If we’re closing in on the regular season, that must mean it’s time to play some pepper! For the 12th year in a row, I’ve contacted bloggers and writers from around baseball to talk about the team they hold dear. It’s a good way for folks to get the pulse of other teams around MLB and see what other fanbases are talking about. It’s a tradition unlike any other (because who would want to copy it): it’s time for Playing Pepper.
These answers were obtained before (or very soon after) spring training was halted and Opening Day was delayed. Obviously, things may be very different when baseball returns but my hope is that this gives you a good feel for the Rays, even if some specific items may be affected.
They play in one of the few true domes left (and, as a result, are one of only two teams with AstroTurf still.) They are a small-revenue team in a big-revenue division. They are always knocked for their attendance. Yet Tampa Bay has been in the playoffs five times since 2008 and continues to innovate and make savvy moves to stay a relevant and successful team. Will those sort of moves pan out for 2020? Let’s talk to some folks and find out!
Danny: The reasoning appears to be that the Rays got an offer they couldn’t pass up in Xavier Edwards — by all accounts neither player or team were looking to part ways this offseason, it was quite the surprise. It’s hard to get too excited when you swap out a player who might be your best hitter for two role players, but this is the Rays. History shows they should be able to extract the value they need, and these were pretty targeted selections!
Seth: The reason to move Pham has to do with return on investment. Pham is a fantastic hitter, as you are probably aware. He brought great on-base ability with both power and speed. As far as why he had to go? The Rays operate on a different playing field when it comes to budgetary constraints. Pham only has two years of team control remaining. His roughly $8 million salary sounds like a mouth-watering value to most teams, but that would have made him the third-highest paid player on the Rays this season. Pham presented an opportunity for the Rays to sell high. Ultimately, they added an elite defender who hit 33 homers last season in Hunter Renfroe and one of the top second-base prospects in all of baseball. They also shaved about $5 million from the current payroll.
Once you consider that Renfroe is under team control until 2024, this deal makes perfect sense. From an emotional perspective, it’s not fun to cycle through players you grow attached to but it makes fiscal sense. They more than made up for the loss of Pham’s on-base abilities by acquiring Japanese slugger, Yoshi Tsutsugo and Jose Martinez. Speaking of Jose Martinez…
I’m very excited about Jose Martinez and Randy Arozarena. The Rays are loaded with young pitching talent so exchanging Liberatore for the two Cardinals’ players addressed a current need in a right-handed bat from Martinez. It was a win-now move that energized the fanbase. It also kept an eye on the future with Arozarena. Erik Neander stated the Rays’ front office has been following Arozarena for a while. Kevin Kiermaier averages about 100 games per season. He’s spectacular, but repeatedly slamming into walls at 20 mph takes a toll on the body. Arozarena could have an opportunity sooner rather than later.
Mat: The evidence for outfield defensive abilities leading to very strong seasons for most teams is pretty solid. All of the playoff teams for 2019 were within the top 15 in OF defensive abilities. So by adding Manuel Margot & Renfroe, who each have gold glove calibre D in the OF, the Rays solidified the assistance for an already dominant pitching staff and added protection behind KK. What Randy & Jose bring is a lot of what Tommy did, a thirst to make the most of playing time they were deprived of while with the Cardinals. I’m a MASSIVE fan of Arozarena and think he’ll become one of the most electrifying players the Rays have in the OF for years to come. While I also like Jose and his professionalism, work ethic, and makeup, I think his role on the Rays won’t be as impactful (eventually) as Randy’s. With these four additions, the Rays have added tremendous depth that increases competition – always a great thing.
C70: Charlie Morton has had a very solid three year run. Is there any concern that he’ll start to falter in his Age 36 season or should it be more of the same?
Danny: It would be foolish to count on health for any starting rotation! But then again, Charlie was the mainstay for the Rays last season and a Cy Young finalist. I wouldn’t sleep on Morton continuing to anchor the Rays rotation.
Seth: It is always a concern when players reach their mid-to-late-thirties. The Rays have even discussed doing a better job of managing Morton’s innings better in 2020 than they did in 2019. There was a slight dropoff last season between the first and second halves. His first-half ERA was a 2.32 while he posted a 4.06 ERA in the second half. So, there’s always a concern at this age, but as long as he’s pitching well I expect the Rays to get their money’s worth out of their highest-paid player.
Side note: His performance last season has already justified his contract. Morton finished third in the AL Cy Young voting to Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander last season. The other two are set to earn $36 and 33 million in 2020, Morton will make less than half of either one of them at $15 million.
Mat: It depends on what you mean by concern. Rays know that he’s been an open book since he arrived. If he needs extra time off, or to pitch an inning less, he lets them know. So as long as there’s no issue that suddenly arises, he should have yet another stellar year for the team. Having said that, he also threw more innings than ever before with regular season & playoffs combined. So it would be prudent for Rays to ease into lengthening his starts and in giving him some time to rest when needed in-season.
C70: Who is the next Rays prospect that will make an impact at the big league level?
Danny: If LHP Brendan McKay, the former No. 4 overall pick, can take the next step into a five-day rotation he’ll be in the Rays starting rotation. Last year he pitched on a six-day rotation to limit his innings, which makes scheduling a bit tough.
Seth: Brendan McKay is still considered a prospect as he finished last year just one inning shy of exceeding his rookie limits. Baseball America listed him as the 14th best prospect in all of baseball. McKay has a chance to contribute early with Yonny Chirinos and Ryan Yarbrough rounding out the rotation. We’re very excited to see what McKay will produce over a full-season.
