Playing Pepper 2019: Tampa Bay Rays

Every year since 2009, I’ve spent some time before the season starts trying to find out what fanbases are thinking about their team.  It’s so easy to get myopic, especially with Twitter, so it’s a good chance for us (and by us, I mean me) to take a step back and remember there are 29 other Major League Baseball teams.  We’ve got current bloggers, former bloggers that indulge me still, and this year a few media folks chiming in as well.  Get out the bat, ball, and glove: it’s time once again to play some pepper.

Tampa Bay Rays
90-72, third in AL East
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper

You know it’s a tough year when a 90 win season is only good for third place in the division–and a distant third at that.  Even so, the Rays gained 10 wins in that tough draw and showed why you can never completely count this organization out, no matter what their financial resources are.  Can they do it again?  We probably should ask some folks about that, huh?  Let’s do it!

Writer Site Twitter
Mat Germain WanderRays MatGermain76
Anthony Ateek X-Rays Spex XRaysSpex

C70: What are your thoughts on the offseason? What was good, what was bad, what else should they have done?

Mat: This was an A Grade offseason for the Rays. The main reason it gets an A, above all else, is because of the addition of Charlie Morton. In essence, what this does is replace the production you may have expected from Chris Archer, and thus make Tyler Glasnow and the rest of the gang above-average in their respective rotation spots. And yes, that includes the best 5th starter in baseball, the “Opener” tandem of Ryne Stanek and Ryan Yarbrough (16 game winner in 2018).

The major misses, in most people’s eyes, was in not being able to add either Paul Goldschmidt or Nelson Cruz. The Rays reportedly included Jesus Sanchez in their offer for Goldy, making it surprising that they weren’t able to land him in trade. But the snub from Cruz, in favour of the Twins, likely hurt more. His power would have fit in perfectly within the lineup, and his track record is second to none on the market within what the Rays could afford.

Anthony: Overall, I think the Rays had a solid offseason. While I don’t often agree with former MLB general manager Jim Bowden, I must concede that his B grade of Tampa Bay’s offseason moves was, by and large, on point. The front office picked up a few players that hammer the ball hard — Yandy Diaz, Mike Zunino, and Avisail Garcia — adding to a dynamic roster of players like, Tommy Pham, who tend to do the same. They also acquired number two hurler Charlie Morton, who projects to perform to a 2.5 WARp according to Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projection system.

To be perfectly honest, I think the Rays should have picked up a solid back end reliever, although as of writing Craig Kimbrel is still on the market, so who knows?

C70: Who are you expecting more out of this season, Tommy Pham or Austin Meadows?

Mat: That’s a very tough question, but I’d like to separate these two because of where they stand in their careers. In Tommy Pham, the Rays have a top 10 in MLB left-fielder who has a track record to prove it. He’s a beast in the 2-hole and anchors the lineup vs both LHP and RHP. It’s feasible that he’ll manage a WAR rating between 4 and 6, with a decent chance he reaches the 25 HR and 25 SB level.

Meadows, on the other hand, is someone I see growing into an outfielder similar to George Springer. Although Meadows has seen the field for a short period of time so far in MLB, his abilities are very similar to Springer:

#Rays Meadows (772 pitches): 6.4% barrels, 88.2 exit vel, 13.5 LA, wOBA .332, .423 xSLG, 39.3% hard hit, 20.9 K%
#Astros Springer (2501 pitches): 8.9% barrels, 88.6 exit vel, 9.4 LA, wOBA .340, .453 xSLG, 37.2% hard hit, 19.7 K%

The main difference between Pham and Meadows is that it may take a while longer to see Meadow’s best, whereas Pham is now in his prime.

Anthony: By virtue of the fact that we tend to know what to expect out of Tommy Pham based on his second-half production with the Rays last season, I’m expecting to see a lot out of Austin Meadows, who will slot in as the primary right-fielder for the team. Steamer projects Meadows to slash .265 BA/.315 OBP/.436 SLG/.751 OPS/.322 wOBA in 2019, which is underperforming his career numbers, although it is much more optimistic than PECOTA’s projections. Not to mention that projections aren’t always right.

C70: Blake Snell was otherworldly last year. How close can he get to those numbers this coming season?

Mat: If he reaches 200+ innings, he will improve on those numbers, for the most part. And there’s more reason for it than simply his skills. The defensive team he’ll have working behind him in 2019 is going to be a major improvement on what he had for much of 2018. Kevin Kiermaier‘s continued injury woes took his gold glove out of centre field for a good portion, and the same was true for Daniel Robertson who was showing extremely well at 3B. The OFers you mentioned above are also capable of playing CF, providing depth there, but when all three are in the outfield at the same time you’d be hard-pressed to find better OF range in MLB. Behind the plate, Zunino is a major upgrade defensively and may be paired with the two-time defensive player of the year in the Rays system, Nick Ciuffo. Those items, having Morton to work with, and the confidence he now has to work with tell me that we’ve yet to see the best out of Blake Snell – as scary as that is.

Anthony: Most of the projection systems forecast a regression for Snell, somewhere between his 2017 and 2018 numbers. Those numbers aren’t necessarily bad, although they aren’t quite as dominant as a season ago. Yet at the same time, Snell has been wildly consistent since the last third of the 2017 season. It also bears mentioning that the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner outperformed the computer projections going into last season, so perhaps they’ll be wrong once more.

C70: What is your general outlook for 2019? Where will they finish in the division?

Mat: Last year, I rightfully predicted that the Rays would be the best second half team in the American League. And for the first time in a very long time (maybe ever), I’m predicting they’ll win the AL East.

