In 2019, the Tampa Bay Rays posted a 96-66 record and clinched a wild card spot in the process. It was a huge stride in the right direction for a team with a young core, so there is excitement as the team head into the 2020 season.
Awesome starting staff
The Rays retained almost all of their 2019 pitching staff, including the starting rotation that impressed in 2019.
That unit in particular dazzled last season, posting an AL-best 3.65 ERA, a number that was all the more impressive considering the injuries suffered by two of their premier starters.
Blake Snell, the 2018 Cy Young recipient, broke his toe in April causing him to miss two starts. In July, Snell was forced to undergo surgery to remove loose bodies from his elbow, resulting in over a month on the sidelines. If Snell can stay on the field and replicate his 2018 form – where he posted a remarkable 1.89 ERA – the Rays rotation will be even stronger. Tampa will also be pinning hopes on the return to full health of towering right hander Tyler Glasnow, who was outstanding to start last season. He led the league in ERA (1.86) and ranked second in WHIP (0.91) before a right forearm strain derailed his season in May. If Glasnow can stay healthy he is a legitimate Cy Young contender and will benefit hugely from the presence of more experienced teammates Blake Snell and Charlie Morton.
Morton was superb in anchoring the rotation in ’19, setting career best marks in wins (16), ERA (3.05), strikeouts (240), starts (33) and innings pitched (194.2). In a season where home run hitting exploded, Morton only allowed 15 of them – an AL leading figure. Due to the Rays reputation for flipping players at their peak value in order to maximise potential trade returns, there is lingering thought that Morton will be hung out as bait before the deadline. GM Erik Neander has however refuted that thought, reaffirming that the Rays ambitions for 2020 are to go all the way.
Yonny Chirinos and Ryan Yarbrough complete the starting rotation. Chirinos impressed last year thanks to his versatility, appearing in 26 games with 18 of those as a starter. His 3.85 ERA and impressive four-to-one strikeout to walk ratio will have the Rays hoping he can maintain such form in 2020. Yarbrough was similarly versatile last season as he was used as a bulk reliever but transitioned to a traditional starter in mid season.
The Rays bullpen was mightily impressive last season, posting a 3.71 ERA (best in MLB), 3.94 FIP (2nd) and 46 saves (4th). Nick Anderson made the short trip from the Marlins in a trade and was spectacular in the 21.1 innings he pitched with Tampa.
If he can replicate the 52.6% strikeout rate and minuscule 2.6% walk rate he will be a potent shutdown closer. Diego Castillo, Colin Poche, Chaz Roe, Oliver Drake and Jose Alvarado make up the rest of a bullpen that will be hoping to reproduce their excellent 2019.
Whilst the Rays pitching staff is returning from an impressive last campaign, they will have a new look to them at the plate in 2020. Tommy Pham, Eric Sogard, Travis d’Arnaud and Avisail Garcia have all moved on to pastures new, leaving the Rays to bring in replacements in the shape of Hunter Renfroe, Jose Martinez, Yoshimoto Tsutsogo, Manuel Margot and Randy Arozarena.
Renfroe clubbed 33 homers last season for the Padres and will replace Pham in left field, whilst Tsutsogo and Martinez will provide power from the DH spot and time in the outfield too. Margot provides excellent cover defensively in centre field and will also get starts when perennial Gold Glover Kevin Kiermaier sits against left handed pitching.
Willy Adames showed excellent improvement in 152 games at shortstop last season and hit a career best 20 homers at the plate. At 24 he still has plenty of room for improvement too. The real spark of the Rays offence last year was Austin Meadows, as he produced a brilliant slash line of .291/.364/.558 with a monstrous .922 OPS, whilst cracking a team best 33 home runs. It will be hard for Meadows to improve on that but, if he improves defensively, the sky can be the limit for the young right fielder. Brandon Lowe and Yandy Diaz complete a young core that will continue to improve.
GM Erik Neander can also call on a fantastic farm system, thought by many to be the best in baseball. Brendon McKay is a 24 year old two-way player, a left handed pitcher that also has power at the plate. His pitching arsenal is far more advanced at this stage and he is ready to see playing time in the major leagues, making him a decent bet for the Rookie of the Year sweepstakes.
Xavier Edwards is a talented middle infielder with huge potential but the jewel in the crown of the Rays system is Wander Franco, the 18 year old shortstop widely regarded to be the best prospect in all of baseball. Franco is a generational talent and there will be clamour amongst Rays fans to see him in the bigs as soon as possible, but he will likely be held back the minors until next year.
In the tough, unforgiving AL East, the Tampa Bay Rays are in great condition to once again make another postseason run. Their starting pitching has the potential to be up there with the very best and the bullpen remains strong too. Questions remain for the time being about their new look lineup, but as we’ve seen time and again: the Rays don’t often make mistakes when it comes to building a roster on a budget. The Yankees dominated the division in 2019 and were aggressive in adding Gerrit Cole, but with the Red Sox getting weaker the window is open for the Rays to be successful again.