Where Do The Rays Go From Here? Expectations Vs. Reality

If the Rays had a checklist for the 2018-19 offseason, it would probably resemble the following:

  • Everyday, major league catcher
  • Right-handed impact bat
  • First base upgrade
  • Starting pitching depth
  • Bullpen depth

And as we often do, we took to social media to play the armchair GM game. What would we do if we made the decisions? It sure is a fun game. But we must know by now, that the Rays very seldom do what we expect. With the catching situation out of the way, let’s take a look at what may be on the horizon.

Right Handed Impact Bat

Expectation- Nelson Cruz, Andrew McCutchen, Josh Donaldson

Cruz, 38, is coming off of a four year stretch with the Mariners in which he hit 163 home runs with a .908 OPS. He still hits the ball hard—like, really hard. With a 93.9 MPH average exit velocity, the only player who hit the ball harder on average was Aaron Judge. He could be had on a one year deal, and despite his age, his lack of defense, and his slight decline in ‘18, he’s still a massive upgrade. But, we know the Rays value positional versatility, and that alone may keep them from singing the boomstick.

McCutchen, 32, has Florida ties (born and raised in Fort Meade), and, because of his relative youth, speed, and ability to play the field, might be a better fit that Cruz. Well, in theory. Even though Cutch is over a half decade younger, we’ve already seen his decline, and although he’s bounced back nicely over the last two years, he’s far from the perennial MVP candidate he used to be—his last great year was 2015 when he hit to a 144 wRC+, with the last three resulting in 105, 123 and 120, respectively. In other words, he will still give the Rays production. The problem? while his bat is back to being above average, his defense and baserunning are not, meaning he wouldn’t give the team much, if any, more value than Cruz, and he probably won’t sign a one year deal.

Donaldson is an interesting fit. Even though the Rays already have Duffy, Wendle and Robertson on the roster (as well as Arroyo, the Lowe’s and others knocking on the door), Donaldson, if healthy, is an obvious upgrade over all of them. The problem here is, even at a one year pillow contract, he may be well above the Rays’ price range. After being traded to the Indians in late ‘18–albeit in a very small sample—he slashed .280/.400/.520, pretty darn near close to the numbers he put up during his elite run from 2013-17–a run which no one has been more valuable in terms of WAR than Mike Trout. If the industry thinks what he did with the Tribe is an indication of what’s to come, then he could certainly command 3 years, at least. If his market softens, however, the Rays could be a real player here.

Reality- Steve Pearce

We know from watching Pearce play for the Rays, and against them, that he can straight up mash, and I’ve been on this train for a little while now. We also saw what he did en route to his World Series MVP. What you may not have known was that out of the 4 players on this list, It was Pearce who had the highest wRC+ (140) in ‘18. He can play a few different positions defensively, there’s familiarity there, and he’s played the vast majority of his career in the AL East. Plus, he’ll be cheap.

First Base Upgrade

Expectation- Paul Goldschmidt

In my last post, I talked about why the Rays should keep CJ Cron for the 2019 season. Now, that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t be against a real upgrade, and even though Cron’s success in ’18 are well documented, there’s no one in the world who wouldn’t want a guy like Goldschmidt in the middle of their lineup. He seemed to have hit a wall at the start of last year, but from June on, he raked—to a near, if not career best, line of .322/.420/.587. He’s only under control for one more year, so he may not cost too much, and being that he’ll probably turn down a qualifying offer, he’ll net the Rays a high draft pick come 2020.

Reality- Jose Martinez, status quo

Again, if you want to see why I think the Rays should move on with, rather than from CJ Cron, then you’ll want to see my last post. But there is one more guy i’d like to see the Rays go after other than Goldschmidt, and that’s the Cardinals’ Jose Martinez. As a 28 year old rookie in 2017, Martinez slashed .309/.379/.518, good for a 135 wRC+. His sophomore campaign, while seeing a little bit of a dip, still produced a .305/.364/.457 (125 wRC+) line. He’s essentially a cheaper, younger Jose Abreu with 3 more years of control than Goldy. If the Rays could Acquire Tommy Pham without giving up a top 10 prospect, they can do the same with Martinez.

Starting Pitching Depth

Expectation- Nathan Eovaldi, JA Happ, Carlos Carrasco

If spring training started today, the Rays would go to camp with just two traditional starting pitchers in Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow. But if you add guys like Ryan Yarbrough, Yonny Chirinos, Jalen Beeks, Jake Faria, Wilmer Font, Andrew Kittredge, Hunter Wood, Chi-Wei Hu and anyone else who served in a bulk innings or multi inning relief role, there’s actually more depth than it seems. With that said, though, if the Rays really do look to take the next step in ‘19, they could look to add a little more quality in those innings.