Some of the reasons are noted above, but there’s more to it than that. The Rays have a LOADED system. I honestly don’t know if people know just how loaded it is, and how much of it is MLB ready – or close to MLB ready. When you have 9 players listed on some Top 100 lists, when Fangraphs feels forced to list 54 of your prospects and note 19 of them as having 45+ grades, it means a lot. (Editor’s note: You can find Mat’s Top 50 Rays prospects here and his Top 10 Rays by position here.)

As we know, it all starts with pitching. And by June-July, the rotation will be looking to make room for Brent Honeywell, and the pen will likely add Jose De Leon who could work well as an Opener. Then we look at the hardest to hit arm in the minors, Colin Poche, and Ian Gibaut who can hit 99 MPH being added to a pen that already includes two outstanding options in Jose Alvarado and Diego Castillo. They’re helped out by the nasty Chaz Roe, and potential opener Emilio Pagan who challenges Stanek for the best splitter on the team. In short, the Rays pen is going to see significant improvements in 2019. And that’s what will separate them from the Red Sox who, honestly, have a bottom half of MLB pen at this point.

Anthony: Tampa Bay ended the 2018 campaign with a 90-72 record. The front office tweaked the roster, ideally for the better, so it would be reasonable to assume the Rays will be relevant again in 2019. The AL East is the most difficult division in baseball, so realistically speaking, they should be in the running for a Wildcard berth in the very least … begging the question, how crazy would it be to see more than half of the American League’s postseason competitors coming out of the same division?

C70: What’s the biggest question for this team going into the season and what’s the answer to it?

Mat: There are really three major questions on this team that need to be answered.

First, there’s who will get most of the work at 1B. With Jake Bauers and C.J. Cron gone, there’s a five way battle for time at 1B. The most obvious choice so far seems to be Yandy Diaz, with Ji-man Choi, Brandon Lowe, and Joe McCarthy as secondary options on the 40-man roster. And lurking behind them hoping to pounce on the first opportunity he gets in Nate Lowe who tore his way through 3 levels in 2018 and has the highest rated power in the system.

Second is the closing role, although I’d argue the answers are likely on the roster. Jose Alvarado seems to have made the case for first rights to the role after putting up a top 10 RP performance in 2018. Should he earn the role, the Rays will likely want to bring in another LH RP, which bodes well for them when they have Jalen Beeks, and the previously mentioned Poche waiting for a spot on the roster.

Third is how much of a step forward both Willy Adames and Austin Meadows make in 2019. As talented as they both are, there could be growing pains, or struggles in parts of the season. Having them achieve at above-average rates would really take this team to new heights, so ensuring they get the playing time needed to get there is vital. The good thing here is that the Rays have covered both spots with very viable alternate options with Avisail Garcia (RF) and Daniel Robertson or Matt Duffy (SS).

Anthony: How effective will the bullpen be? In all honesty, I have no clue what the answer might be. Last season the Rays pioneered the opener model, which many teams in baseball glommed onto. Rays Manager Kevin Cash already stated that he will again utilize the strategy in 2019, with three starters followed by two days of openers and long relief hurlers. It worked out well last season because pitchers like Ryan Yarbrough and Yonny Chirinos were able to avoid the third time through the order penalty.

The team also doesn’t have a set closer, leaving Chaz Roe, Jose Alvarado, and Diego Castillo as the most likely candidates to close by committee.

Success in the bullpen will be contingent upon the players on the 40-man roster, both in Triple-A and in the big leagues, as it goes without saying that Cash will utilize the Durham taxi to make sure the relief staff is stocked with fresh arms.

C70: What do you expect will give you the most joy watching this team on a regular basis this season?

Mat: Scratching and clawing for every win possible. That’s what this team did in 2018, and that’s what got them to 90 wins. If they need to put a RP at 3B to have him available the next inning, they’ll do it – as they did with Sergio Romo last year!

There’s a chip on the shoulder of this team that is intriguing in so many ways. They have Stanek wanting to prove the Opener’s success in 2018 wasn’t a fluke, Glasnow wanting to show the world that he’s ready to be a top starter in MLB, and Pham wanting butts in the seats to watch a 90+ win team and being very vocal about it. To loosen things up, they have goofballs in Adames, Choi, and Honeywell, but they’re all business when needed.

This team is well balanced, hard hitting, defensively talented, and ready to spit fire on the league as they work hard to get themselves into a playoff position. Rays ownership and front office don’t get half the credit they deserve in my opinion. And it’s shocking when you realize that they’ve put up the 7th best record in MLB since 2010 with a 769-703 record and average budget of $67M.

FYI, records since 2010 / average opening day budgets: 1. NYY 837-663, $185M 2. LAD 844-675, $191M, 3. STL 840-679, $124M, 4. BOS 811-684, $181M, 5. WAS 793-683, $126M, 6. TEX 785-716, $126M. How great does this make the Rays look? Yet, some actually think the Rays are tankers….

So I guess what I’ll enjoy most watching this team would be this: the reaction across MLB when they make the playoffs decisively and still have a top 3 system to work with in 2020. That’ll set the tone for what I’d expect to be a half decade of tremendous success.

Anthony: Just being able to make it out to the ballpark consistently, week in and week out brings me a lot of joy. There is so much awful stuff on the news, and seven months of baseball offers a great distraction from all of that.

I live 10 minutes from Tropicana Field and am a partial season ticket package holder. I wait all winter to see those 30-plus tickets pop up into my Rays member account, then a bit longer to make it out to the ballpark. I genuinely enjoy attending ballgames, even by myself, because I get to speak to folks who are as weirdly passionate about the Rays, and baseball in general, as I am. Moreover, watching a winning ball club is great as well, and I hope to watch them make a playoff push in 2019.

My thanks to both Mat and Anthony filling us in on the Rays.  It sounds like there’s a good chance this team will again make the most of what they have and be a thorn in the side of some folks!

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