- Since the Rays are open to at least listening to trade offers for Blake Snell, ESPN.com’s David Schoenfield adds an interesting wrinkle to the trade speculation — listing which five teams could conceivably acquire both Snell and Kevin Kiermaier in the same trade, thus allowing Tampa Bay to unload even more payroll. Schoenfield’s five clubs have needs in both the rotation and in center field, or perhaps in the outfield in general in the cases of the Angels or Padres. For those teams, Schoenfield opines that their current center fielders (Mike Trout and Trent Grisham) could be moved to a corner outfield slot to accommodate Kiermaier.
The latest minor transactions from around the sport…
- Earlier this week, the Rays signed right-hander Chris Ellis to a minor league deal, as originally reported by MLB Network’s Jon Heyman (Twitter link). Originally a third-round pick for the Angels in the 2014 draft, Ellis was part of the trade package that brought Andrelton Simmons to Los Angeles back in November 2015. The 28-year-old has a 4.80 ERA, 2.10 K/BB rate, and 8.5 K/9 over 645 1/3 career minor league innings for three different organizations (the Angels, Braves, and Cardinals), and he also had a cup of coffee in the big leagues with the Royals in 2019, appearing in one game.
- The Nationals have signed right-hander Jefry Rodríguez to a minor-league contract with an invitation to MLB spring training, reports Jesse Dougherty of the Washington Post (Twitter link). The 27-year-old originally signed with the Nats as an international amateur from the Dominican Republic. He was traded to Cleveland in the November 2018 Yan Gomes deal. Rodríguez posted a 5.20 ERA with underwhelming strikeout (16.5%) and walk (13.3%) rates in 98.2 MLB innings from 2018-19. He spent last season at the Indians’ alternate training site, where he strained his shoulder in September. Cleveland non-tendered him earlier this month.
- The Mariners announced they signed reliever Drew Steckenrider earlier this month (h/t to Chris Hilburn-Trenkle of Baseball America). The 29-year-old broke into the majors with a pair of productive seasons with the Marlins but went down early in 2019 with a season-ending flexor strain. He spent all of 2020 on the injured list and was outrighted off Miami’s 40-man roster in October. The right-hander turns 30 in January.
- The Rays are among the teams with interest in free-agent right-hander Ryne Stanek, Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times tweets. Stanek began his career with the Rays, who chose him 29th overall in the 2013 draft, and had his best seasons with the club. He was a regular opener with the Rays from 2018-19, during which he pitched to a 3.17 ERA/3.64 FIP and averaged better than 10 strikeouts per nine across 122 innings, but has fallen off of late. Stanek had difficulty in Miami, which acquired him from the Rays before the 2019 trade deadline, and the Marlins non-tendered him as a result. However, the 29-year-old hasn’t had trouble garnering interest from other teams this winter.
- Rays righty Brent Honeywell was given a fourth option because of the substantial amount of time he has missed on account of injuries, general manager Erik Neander told Topkin and other reporters. The 25-year-old Honeywell was once an elite pitching prospect, but he hasn’t thrown a professional inning since 2017 – which he divided between Double-A and Triple-A – because of health issues. Since then, Honeywell has undergone four elbow surgeries, most recently an arthroscopic procedure. The good news is that Honeywell seems as if he’ll return in 2021.
The Rays added a veteran source of innings to their rotation Friday morning, announcing a one-year deal with right-hander Michael Wacha. The CAA client will reportedly land a $3MM guarantee on the heels of a rough 2020 season with the Mets. That’s the same salary (prior to pro-rating) that Wacha earned in New York last season.
Wacha struggled through eight games with the Mets in the abbreviated 2020 season, pitching to a 6.62 ERA with a whopping nine home runs allowed in just 34 innings. His 2019 season was also rather lackluster campaign owing in no small part to knee and shoulder injuries — the latter of which has been a recurring issue throughout his career.
