Status: Wildcard push
The Rays were the success story of the 2018 season, winning 90 games. With the Mariners selling and the Athletics unlikely to win 97 again, Tampa Bay are eyeing the second wildcard spot.
Innovation saw the Rays defy their payroll once again last season. With talent added and a healthy farm, they will be a force in 2019.
Tampa Bay were involved in a pair of three-team deals. Edwin Encarnacion and Carlos Santana moved teams this offseason, but the Rays didn’t acquire either. Instead, Jake Bauers was sent to Cleveland in return for Yandy Diaz and Cole Sulser. Diaz is another around-league-average hitter, providing depth. Sulser is a minor league reliever.
The other three-team trade saw Emilio Pagan and Rollie Lacy arrive. Pagan can get more than three outs from the bullpen, giving yet more pitching options. Lacy is another minor league pitcher, but he’s a long way from contributing to the big-league squad. Brock Burke, Yoel Espinal and Kyle Bird left Tampa Bay in the trade.
The other big deal saw Mallex Smith and prospect Jake Fraley head west to join the Mariners. Tampa Bay got catcher Mike Zunino, outfielder Guillermo Heredia and yep, you guessed it, another pitcher, Michael Plassmeyer in return. Plassmeyer is a 2018 fourth-round pick, who had a good start to his career in low-A last season.
The Rays are seldom involved in the free agent market, but they made two notable additions this winter. After a poor 2018, Avisail Garcia was picked up on a cheap deal and will get a lot of time at DH, replacing C.J. Cron, who was waived in November.
Charlie Morton signed for what by Tampa Bay’s standards was a monster contract. The Rays will pay him $30 million over the first two years but have insurance against injury with a vesting option for 2021. The longer Morton spends on the injured list in 2019 and 2020, the less money he receives in 2021.
What to watch
Morton’s arrival makes the Rays’ rotation a must-watch. Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow and Morton combine fastball velocity with nasty curveballs. That’s a recipe for fun and humiliated hitters. Snell’s numbers are unlikely to be as eye-popping as 2018, but he’s an undoubted ace. We know what Morton can do. Glasnow has addressed some of his command issues and has Cy Young stuff.
Zunino regressed offensively last season, becoming a below-league-average hitter, posting an 84 wRC+. Projections are not positive on the Rays’ new catcher. A return to the slugger we saw in 2017 would be much appreciated in Florida.
MLB Pipeline named Brent Honeywell as the number 28 prospect in baseball. Tommy John surgery last year has seen him slip down the list, but providing he remains healthy, we should see him in the Majors this summer. With a five-pitch mix, including a screwball, Honeywell can keep hitters off balance and has racked up strikeouts in the minors. He could give the team a substantial boost as they pursue a playoff spot.
The Rays are always fascinating. Remaining competitive with a $51 million payroll is extraordinary.
The rotation makes them one of the league’s most watchable teams. The line-up is not all that exciting, but they have plenty of high-floor guys and pieces to add a bat or two if they’re contending come July.