When the regular season came to a close in 2017, some speculated the Rays could blow up it all up. No one actually thought they’d go through with it.
Now, a year later, the Rays are coming off their first winning season since winning the AL Wild Card in 2013. They won 90 games in 2018, despite trading away Evan Longoria, Corey Dickerson, Logan Morrison and Steven Souza Jr, and then also parting ways with Chris Archer, Wilson Ramos, and Alex Colome once the regular season got underway.
With a year of information under their belts, the Rays should be ready to make some savvy moves to keep the team in contention in 2019.
As for players with contracts, an all-important topic for the budget consciousness Rays, only six players are heading for arbitration, and only one is signed long term: Kevin Kiermaier is slated to be the team’s most expensive player, with him earning $8.17M in 2019 as part of his contract extension that runs through the 2023 season. The cheapest version of the Rays could be a payroll below $35 million if nothing changes.
TL;DR - the Rays have money to spend, and most of their contracts are set.
So, what’s left to do?
Under the Chaim Bloom/Erik Neander regime, the Rays have been early dealers in the offseason. In 2015, they made the big six player deal that brought Logan Morrison and Brad Miller over from the Mariners. The year after that, Taylor Motter and Richie Shaffer were shipped off. Last year, Brad Boxberger was dealt to Arizona. All of these deals were made in November. The Rays are not shy on making November deals.
Usually, the Rays make these deals prior to a deadline, with November 20th being the date this year for them to lock in their 40-man roster and November 30th being the deadline for arbitration filing.
Let’s look at three key players who could be candidates to move in November, should the Rays be inclined to move on from them in 2019:
Among the players who are arbitration eligible that other teams may find appealing, C.J. Cron stands out as a player for whom the Rays could work out a trade.
The big slugging first baseman, who the Rays fiirst acquired this past spring, gave the Rays a durable, powerful bat in the middle of the order for most of the regular season. He clobbered 30 home runs en route to the best season of his major league career. His 122 wRC+ was 8th among qualified first baseman this year (1st in the AL), while his .493 SLG% was 5th among first baseman with 500 plate appearances.
Cron is still arbitration eligible for two more seasons, he is projected to make $5.2M in 2019 according to MLB Trade Rumors arbitration projection system, making him extremely cheap value for the amount offense he provides.
The Rays have a logjam at first base now, with the arrivals of Ji-Man Choi and Jake Bauers, also not to mention the emergence of Nate Lowe as one of the systems top offensive prospects.
As the 2018 season dragged on, C.J. Cron had his playing time significantly diminished to allow for playing time to be given to Choi and Bauers, despite remaining an offensive force at the plate.
In the outfield, the Rays have a glut of left-handed hitters: Kevin Kiermaier, Mallex Smith, and Austin Meadows. Tommy Pham will be the team’s everyday left fielder.
Kevin Kiermaier suffered through another injury plagued year, this time seeing his offensive numbers dwindle, but still provided his usual star caliber defense. Mallex Smith emerged as an every day player in Kiermaier’s absence and put up one a great season, enjoying a breakout offensively and defensively.
Austin Meadows, acquired in the Chris Archer deal, showed plenty of promise in Durham and did well in his brief call up at the end of the season in September.
It would be a bitter pill for the Rays to part with any of these guys, but with only so many playing spots available, the Rays have a surplus.
The Rays have $44.2M guaranteed to Kevin Kiermaier over the next five seasons. His value is at an all-time low, but the Rays would certainly be happy to have that contract lifted off their spreadsheets for the next several years. However, the Rays may be hard pressed finding a willing suitor that would meet the Rays price on Kiermaier and take on that salary commitment.
Kiermaier is averaging under 100 games a season over the past three years, but still managed to accrue 8.8 fWAR.
Matt Duffy had a bounceback year for the Rays, after missing all of the 2017 injury with a problematic foot injury, that also cost him a good chunk of the 2016 season.
With almost no power to speak of, the lanky Duffy still managed to provide 106 wRC+ and 2.4 fWAR for the Rays in 132 games this season. He hit .294/.361/.366 with 4 HR over 560 PA. He made less than a million in 2018, and is slated to receive a decent raise in 2019, but still a very cheap $2.6M for a well above replacement level player.
However, the Rays have an infield logjam. Injuries and trades allowed playing time for their prospects and breakout players, as Willy Adames and Joey Wendle were able to receive everyday playing time, due to Daniel Robertson’s season ending injury and Adeiny Hechavarria being traded.
Now, with 2019 on the horizon, the Rays have Daniel Robertson, Brandon Lowe, Willy Adames, Joey Wendle, and Matt Duffy all battling for the starting infield spots. Duffy would seem the most logical player for the organization to part ways with.
It will be a long offseason, with plenty of twist and turns. The Rays roster could look completely different come Opening Day, or they could send out the same lineup that they closed out the year with.