Despite the down showing, Wacha was reportedly a fairly popular target among free-agent starters due to his age and price point. The 2015 All-Star also logged a very strong 37-to-7 K/BB ratio in those 34 frames while seeing marked upticks in swinging-strike rate and opponents’ chase rate. His 11.3 percent swinging-strike rate trails only his 11.4 percent mark from his rookie campaign back in 2013, and Wacha’s 34.3 percent chase rate on pitches outside the strike zone was far and away a career-high. He won’t turn 30 until July, either, making Wacha younger than several other free-agent rotation options on the market.
Wacha’s average fastball velocity bottomed out with the Cardinals in 2019, sitting at a career-low 93 mph, per Statcast. He made some positive gains last year, sitting at 93.6 mph with the pitch, but he’s still a ways removed from his 95.1 mph peak back in 2017. He altered his pitch selection considerably in 2020, scrapping a once highly effective curveball to lean into a three-pitch mix featuring his four-seamer, cutter and changeup. The results weren’t great from a run-prevention standpoint, although the aforementioned gains in missed bats surely piqued the Rays’ interest.
Wacha is a sensible pickup for the Rays, who earlier this winter declined their $15MM club option on Charlie Morton but still have high-end starters Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow to front the rotation. Depth, however, is more of an issue than usual for Tampa Bay, as each of Yonny Chirinos (Tommy John surgery), Jalen Beeks (Tommy John surgery) and Brendan McKay (shoulder surgery) went under the knife in the past several months. Chirinos and Beeks won’t pitch in 2021. McKay’s timeline is still muddy. Prior indications have been that he’ll be delayed in ’21 but eventually be able to take the mound.
With Wacha now on board, the Rays will presumably deploy a starting mix of Snell, Glasnow, Wacha and Ryan Yarbrough. Lefty Josh Fleming, righty Trevor Richards and top prospect Shane McClanahan are all candidates to claim permanent spots in the rotation as well. The Rays were also the club to popularize the usage of openers, so it’s possible they’ll eschew a set fifth starter entirely, instead gravitating toward less conventional means of pitcher use. The possibility of trading a more experienced starter can’t be written off, either, as Snell’s name has popped up on the rumor circuit at multiple points this winter.
Rays prospect recently Brent Honeywell underwent a staggering fourth elbow surgery since his last in-game appearance back in 2017, Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times reports. The latest operation, however, was an arthroscopic procedure to alleviate some mild discomfort and is not expected to impact Honeywell’s readiness for the upcoming 2021 season. Optimistic prognosis notwithstanding, the mounting number of arm injuries for Honeywell, once touted as one of he game’s premier pitching, is increasingly troubling. Honeywell has previously undergone Tommy John surgery, had surgery to repair a fracture in his elbow and undergone an ulnar nerve decompression procedure. He’s still just 25 years old (26 in March) and has a career 2.88 ERA with 9.9 K/9 against 2.0 BB/9 in 416 professional innings.
The latest minor league moves from around baseball…
- The Rays have signed catcher Joe Odom to a minors pact, Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times tweets. A 13th-round pick of Atlanta in 2013, Odom stuck with the Braves organization through 2017 before joining the Mariners in the ensuing winter’s Rule 5 Draft. Odom did make it to the majors for the first time last season with Seattle, collecting 44 plate appearances, but the 28-year-old batted a meek .128/.209/.128 with no extra-base hits and 20 strikeouts. The Mariners outrighted him after that.
- The Rangers signed right-hander Luis Ortiz to a minors contract, the team announced. Ortiz has a 12.71 ERA over career 5 2/3 innings in the majors (with the Orioles in 2018-19), and is making his return to Texas after being drafted 30th overall by the Rangers in 2014. He has been part of two notable deadline trades, included as part of the trade package sent to Milwaukee for Jonathan Lucroy in 2016, and then the Brewers shipped him to the Orioles in July 2018 as part of the Jonathan Villar/Jonathan Schoop swap.
