chris Herrmann are in camp on minor league deals, and Michael Perez is in the in-house contender for the backup position. Unless Zunino gets on track during the season, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Rays make catching a priority before the trade deadline.
Between dealing Pham, the free agent departures, and non-tendering players like Heredia, Jesus Aguilar, and Matt Duffy, the Rays opened up enough money to do some offseason spending without much changing their financial outlook. As per Cot’s Baseball Contracts, the Rays have a projected Opening Day payroll of just under $67.6MM, which represents an increase of barely $150K over their season-ending 40-man roster payroll.
The Rays’ spending habits continue to draw attention from the MLBPA, whose grievance against the team’s use of revenue-sharing funds (in essence, wondering why those funds aren’t being spent on player salaries) was expanded to cover both the 2017-18 and 2018-19 offseasons. Grievance notwithstanding, it doesn’t appear as if much will change for the Rays on the payroll front unless they are finally able to land their long-desired new ballpark in Tampa or St. Petersburg…or perhaps one new stadium in the Tampa/St. Pete area and another in Montreal, should the organization’s unusual split-city concept comes to fruition.
2020 Season Outlook
If it’s possible for a team to quietly win 96 games, the Rays did just that in 2019, finishing just a game short of the highest win total in franchise history. Nothing Tampa Bay did this winter remotely came close to the Yankees’ $324MM splash on Gerrit Cole, and while New York’s on-paper roster seems far more star-studded than the Rays’ collection, Tampa finished only seven games out of the AL East lead last season. While the Yankees famously won 103 games despite a myriad of injuries last year, the Rays also achieved their success despite losing a number of key players for long stretches of time.
The American League will be more competitive on the whole in 2020, so even capturing another wild card would represent a nice achievement for the Rays. This could be particularly true since two ex-Rays executives are now running other AL rivals — the Red Sox hired former Rays senior VP of baseball operations Chaim Bloom as their new chief baseball officer, while the Astros hired former Rays VP of baseball operations James Click as their new GM in February, after Houston’s firing of Jeff Luhnow as a result of the sign-stealing scandal.
With other organizations trying to ape the Rays’ track record of quality acquisitions at low-cost prices, it leaves Neander and the remaining front office members with more of a challenge in keeping things afloat in Tampa Bay, especially with a roster that could be on the brink of a special season. It will be interesting to see how the Rays manage the assets of arguably the league’s best farm system in making further additions to this team in July, whether a major trade could take place, or whether the front office will continue this offseason’s pattern of somewhat quieter moves.
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