Mat: So many names, so little space….. I could honestly write a book on all of the prospects (and Non-Roster Invitees) the Rays have to work with in 2020. Let’s start in AAA with most-likely to get the first calls: Vidal Brujan and Taylor Walls top that list, along with Kevin Padlo (power & great D at 3B), Nate Lowe (power, added 3B) & Josh Lowe (once healthy, great arm in OF, poss 4 tools). Those are the obvious names, but I’m also a very big fan of Brett Sullivan (versatile, speed, and power) and Miles Mastrobuoni (utility) who both may fit in best as bench role players and could get a shot if injuries open some space.
In AA, we have arguably the most talented team in the minors of 2020. Wander Franco, Xavier Edwards, and Ronaldo Hernandez are expected to anchor this team up the middle, and Cal Stevenson, Garrett Whitley, Carl Chester, and Moises Gomez should provide that team a stellar OF.
On the pitching side of things the intriguing names begin with a hopefully healthy duo of Anthony Banda and Brent Honeywell. They’re followed closely by Josh Fleming, Shane McClanahan, Riley O’Brien, and Kenny Rosenberg. The one who could end up jumping highest on Top 100 lists? Joe Ryan & Shane Baz, both of which could jump through AA/AAA fairly quickly in 2020 & put themselves in a position to help the Rays through the playoffs, even if it’s in a Brendan McKay style pen role.
C70: What are your expectations for 2020? Where do you think they’ll finish in the division?
Danny: At least 90 wins — which won’t win the division but should get to the wild card. It’s what the cash strapped Rays aim for every year, and they should get there in 2020 after getting 96 wins last season.
Seth: We believe the Rays will contend with the mighty Yankees despite the fact that the Yankees payroll is about the same amount as the Rays’ gross revenue… The Rays make incredible use of platoons to create superstar production out of overlooked guys like Ji-Man Choi or Yandy Diaz. The opener strategy came from the Rays. The innovative management team keeps us competitive. In addition to all of that, we have three potential Cy Young candidates at the head of our rotation.
Mat: In 2018 I predicted they’d fight for playoffs, in 2019 I predicted they’d make the playoffs, and in 2020 I’m predicting the World Series. They really have all of their bases covered. I love the makeup of this team, the playoff experience they added in 2019, and the talent they have to work with is truly overwhelming. I know many are picking the Yankees, and they’re solidly favorites to win the East. But IMO, too many are sleeping on just how impactful young Rays prospects like Brendan McKay, Brent Honeywell, Vidal Brujan & Wander Franco will be. You’re talking about adding 4 x Top 50 prospects (when healthy) to a team that won 96 games in 2019. So imo, they should win 100 – particularly with RedSox taking such a massive leap backwards.
C70: What’s the main topic Rays fans are discussing that maybe isn’t obvious to other teams?
Danny: Can the Rays replace Tommy Pham’s offense? It might be that Jose Martinez, in a platoon at DH, effectively replaces what Pham offered on offense, but it’s not easy to swap out your No. 2 hitter in the lineup!
Seth: Kevin Kiermaier seems to be a polarizing figure. You can look at the numbers and see he’s a super-elite defender. You can watch him with your eyes and see how incredible he is with the glove. He’s always flashed potential as a hitter but has never lived up to expectations with the bat. He is currently the second-highest-paid player on the team and some people feel like his bat will never live up to the contract.
Personally, I believe a run saved is as good as run earned and since Kiermaier entered the league, he is three points south of average in runs created with a 97 wRC+ and 117 above average in defensive runs saved. It’s just hard to visualize when you watch a game and see him continuously make outs at the plate. I can also understand the desire to have a “good” defensive centerfielder that consistently stays healthy and produces at the plate. Hopefully, Kiermaier will put it all together this year and we can move on to other issues!
Another hot topic is owner, Stu Sternberg’s apparent desire to spend half of the season in Montreal. Fans would like to see the Rays get a new stadium in the Tampa area that provides easier access. The TV ratings are actually very good in the market. Hope remains among Rays’ fans they will get a new stadium deal worked out before 2027 – when the current lease expires. However, Sternberg’s comments (which could just be for leverage) are very disconcerting.
Mat: “The Big One”. Due to all the talent and depth the Rays have built up, there’s a feeling that some of this talent will be used to add one more major piece for 2020 playoff run – or maybe even two deals. Despite having a very young and controllable roster, the Rays will be facing yet another hoard of tough decisions for 2020 rule 5 draft, so they’re forced to move some pieces around and restock lower levels. Names that have come up recently include: Kris Bryant, Nolan Arenado (less likely due to $ & length of terms), Whit Merrifield, Jeff McNeil, Francisco Lindor, and my favorite – Mike Clevinger.
C70: What are you looking forward to most about the coming season?
Danny: Two words: Wander Franco.
Seth: Who doesn’t love a good underdog story? David vs. Goliath. Rey Mysterio Jr. vs. Kevin Nash. Rays vs. Yankees.
Mat: I’d be lying if I said anything other than seeing Wander Franco make his debut. He’s the first true Phenom the Rays have ever had, despite having had a few greats come through, and could chart the course to greatness for this team for the next decade or more. Besides that, though, I’m looking forward to seeing Willy Adames take that next step towards greatness, Hunter Renfroe mashing in AL East parks (45+ HRs), and Mike Zunino‘s bat coming alive to put him well within the top 10 catchers in the game.