The Tampa Bay Rays are coming off one of their most successful seasons in franchise history. That means they will be looking to replicate this success in a full, 162-game campaign. The Rays totally shocked the baseball world, beating the Yankees to reach the World Series for the second time in their 22-year history. Moreover, Tampa Bay lost the matchup for the Commissioner’s Trophy to the Dodgers in six games.
The upcoming offseason and free-agency period don’t pose a serious threat to the team’s core. There are exceptions but the club doesn’t have to deal with many important departures. The most notable, however, is their star pitcher Charlie Morton, whose absence could leave a massive hole in the starting rotation. The Rays will also have to decide on whether to bring back relievers such as Chaz Roe, Oliver Drake, and Aaron Loup. Meanwhile, catcher Mike Zunino seems highly unlikely to have a future in St. Petersburg. This leaves the Rays with virtually no pool of players to choose from at the position.
These are the most noticeable challenges Tampa Bay will face to retain the team that won the American League pennant in 2020. However, it’s no secret that there are other crucial components that need a lot of work, like the lineup. Here is how the Rays might deal with each of their three most notable needs heading into what promises to be a long 2020/2021 MLB offseason.
The situation: Tampa Bay’s starting pitching stood strong yet again in 2020, providing a spark en route to a World Series appearance. The Rays’ starters accumulated an ERA of 3.77, ranking seventh in Major League Baseball. Heading into the transaction period, the situation is not particularly gloomy. The core, consisting of Tyler Glasnow, Blake Snell, and Ryan Yarbrough, will be staying put at least until 2024.
However, Charlie Morton has hit the free-agent market and promises to have a lot of demand, leaving the Rays with little chance to land the former Houston Astro. The past five years have seen a significant upward tick in Morton’s performance. He reached two All-Star games, one of which was with Tampa in his last full season. Furthermore, he has averaged 9.9 K/9 or more in each of his last three years. In 2020, Morton managed to walk his fewest batters per nine innings since 2012 with 2.4. Throughout nine starts, Morton posted a 4.74 ERA but clearer evaluation shows this figure probably would have stabilized during a full campaign.
If they don’t get Morton back, the Rays will have to rely on Josh Fleming as a No. 4 starter. This poses a serious danger to one of the team’s strengths heading into a full 2021 campaign.
The solution: Mike Minor
Minor was very solid as the Rangers’ ace during his two seasons in Arlington. Texas even thought of trading him last winter as his price was very high after he posted a 3.59 ERA in 2019. A brutal 2020 short-season showing saw his ERA skyrocket to 5.56, including 5.60 in seven starts before his trade to Oakland. This drove his price down considerably and that’s a terrific piece of news for the Rays. According to Spotrac, he is worth about $10 million per year. That makes him 33 percent cheaper than Morton was in 2018.
The situation: Michael Perez and Mike Zunino split the workload as the Rays’ catcher in 2020 and both struggled to get it going at the plate. Both Perez and Zunino batted under .200 and had an on-base percentage of under .300. Rightfully so, neither will be with the Rays in 2021. The team will take to the market to fill a big hole in their lineup and behind the plate. While Zunino was allowed to enter free agency, Perez was placed on waivers and claimed by the Pirates.
Currently, Ronaldo Hernandez is the only player listed as a catcher for the Rays, per ESPN. Despite the team’s offensive improvement in 2020, a consistent hitter as a catcher should be a top priority. It will ensure even more stability. Moreover, it will also protect the lineup from a substantial regression to the mean.
The solution: Robinson Chirinos
Robinson Chirinos’ 2020 woes have taken the focus away from his capabilities in a full campaign. But, then again, this has made his price plummet and the Rays can exploit that perfectly. The former Rangers catcher posted an OBP of merely .232 this past summer. However, he had not fallen beyond the .335 mark in his previous three years. This included .360-OBP performance with Texas in 2017, leading to his strong 2019 with the Astros. His OBP in 2019, his third straight season with 17+ homeruns, was .347. Chirinos is a perfect asset for his price and seems like a less hazardous investment than James McCann, despite his age.
The situation: Joey Wendle was chosen as the team’s starting third baseman last year, playing a total of 50 games in a campaign with mixed success. Wendle delivered on a very high level for Tampa Bay this season, putting up an average of .284 and an OBP of .342, both significantly over the MLB average. His 2020 figures looked more like his great rookie season in 2018 than his quiet 2019 campaign.
Wendle might very well end up as the team’s starter at third base again. In addition, duplicating his 2020 numbers should not be ruled out as a possibility. However, if TB gets rotation and catching pieces at a discount, nothing stops them from improving their lineup.
The solution: Eric Sogard
Similarly to some of the players above, a weak 2020 display has deprived Sogard of a bigger payday. Since Sogard’s 2017 season, having missed the previous year, he has turned his career around. He reached a peak in 2019, which he split between the Rays and Toronto, with a .353 OBP and an OPS north of .800. The following offseason, he signed with the Brewers for $4.5 million. Now, the Rays have the chance to get Sogard for a lot less than that. Although he is 34 years old and has nine seasons behind him, Sogard still has a contract worth of valuable contributions on the MLB level.
Gonzalez and Turner are much better options. That being said, the Rays might have to spend more on their priorities. Furthermore, they certainly won’t give out big bucks for an upgrade here if that’s the case.