Eovaldi took a huge step in ‘18 toward becoming the elite pitcher many thought he could/would be. He showed reliability, versatility, and pitched tremendously in the postseason while the world was watching. That, though, may have soared him out of the Rays price range. Unless his market takes a dive and teams want to see him do it again before giving him a multi-year, big money deal, I don’t see the Rays being a real player here.

Happ, even at 36, can be counted on for quality innings. He pitched well down the stretch for the Yankees, albeit with a 4.21 FIP. He, though, like Eovaldi, will probably want a multi year deal, despite his age.

Carrasco could perhaps be the best fit, and a very real possibility. With the Indians losing guys like Michael Brantley, Andrew Miller, Lonnie Chisenhall and Cody Allen to free agency, they’ve made it clear they are willing to trade some pieces for prospects. Whether they are looking to do a full rebuild is uncertain, but with the emergences of Trevor Bauer and Mike Clevinger as high end Major League starters, as well as Danny Salazar coming back, Carrasco looks to be expendable. And if anyone has the pieces to make it happen, it’s the Rays. He’ll come relatively cheap–The Indians picked up his $9.75 million option for this year, and has another team option for next year, which the Rays would almost certainly pick up if he is acquired.

Reality- Garrett Richards

Richards will not pitch a game in 2019 as he recovers from Tommy John Surgery. If this sounds familiar, it should—this is exactly what the Rays did with Nathan Eovaldi two years ago, and we all know how that turned out. When Richards is on the mound, he is highly effective, and would be a strong presence in the Rays rotation in 2020. He definitely would not be a ‘win now’ type of sign, but I maintain that the Rays championship window is one that includes Brent Honeywell. Imagine (if/when all healthy) Snell, Honeywell, Glasnow, Richards in a starting tandem.

Bullpen Depth

Expectation- Adam Ottavino, Andrew Miller

As is happens, the Rays high leverage bullpen (including openers) would include Jose Alvarado, Diego Castillo, Chaz Roe and Ryne Stanek. Even with guys like Ian Gibaut, Colin Poche, Jamie Schultz and others waiting in the wings, The Rays may also want to add some more depth here, especially if they continue their commitment to bulpenning.

Ottavino seems like the perfect Rays pitcher—the gif friendly slider along with the ability to come in at any situation. He struck out a ton of guys in ‘18 (13 k/9), but he also walks a ton of guys (4.6 BB/9). Nonetheless, he was one of the most valuable relief pitchers in all of baseball. He will be extremely sought after this offseason, entering his age 33 season. And as we saw last offseason, if there’s one thing teams as a whole will still overpay for, it’s relief pitching.

Miller, on the other hand, was the opposite of Ottavino. Injuries were a factor this year, which led to Miller allowing nearly 3 more runs per 9 innings than in 2017; but that won’t stop the former relief ace from getting top dollar contract from a contender.

Reality- Jesse Chavez, Joe Kelly, Adam Warren

With Chaz Roe being the highest paid reliever on the books for the ‘19 season (projected $1.4 million), it’s hard to imagine the Rays spending $10+ million on a brand name reliever or proven closer. There are, however, several guys who could be had for relatively cheap, and can give the Rays the versatility of using them in leverage, multi inning or opener roles.

Chavez was signed by the Rangers prior to the ‘18 season for $1.5 million, and turned in a fantastic season. The former starter turned in 95.1 innings of 2.55 ERA ball in 62 appearances combined between the Rangers and Cubs. In relief innings, that was 2nd only to the Rays own Ryan Yarbrough, so we can already see how he fits into their pitching staff.

Kelly, although polarizing for his villainous on field antics, is a flame thrower who’s had his regular season struggles—4.4 BB/9 in ‘18 are hard to overlook—but his postseason run (1 ER in 11.1 IP) proves that his ability still plays, and his average fastball velocity (98.1 MPH) is one of the best in the show. MLB Trade Rumors predicts the same 3 year, $27 million for Kelly as they do Miller, which would make him the team’s highest paid player, but in a market with more impact relievers than spots to fill, someone like him may fall through. He could be used in high leverage, and, being a former starter himself, could also be used in many different roles, especially as an opener.

Warren is another interesting option, one who could be used in a variety of roles. He saw a spike in his swing and miss rate in ‘18, which in turn led to a career best 9.1 k/9. He could be best used in a multi inning or bullpen day role, as well as high leverage innings.

It’s clear the Rays have some work to do in order to make a championship run for the 2019 season. Whether they decide to put all their chips in or continue to build for 2020, we can continue to expect the unexpected.

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