The 2018 version of the Tampa Bay Rays surprised a lot of people, as they went on to win 90 games in a very lopsided AL East. That 90 win total greatly eclipsed even the most optimistic of projections, as PECOTA had the high water mark at 83 wins entering the season.
The big breakthrough for the Rays last season was the introduction and steady use of the Opener. Skipper Kevin Cash took advantage of an imperfect pitching staff, playing to the strengths of his pitchers to help limit the strengths of the opponents.
However, focusing solely on the pitching as the cause of their success last year sells short the output their offense put forward. Despite hitting the 4th fewest home runs in 2018, the Rays rode a high BABIP to an 8th over all wRC+ of 106. All told, they put up a very respectable run differential of +70.
So looking forward to the 2019 season, we see a Rays’ team that is projected to win in the 83 to 85 game range. That’s projected to give them the pleasure of being the road team in the Wild Card Game, which is pretty good for a team with a payroll just short of $56.5 million. If that opening day payroll holds true, it will be their lowest payroll since 2011.
Since departed: Jake Bauers, Mallex Smith, Carlos Gomez, Sergio Romo and Vidal Nuño
Welcome to Tampa: Mike Zunino, Charlie Morton, Avisail Garcia, Yandy Diaz, Guillermo Heredia, Emilio Pagan, Jeff Sullivan, Ryan Merritt, Caleb Sampen and Oliver Drake (for now).
So how does all of this line up?
Catcher: The big acquisition, at least on the offensive side of the game, is 28 year old catcher Mike Zunino. Zunino steps into a position that became a black hole following the departure of Wilson Ramos at the 2018 trade deadline. Non-Ramos backstops for the Rays combined to put up -0.7 WAR last season, so upgrading the position was a necessity if the Rays were going to compete.
Thankfully for them, they achieved that with the early November trade that sent Mallex Smith (and Jake Fraley) to the Mariners.
Zunino is an excellent defensive catcher, with a good blocking, framing and pitch calling reputation. His pop time of 2.02 last season is a tick below average, but he still managed to throw out nearly 35% of base stealers, and has thrown out just over 28% in his career.
On the offensive side, he has a career wRC+ of 89, but had an especially impressive year in 2017, where he hit .251/.331/.509, good for a 127 wRC+ and a 3.9 WAR. He is very prone to striking out (34.2% over his career), but the power he brings from behind the plate makes that part of his game palatable.
The other catchers that will be cycling through the position are Michael Perez and Nick Ciuffo.
First Base: In 2018, the majority of starts at 1B went to Jake Bauers and CJ Cron. The Rays traded away Bauers after a season filled with flashes of potential, but ultimately wound up being a disappointment. Cron hit 30 home runs and posted a 2.1 WAR season, but that didn’t stop the Rays from designating him for assignment, where the Twins claimed him.
Set to get the reps at 1B this season will be some combination of Ji-Man Choi and Yandy Diaz. Choi brings good power mixed with high walk totals, high strikeouts and a low batting average. Diaz brings the potential for a high average with great plate discipline, but virtually no power, which might be a problem for a first baseman. While Diaz is slated to be the short side of a first base platoon, he will also likely see some time at 3B and perhaps elsewhere as well.
Second Base: The Rays hit the jackpot with Joey Wendle last season. Acquired from the Athletics in December 2017 for a player to be named later (who was later named Jonah Heim), the 28 year old Wendle put up a season that got him a 4th place participation ribbon in the Rookie of the Year voting. Over 139 games, Wendle hit .300/.354/.435 while playing excellent defense at 2B, and also covering some time quite adequately at 3B, SS and LF.
For 2019, Wendle is the starting second baseman, and while he doesn’t project to have another 3.7 WAR season, he should be more than enough to make Rays fans forget about Logan Forsythe (who had to settle for a Minor League contract with the Rangers this winter).
Third Base: Finally gone are the days of Evan Longoria being a fixture at 3B for the Rays, although they’re still paying him to be a washed up version of himself in San Francisco.
Taking the reins from Longoria at 3B is former Giants’ third baseman Matt Duffy, who came over to the Rays in an August 2016 trade that sent Matt Moore the other way.
Duffy came back from missing all of 2017 due to Achilles tendon issues and put up a great season for the Rays. Healthy enough to play in 130 games, Duffy hit an impressive .294/.361/.366. The power numbers are not what you want to see from a third baseman, and missing a year probably didn’t help him either as that .072 ISO is a fair bit lower than his career .100 mark.
Look for the power to come back a little bit in 2019 for Duffy, while also seeing that average drop a bit. He ran a .353 BABIP in 2018, a number that just isn’t sustainable.
Shortstop: Top prospect Willy Adames took over the SS position last year, starting a majority of the games from the middle of June through the end of the season. He put up a strong rookie season, hitting .278/.348/.406 with absolutely atrocious defense (-17.3 UZR/150) in the small sample of 628 innings.