- The Brewers signed outfielder/first baseman Dustin Peterson to a minor league deal, as originally reported by Ana Soriano of RIDA Sports (Twitter link). Originally a second-round pick for the Padres in the 2013 draft, Peterson has a .262/.316/.382 slash line over 2918 career minor league plate appearances in the Padres, Braves, and Tigers farm systems. At the big league level, Peterson has a .570 OPS over 49 PA with Atlanta and Detroit over the 2018-19 seasons. Most recently, Peterson posted big numbers for the independent Sugar Land Skeeters in 2020 and is currently tearing it up in the Mexican Pacific Winter League.
- Catcher Tim Federowicz has signed with the Dodgers, as Federowicz revealed himself on Twitter. This will be the veteran’s second stint in Los Angeles, as he spent his first four MLB seasons (2011-14) with the Dodgers. It’s probably safe to assume that it is a minor league contract, as the Dodgers have Will Smith and Austin Barnes in the majors and top prospect Keibert Ruiz in the wings after his Major League debut last season. Appearing in parts of eight seasons with six different teams, Federowicz has a .568 OPS over 443 career plate appearances and 163 games at the big league level. He didn’t see any MLB action in 2020 after signing a minors deal with the Rangers last offseason.
3:01PM: The Rays have announced the move. The escalators within the 2022 club option are broken down by USA Today’s Bob Nightengale, as Zunino can increase the option to $5MM if he appears in 80 games. Ninety games played raises the price to $6MM, and it tops out at $7MM if Zunino appears in 100 games or if he gets traded.
12:26PM: The Rays have agreed to a new deal with catcher Mike Zunino, Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times reports (Twitter link). It is a one-year contract for the veteran backstop, with a club option for the 2022 season. Zunino is represented by Jet Sports Management.
Zunino will get $3MM in guaranteed money, MLB Network’s Jon Heyman tweets. According to MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand (via Twitter), that $3MM breaks down as $2MM in salary and a $1MM buyout of the club option. The exact value of that club option will vary based on Zunino’s playing time, but it will fall somewhere between $4MM-$7MM.
Tampa declined its $4.5MM club option on Zunino following the World Series, though there was mutual interest between the two sides in a new contract. Zunino will now return for a third season with the Rays, and he’ll help fill a sizeable void behind the plate, as the AL champions also parted ways with Michael Perez and Kevan Smith.
It’s probably safe to assume that the Rays will continue to look for more catching help even with Zunino back, as his lack of offensive production over the last two seasons makes him an imperfect fit as a starting catcher. Zunino has hit only .161/.233/.323 over 373 PA in a Rays uniform, though he did bolster that resume with a big performance in the 2020 ALCS to help Tampa Bay win the pennant.
Earlier in his career, it seemed as though Zunino would develop into an offense-first catcher if anything, as he slugged 90 homers with the Mariners from 2014-18. Apart from an overall strong 2017 season, however, Zunino generally posted low batting averages and on-base totals, and detracted from his power with a lot of strikeouts. Defensively, Zunino is well-respected as a game-caller and a handler of pitchers, but Statcast hasn’t been impressed with his declining framing ability over the last two seasons.
Zunino’s new deal removes another name from the list of free agent catchers. The Rays were one of many contenders known to be looking for catching, and while Tampa obviously wasn’t shopping at the top of the backstop market (i.e. J.T. Realmuto or James McCann), removing Zunino from the next tier down further narrows out an already pretty thin collection of available talent for teams in need of a catcher upgrade.
- The Rays have discussed the possibility of a reunion with Chris Archer, writes Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times. Given the Rays’ tendency to limit starter innings, they need the whole of the staff to be capable of soaking up innings. Archer could certainly help in that regard. Besides, if anyone knows what Archer is capable of, it would be Tampa Bay. For the present, however, the Rays are focused on players who might accept minor league contracts. The payroll likely is what it is, notes Topkin, meaning that if they’re going to add much in the way of salary, we should expect a matching expulsion. They need a catcher, of course, probably a couple, and more generally, GM Erik Neander wants the club to make more contact.
