The Tampa Bay Rays have never made that huge, franchise-altering deal at the trade deadline, at least not as buyers.
The deals that could have been
There have been a few times when, at least according to the folks who report on these things, the Rays have been on the precipice, but somehow never made it over the edge. It’s possible that the failure to complete key deadline trades has cost them at least one World Series title.
Most notable was the time at the 2008 when they acquired Jason Bay. At least it was reported that they had acquired Jason Bay. But instead it was the rival Red Sox who had secured a deal for the outfielder, who then provided them with 1.2 fWAR and a 130 wRC+ down the stretch. He went on to hit for a 1.105 OPS in the postseason. That offensive production would have been mighty nice in the Rays lineup, and perhaps a difference maker in the final results.
In 2009, the Rays were rumored to be heavily in on Victor Martinez as well as Cliff Lee. Again, Boston came in and swiped another Rays trade target off the board as they acquired Victor Martinez, who would go on to enjoy a fantastic season and a half with them (5.2 fWAR). Cliff Lee would be dealt to the Phillies and helped lead them to another World Series (they’d lose to the New York Yankees).
In 2010, Cliff Lee’s name was back out there as another popular trade target for the Rays. With the taste of the previous years’ deadlines still fresh on the tongue, surely the Rays would manage to consummate this deal. After all, it was clear to many that 2010 was “the year.” The Rays were the best team in the American League, on the verge of losing several of their core players during the off-season. This was their time to make something happen.
Instead, Cliff Lee went to the Texas Rangers and as fate would have it, the Rangers and Rays faced off in the ALDS. Cliff Lee would make two starts during that five game series during which he absolutely dominated the Rays. In his first postseason start he pitched 7 innings of one-run ball, striking out 10. In second start he pitched a complete game, striking out 11. In a five game series, having a dominant pitcher able to start twice can completely alter the outcome. Thanks to Cliff Lee the best Rays team ever made a quick exit from the play-offs.
The Rays contended as well in 2011, 2012 and 2013, and at no point did they improve their chances with a key deadline trade. The 2011 team was practically duct-taped together and still managed a Wild Card slot; in 2012 they competed despite needing to resort to the likes of Rich Thompson and their “big” move move was acquiring Ryan Roberts to replace the injured Evan Longoria; in 2013 their major move was signing Jesse Crain who was injured and never pitched for them (they also got David DeJesus post-deadline).
But you gotta keep your prospects...or do you?
Of course, those teams who “buy” at the deadline are forced to pay a high price with prospects, right? So perhaps the Rays are better off holding on to future wins rather than paying top (prospect) dollar for pennant race rentals.
But you know what they say — “prospects will break your heart” — and as proof let’s look at the can’t miss prospects who were dealt in the deals discussed above: Jason Knapp, Carlos Carrasco Jason Donald, Lou Marson, Matt Lawson, Blake Beavan, Josh Lueke, Justin Smoak, Nick Hagadone, Justin Masterson, Bryan Price, Bryan Morris (the three way Boston-Pittsburgh-LA trade also involved major leaguers, including Manny Ramirez). Of those prospects, only Carrasco has emerged as a stand-out; Masterson and Smoak have at least had a few decent seasons, and the remainder have contributed little or nothing to major league baseball.
Of course prospects are always high-risk, but this list, as well as the recollection that Reid Brignac was once considered nearly untouchable as the Rays weighed trade options, are good reminders that proven MLB talent has some real advantages.
What are the lessons for 2017?
The Rays are back in contention at the trade deadline for the first time since 2013. Their current squad is good, but even true believers see some major weaknesses that are likely to keep them out of the postseason or limit their October potential should they nab a Wild Card spot.
The bullpen is unreliable, the offense against left handed pitching has been uncertain. With Colby Rasmus no longer available, a once deep outfield now looks stretched. The starting pitching has been pretty solid, but Cobb’s durability is an unknown; Faria is bound to regress; and Snell’s effectiveness remains a questions mark, so even there upgrades are imaginable.
Of course, some reinforcements will come as players return from the DL, most notably Kevin Kiermaier and Matt Andriese. Jaime Schultz is untested at the major league level but has potential to make a difference, and dare we entertain any hopes about Jonny Venters?
Hoping the Rays trade to improve this team
Nonetheless, I for one would love to see the Rays use some of their organizational depth to address these concerns. They have missed out on big names like J.D. Martinez and weren’t in on Jose Quintana, but there are still many talented players left on the trading block and the Rays have been linked to pretty much every reliever out there.
Justin Wilson of the Detroit Tigers seems like an excellent candidate to join Alex Colome in the back of the bullpen. The Rays could add to their strengths as well and possibly target an ace starting pitcher like Yu Darvish. On the offensive side of things, Khris Davis, who is having an fantastic season at the dish for Oakland, could be a less expensive J.D. Martinez alternative.
Between now and July 31 the baseball world will be buzzing with trade rumors. I’d like to see a few of those involving the Rays actual prove true.