Playing Pepper 2018: Tampa Bay Rays

In 2009, before my second full season of blogging the Cardinals, I reached out to other bloggers to other teams to get insights on their clubs.  This year, instead of going through the teams alphabetically, we’ll approach it a little differently, spending a week with each division.  For the tenth straight season, get ready for the upcoming MLB season by playing a little pepper.  

Tampa Bay Rays
80-82, third in AL East
Website | Twitter

Last year’s Pepper

It wasn’t exactly a great winter if you were a fan of the Florida teams.  We’ve already talked about Miami so we now turn our attention to the Rays, or at least what’s left of them.  Is there a plan in this madness?  Tampa Bay’s always been considered one of the smarter teams in the league but they surely didn’t get the benefit of the doubt this off-season.  We’ve got a great Rays fan to tell you all about this team and what this season looks like for them.

Writer Site Twitter
Mat Germain DRaysBay MatGermain76

C70: What are your thoughts on the offseason? Did the club improve over the winter?

Mat: Talk about a really tough question for anyone talking Rays! Of course the answer is no, they did not improve. However, they did improve their position financially speaking to the point where they freed up approximately $50M for next year if they were to spend the $77M they’ve spent for 2018 (a franchise high, btw).

Having digested the moves, I really love them to be honest – except Longoria being dealt, but I understand it. Had they kept them on, they would have no money to add anyone in 2019. None. And so with these moves, they brought back some interesting guys, including Brendan McKay‘s best friend from his Braves years – Nick Solak – and really deepened an already outstanding system. Palacios and Gray are both interesting adds, along with Banda who gives them another Southpaw to work with. They also added Jelfry Marte, giving them 2 of the top 3 international free agents in the 2017 class (something they get no credit for, btw).

The pitching coach they brought in to replace Hickey (now with Cubs) was in AAA last year and knows the guys they’ll be calling on extremely well. So on that front, they’ve maintained strength. Overall, I give them an A+ for creating drama (including the not-so-classy Corey Dickerson designation while his wife was in the middle of giving birth), an A for how they’ve setup their future financially, and a B+ for the acquisitions they brought in.

And yet, they did not improve per se for 2018.

C70: What’s the focus of this club this season? Pitching, defense, hitting?

Mat: Well, it depends what’s meant by focus. I think the real focus of the Rays right now is surrounding the core they have coming through AAA as best as possible for their duration in MLB. To do that, they needed to bring in affordable options that complement them best, both on the pitching and hitting side. People rant and rave about all of the guys they let go, but in truth they’re all replaceable – aside from Longoria who’s stature with the team was significantly higher than any other player. But they added CJ Cron to take over from Corey Dickerson (fair), Matt Duffy takes over from Longo (fair), a healthy Brad Miller holds the fort instead of Logan Morrison – until Jake Bauers shows up – and then can shift to 2B if needed or help out at DH. And finally, they just brought in Carlos Gomez to take over from Steven Souza in RF.

Meanwhile, the pitching is solid even without the recently traded Jake Odorizzi. Led by Chris Archer (who was supposed to be with the Cards by now, lol), they have an up-and-coming Blake Snell (grab him in fantasy leagues), Jacob Faria, and Nate Eovaldi rounding up the top 4 through the first week of May with Matt Andriese in the pen until then and rejoining the rotation thereafter. Brent Honeywell just underwent TJ, but despite his loss the Rays still have 5 MLB ready guys in AAA led by Ryan Yabrough (who continues to outperform expectations), Jose De Leon, Anthony Banda, Yonny Chirinos, and Jose Mujica.

So with that in mind, I guess the REAL focus will be figuring out how the pen rounds into form now that they have a ridiculous number of high-powered options. But I’ll get to that in your next question.

C70: What’s one thing people may overlook (either positively or negatively) about this team?

Mat: The pen is what’s most under rated about the Rays heading into 2018. Not only did they manage to hang onto Alex Colome who is a solid closer, but they also brought back Sergio Romo who was excellent for the Rays in 2017 and loved that they were willing to give him a chance after a tough first half. They brought in Daniel Hudson from the Pirates, but his spot in the pen is anything but guaranteed. He’ll battle the fireball hurlers including Ryne Stanek, Jose Alvarado, and Diego Castillo – all of who work in the high 90s or 100s, as well as Chaz Roe (a personal favourite), and comeback possibility of the year in Johnny Venters (3 x TJ). Mix in veteran LHP Dan Jennings, Chih-Wei Hu, and Andrew Kittredge and you’ve got a big battle – and numerous options – for a select few spots. In short, the Rays are loaded with a lot more talent to chose from in the pen than they had last year when their pen had the 3rd worst first half in all of MLB – and they won 80 games nonetheless. I’d expect that a shut down pen could keep them more competitive than some would expect.

C70: Who is the one key player, the guy that must have a good year for the Rays to do well?

Mat: I’ll give you one on each side of the ball. For the pitchers to succeed, Chris Archer has to lead the way and go further into games than he did in 2017. If he does that and allow the Rays to rest some of their pen options, it could make a big difference in the season. On the hitting side, take your pick! So many have big question marks that it winds up making the Rays one of the – if not the – most volatile teams to rate in 2018. But, pushed for an answer, I’ll go with Matt Duffy because if he can be as strong defensively as we know he can be and get back to that 5 WAR level he showed us in SF, the Rays could – oddly enough – get a boost at 3B, not a drop off, after dealing Longoria. Seems odd, I know, but it’s possible.

C70: What’s your projection for 2018? Where does the team wind up overall?

Mat: I honestly have no projection because I simply don’t know how quickly and aggressively the Rays will promote Willy Adames, Jake Bauers, and their P options. You can normally go through what players did in previous years to point to what to expect, yet every single Rays player has issues with that (due to health or lack of MLB playing time) which makes any projection impossible. However, pushed, I’d go with a low of 70 wins and a high of 78 wins. If they exceed that, great! Happy to be wrong. But a lot has to go right for them to get there and I’m just not sure we can expect rookies to come in and carry the team when they arrive.

C70: What’s one question I should have asked and what’s the answer to it?

Mat: Breakout candidates. For the Rays, there are 3 big ones. I’ve been vocal about CJ Cron having Justin Smoak of 2017 potential and believe he’s going to provide a huge boost to the Rays offensively. The second would be Blake Snell, who I’d point to as able to land among the top 20-25 SP in MLB by the time the season’s done. And finally, Ryne Stanek made really great adjustments to his stuff while in AAA last year after being sent down and he overmatched hitters when he got back. In fact, both him and Alvarado averaged 98.2 MPH according to Statcast, ahead of Noah Syndergaard and Dellin Betances to name a few. If Colome is dealt or falters, look for Stanek to get a look at closer, but until then he’s likely to land as the setup guy.

That pretty much sums up the Rays! Good luck this season, and as soon as you’re ready to deal both Carson Kelly and Tyler O’Neil to the Rays, let us know and we’ll make it happen!

My thanks to Mat for giving us some knowledge about Tampa Bay.  I know a lot of folks are interested in perhaps helping remove another piece from the Rays roster so there might be some interested eyes from St. Louis keeping tabs on this club during the season!

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