While the defense is likely to improve at least somewhat, the bat should be at least as good if not better going forward, if the scouting reports are to be believed. He will be yet another solid player for this Rays’ team.
Outfield: Across the outfield, we are likely to see a lot of Tommy Pham, Kevin Kiermaier and Austin Meadows, a very solid outfield that should provide strong defense with somewhere around league average offense.
Pham, who came over from the Cardinals in a rare move where the Rays acquired an established big leaguer for a few minor leaguers and international spending money, put up ridiculous numbers (.343/.448/.622) in 39 games for the Rays. While he’s not going to approach that 191 wRC+ over a full season, he did push the 150 wRC+ mark in 2017 on his way to a 6.1 WAR season for the Cardinals, so there is definitely impact talent there for the 31 year old.
In CF for a least a portion of the season is the long-suffering Kevin Kiermaier, the longest tenured player in the Rays’ organization. Picked in the 31st round in 2010, we all know the story of how Kiermaier has ridden his piercing blue eyes all the way to becoming one of the best defensive center fielders of his generation, while generally being close to average with the bat. However, 2018 was a different story on the offensive side, as he put up an anemic .217/.282/.370 batting line, far and away the worst of his career.
In RF we will see one time top-10 prospect Austin Meadows, who is looking to power through now that he has finally reached the Majors. After coming to the Rays at the deadline last year in the trade that sent Chris Archer to the Pirates, Meadows got into 10 games for the Rays, but is now set to begin the season as the everyday right fielder.
Serving in a utility role we’ll see a lot of the recently extended Brandon Lowe. Lowe played 43 games at the big league level last season, seeing time at 2B and both corner outfield spots, and put up a .233/.324/.450 line. He’s set to see a lot more playing time going forward, as the Rays will look to maximize the value on their new $24m extension.
DH: After cutting ties with Cron for whatever reason, the Rays went out and got Avisail Garcia to get a lot of the reps at DH this season. Garcia will likely get some time in the outfield, and could see his playing time reduced some at DH as Choi, Diaz and eventually rookie Nathaniel Lowe push him for playing time, but Garcia could grab a firm hold of the DH spot if he can find some of the BABIP magic that made him a .330/.380/.506 hitter with 18 home runs in 2017.
Can the Pitching Staff be as good?
Starting Rotation: Even though 2018 will be remembered as the year of the Opener, Rays fans were also treated to the 2018 American League Cy Young Award winner in Blake Snell, who had a very impressive breakout campaign. Snell became the first American League pitcher to win the ERA title with a sub-2.00 ERA since Pedro Martinez in 2000, and he is poised to lead the Rays pitching staff once again in 2019.
Slotting in behind Snell will be a couple legitimate starting pitchers in Tyler Glasnow (who also came over in the Chris Archer trade last July) and the newly signed Charlie Morton. Morton is coming off back to back 3 WAR seasons where he struck out more than 10 batters per 9 innings, while Glasnow is trying to establish himself and possesses the upside of at least what Morton put out the last couple years.
Falling in behind those 3 will be the Openers, at least to start the season. As the season unwinds, we’ll likely see the returns of top prospects Brent Honeywell and Jose De Leon from their Tommy John surgeries, and the Rays may get to the point that they all of a sudden have one of the best rotations in the American League, a year after running Blake Snell and 4 Openers.
Bullpen: This is where it gets a little bit dicey, although maybe not as bad as it seems. Jose Alvarado and Diego Castillo are unknown names who provide a lot of strikeouts and some upside promise, but lack the command to really carry the bullpen.
Outside of those two, Ryan Yarbrough, Jalen Beeks and Yonny Chirinos will eat a lot of innings as the long men after the Opener, while Ryne Stanek, Chaz Roe and Wilmer Font will probably get a lot of the Opening assignments and short relief work.
While 2019 looks fairly promising for the Rays, it is the future that holds the most promise, as the Rays boast one of the top farm systems in all of baseball.
Wander Franco is the best teenage baseball player in the world (now that a certain Jays’ prospect has hit the big 2-0), and will likely sit atop most prospect lists a year from now. He brings an amazing hit tool with good power and steady defense at SS, and could displace Willy Adames as soon as 2021.
Two way phenom Brendan McKay will look to start the season in full-season ball, and should find himself on top-10 prospect lists a year from now as well.
Behind those two are a plethora of high upside players that are scattered around the diamond, ranging from the MLB ready Brent Honeywell and Brandon Lowe, to high upside but far away Vidal Brujan and Matthew Liberatore, with another dozen or so 45+ FV prospects in between.
Outside of the prospects, the Rays have very little money tied up long term, and the majority of their players are under control for a long time.
The Rays will win more than the 83-85 projection. The offense won’t quite be as good as it was in 2018, but the pitching will probably be better. If I had to guess, I would say 88 wins is a comfortable target for this team, and that will likely be the low mark for the next few years.
The Rays will finish ________ in the AL East
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