The Rangers are acquiring first baseman Nate Lowe from the Rays for catcher Heriberto Hernandez, infielder Osleivis Basabe and outfielder Alexander Ovalles. The Rays are sending first baseman Jake Guenther and a player to be named later to Texas along with Lowe. Tampa Bay has announced the deal.
Lowe, 25, is the only player in the deal with Major League service time, but he was unable to break into the first-string rotation with Tampa. The Rays have a plethora of options at first base and designated hitter, splitting time primarily between Ji-Man Choi and Yandy Diaz. Yoshi Tsutsugo also fits into the timeshare, while Mike Brosseau and Brandon Lowe are capable of handling the position. There simply wasn’t much room for Lowe to break into a regular role.
Ronald Guzman has kept one foot on the first base bag the last three seasons for the Rangers, but a triple slash of .230/.308/.417 leaves room for an upgrade. The 26-year-old has posted just 0.9 bWAR per 650 plate appearances over that time. Lowe is now in line to take over for Guzman as the Rangers’ primary first baseman, president of baseball operations Jon Daniels told TR Sullivan of MLB.com and other reporters. In 245 plate appearances in 71 games over the past two seasons, Lowe has slashed .251/.322/.447, good for a 106 wRC+. While that may not blow your hat away, conversely, Guzman owns a career 85 wRC+.
Texas fans might remember Guenther from his time at TCU. The Rays chose him in the seventh round of the 2019 draft, giving him time to get just one professional season under his belt. He raked in that time, slashing .320/.431/.423 in the Appalachian League. Despite his lack of professional time, Guenther might be closer to the big leagues than it may seem, as he’ll turn 24 years old in May.
Basabe (No. 20) and Hernandez (24) ranked among the Rangers’ top 30 prospects at MLB.com before the trade. The 20-year-old Basabe has so far topped out in Low-A ball, though he has only accrued 10 plate appearances there. MLB.com is bullish on Basabe, complimenting his contact-oriented skills at the plate and noting his “well-above-average speed” could help him turn into “a dynamic basestealer.”
Hernandez, also 20, has torn the cover off the ball between the rookie and Low-A levels since his professional career began in 2020. To this point, Hernandez has batted .320/.450/.635 with 23 home runs in 473 minor league plate appearances. FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen ranked Hernandez third in the Rangers’ system last April and argued he could “be a very special hitter,” though Longenhagen isn’t high on his defense behind the plate.
Ovalles, yet another 20-year-old, isn’t as highly regarded as Basabe or Hernandez. He does have the most experience among the three in Low-A (100 plate appearances), but Ovalles only put up a .187/.250/.319 line there in 2019.
Initial news of the trade came from MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand (via Twitter). Jeff Wilson of the Fort Worth Star Telegram (via Twitter) noted the inclusion of Basabe as part of the six-player deal. Rangers’ Executive Vice President of Communications John Blake filled in the rest of the deal (via Twitter).
The Rays and righty Andrew Kittredge have agreed to a minor league contract, tweets Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times. Kittredge hit the injured list with a season-ending UCL issue in August, but agent Brian Grieper tells Topkin that Kittredge has had three bullpen sessions at full intensity without further issue. He’ll be ready for the start of Spring Training with the Rays.
Kittredge, 30, has spent parts of the past four seasons with Tampa Bay, pitching to a combined 4.93 ERA and 4.25 FIP in 111 1/3 innings. Those numbers are skewed a bit by a nightmarish 2018 campaign, but since 2019 Kittredge has tossed 57 1/3 frames with a 3.90 ERA/3.51 FIP, a strong 61-to-14 K/BB ratio and a grounder rate north of 50 percent. Due to the uncertainty surrounding his injury, Kittredge was passed through outright waivers unclaimed at season’s end and opted to become a free agent.
If Kittredge is indeed back up to full strength, he’ll give the Rays an optionable righty with big league experience to complement a group of late-inning relievers that is headlined by righties Pete Fairbanks, Diego Castillo and Nick Anderson, as well as lefty Jose Alvarado.