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The Rays success in 2018 can be traced to three pivotal days from the 2017 offseason

Trading Longoria, designating Corey Dickerson, so much turnover... were these the right choices?

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Seattle Mariners Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Rays surprised most by winning 90 games in what was by any consideration a rebuilding year, and a season of tanking to others.

That success can be traced to three all-important days from the 2017 offseason. With another offseason ahead of us, let’s look back on those three pivotal days.

December 20th, 2017

  • Tampa Bay trades 3B Evan Longoria and cash to San Francisco for OF Denard Span, 3B Christian Arroyo, RHP Stephen Woods, and LHP Matt Krook

The Rays traded Evan Longoria last offseason, ending his historic tenure with the franchise. The trade was a long time coming, whether Rays fans wanted it or not, as they were forced to see the best player the team has ever had dealt away.

The Rays had failed to have a winning season since their Wild Card-winning year in 2013. They had to make a change.

The Rays gave Longoria the opportunity to decide whether or not he wanted to be part of that change. He did not.

With the Giants this season, Longoria has struggled. He posted the worst season of his major league career, accruing just 0.4 fWAR, with a bleak 85 wRC+. The Rays were a lot better this season for not having Longoria on their roster, and the budget this offseason will not be as hamstrung without having his contract on the payroll.

The Rays shed an aging star from their roster, acquired four players, and created a significant amount of payroll space.

The process at the time hurt, but the trade has worked out fantastically for the Rays, despite Christian Arroyo’s injury-plagued season.

After a season of review: this was a good process by the Rays with excellent results, particularly in getting a struggling Longoria off of the books

February 17th, 2018

  • Tampa Bay trades a PTBNL to Los Angeles for 1B C.J. Cron
  • Tampa Bay Designates OF Corey Dickerson for Assignment
  • Tampa Bay trades RHP Jake Odorizzi to Minnesota for INF Jermaine Palacios

On a crazy Saturday night in February, Erik Neander blew up the baseball world once more as the Rays acquired a slugging first baseman from the Los Angeles Angels, C.J. Cron, who was blocked by Albert Pujols.

That move seemed excellent, but the corresponding roster move to clear a spot on the 40-man roster was a lot more puzzling.

The Rays designated Corey Dickerson, a 2017 All-Star, for assignment. This quickly sent baseball pundits into a frenzy as the Rays were viciously attacked for salary dumping, and several articles were published about how the Rays were (let’s paraphrase) an abomination to the game for not even trying to seem like they were attempting to compete.

A few hours later, the Rays capped the night off by trading Jake Odorizzi, a dependable starter in the toughest division in baseball for the past few seasons, to the Minnesota Twins for a low level minor leaguer, Jermaine Palacios, who didn’t crack any preseason prospect lists.

The Rays dropped significant portions of their expected Opening Day payroll, but didn’t add much in terms of talent to their Opening Day roster.

Trading Odorizzi opened a spot in the starting rotation that prospects Brent Honeywell or Jose De Leon could compete to win. C.J. Cron was slated to become the team’s starting first baseman. Corey Dickerson was an unfortunate part of a roster crunch with the team having a glut of left-handed hitting outfielders: Mallex Smith, Denard Span, and Kevin Kiermaier.

You can’t predict injuries, or at least you can’t 100% know exactly when they’re going to happen; however, almost immediately following the Odorizzi trade, Brent Honeywell tore his UCL, and he would soon after be followed by Jose De Leon. Both pitchers would undergo Tommy John surgery and miss out on the entire 2018 season.

Odorizzi had an Odorizzi type year with the Minnesota Twins — not tremendous, but not awful — as the prototypical 3-4-5 starting pitcher in an average team’s rotation.

His departure from the Rays staff, and the onslaught of injuries, helped the Rays to pioneer ‘The Opener’ strategy which worked out almost flawlessly for the Rays as they transformed their rotation into one starting pitcher and relievers every other day, putting up among the best numbers in baseball.

Corey Dickerson, meanwhile, transformed himself from a fearsome slugger to a Tony Gwynn-esque contact hitter who never struck out... for the first two months of the season, anyway. Of course, the first two months weren’t sustainable, but he did proceed to have a solid year, despite his low power numbers, posting a 115 wRC+ and 2.6 fWAR.

In his place, the Rays gave Mallex Smith everyday playing time, allowing him to blossom into a well above replacement level player. Smith actually outperformed Dickerson offensively, putting up 117 wRC+ and 3.4 fWAR over 544 plate appearances. If not for Smith having his breakout campaign, the wound caused by Dickerson’s sudden departure would have stung a bit more.

The Rays acquired Daniel Hudson (and his contract) and Tristan Gray for Dickerson. Hudson was released in Spring Training, and eventually picked up by the Los Angeles Dodgers, with whom he pitched in 40 games over the course of the summer. Gray, meanwhile, is showing some promise within the Rays system, slugging .419 in the Florida State League.

C.J. Cron stepped in and gave the Rays a terrific offensive campaign, belting 30 home runs for the Rays in his first full season with an everyday job, maintaining good performance as a Designated Hitter.

After a season of review: Trading Jake Odorizzi was always a move the team was going to make, it was just poor - uncontrollable - timing with the prospect injuries. As of now the return is not strong. Corey Dickerson being DFA’d is still baffling to me and the return for a solid player was very weak. Dickerson would have been very nice to have in the Rays lineup every day. The C.J. Cron pickup was a fantastic move then, and a fantastic move now.

February 21, 2018

  • Tampa Bay trades OF Steven Souza to Arizona for INF Nick Solak, LHP Anthony Banda, RHP Sam McWilliams, and LHP Colin Poche. New York received OF Brandon Drury from Arizona. Arizona received RHP Taylor Widener from New York
  • Tampa Bay signs OF Carlos Gomez to a one year, $4 million deal

In the week that followed Neander’s crazy Saturday night, he made another trade that shook the game to its core as he traded away breakout outfielder Steven Souza Jr. to the Arizona Diamondbacks as part of a three-team deal.

No one knew exactly what the Rays were doing, it just seemed like they were not even trying to be competitive in 2018, as they had now traded away three of their top four offensive players from 2017, and let the fourth one slip away through free agency.

However, Souza was a constant injury concern who was coming off his best year in the majors. The Rays didn’t go into Spring Training intending to trade him, but the Diamondbacks came calling with an offer the Rays couldn’t refuse, and so a deal was struck.

The Rays received four solid prospects for their injury prone, slugging outfielder, and a day later, they filled his void in the lineup by signing veteran outfielder, Carlos Gomez to a one-year deal for the same amount that was owed to Souza for the season.

Despite a poor showing the on field, Gomez endeared himself in the clubhouse. Never one to shy away from having a fun time on the diamond or in the dugout, Gomez was a joy to watch throughout the 2018 campaign.

Steven Souza Jr. meanwhile, was injured toward the end of spring training and never seemed to recover as the season dragged on. He only played in 72 games for the Diamondbacks this season, performing below replacement level and well below the league average offensively.

The four prospects who came to the Rays: Anthony Banda impressed early, but succumbed to Tommy John surgery; Nick Solak clobbered Double-A for a few months, and finished with a respectable season; Sam McWilliams struggled; Colin Poche dominated in Triple-A and is now one of the most exciting minor league arms in the Rays system.

After a season of review: the trade came as a shock, but the Rays were right to pull the trigger. They sold high on Steven Souza Jr. and, as of now, that decision seems like one of the best in franchise history.