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A good problem to have? Rays must consider how to improve a team with so much depth

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Should they just run it back in 2020?

MLB: ALDS-Houston Astros at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Ok, so your team just made the playoffs for the first time in six years. The had a decisive Wild Card game victory and pushed a heavily favored opponent to the brink of the ALDS.

You’ve gotten a taste of playoff baseball, and now you want to make sure this wasn’t a one-time deal. Ideally, the team even gets better and can put itself back into the crapshoot that is the MLB playoffs, where, despite Houston’s best efforts, all teams do truly have a chance at ending up with a pennant, or even a ring.

So, how do the Tampa Bay Rays get better?

With most teams, that should be a relatively simple question. Improve on your weak spots in free agency, let your young players get better, and continue to hone the skills of your top dogs.

With the Rays, it’s a little trickier, for a number of reasons.

(This article will be building off the excellent look at the roster that JT Morgan took earlier this week.)

First, the Rays are the antithesis of a “stars and scrubs” team in which weak spots are crying out for improvement. In 2019, they had only one player above 4.0 fWAR, while giving over 100 PA to only two negative fWAR players (Matt Duffy and Daniel Robertson, each at -0.3 fWAR), and not giving more than 10.0 innings to any negative fWAR pitcher (hello there, Jake Faria).

In fact, it’s very easy to create a full and solid 25-man roster with players who ended the year with the team, and it’s very hard to find legitimate holes there.

Where are the holes?!

Position Player 2019 fWAR
Position Player 2019 fWAR
C1 Travis d'Arnaud* 1.8
C2 Mike Zunino 0.3
1B Ji-Man Choi 1.9
2B Brandon Lowe 2.6
SS Willy Adames 2.8
3B Yandy Diaz 1.5
INF UTIL Joey Wendle 0.6
INF UTIL Eric Sogard* 0.5
LF Austin Meadows 4.0
CF Kevin Kiermaier 1.5
RF Tommy Pham 3.3
OF UTIL Avisail Garcia* 1.8
OF UTIL Guillermo Heredia 0.3
SP1 Charlie Morton 6.1
SP2 Blake Snell 2.7
SP3 Tyler Glasnow 2.3
P1 Ryan Yarbrough 2.7
P2 Yonny Chirinos 1.4
P3 Brendan McKay 0.8
RP1 Emilio Pagan 1.5
RP2 Nick Anderson 1.0
RP3 Diego Castillo 1.0
RP4 Chaz Roe 0.9
RP5 Colin Poche 0.6
RP6 Oliver Drake 0.5

(Note only three players with asterisks that show upcoming free agency. The merits of re-signing those three is another fun article for this offseason.)

That’s a 25-man roster without a single negative-value player, and remember that the Rays have arguably the best farm system in baseball backing it up.

This is a good problem to have—mostly. As JT noted in article referenced above, the Rays could basically roll back the exact team that led them to their most successful season in over half a decade, and maybe they will, because honestly, improving may prove challenging.

A roster with no glaring weak spots gets you to the playoffs. But when you want to improve—take it to that “eleven” for you Spinal Tap fans—you find yourself faced with a challenging offseason. Maybe the Rays will decide to get a stud outfielder into the Trop and move Meadows to DH full-time. But does the team really want to give up the incredible flexibility that having no set DH allows them?

How about first base? Choi seems like a player for whom one could find an upgrade (in terms of play, not lovability—no human is more lovable) at least in theory, but would paying an extra $10 million to upgrade from Choi to someone like Jose Abreu be worth it? Maybe. I’m legitimately curious, but I also know it wasn’t Abreu who was getting his name chanted during each and every home playoff game this season.

On the pitching side of things, maybe if we squint, there’s room for another starter in there. The Rays could have Yarbs and Yonny split the five spot and leave McKay in the minors for a bit more seasoning until the inevitable first injury? But outside of Gerrit Cole, whose payday is likely to be more than the Rays entire payroll since 2016, what arm is really going to help improve a Rays run prevention squad that ranked first in baseball in just about every trackable category, and was on a historic pace until the injury bug hit?

Bullpens are notoriously fickle, so I wouldn’t count on each of those guys who dominated in 2019 to do the same in 2020, but I also wouldn’t want to pony up for some free agent who is just as likely to bust but hasn’t had a year of indoctrination with the Rays.

Also, I like the idea of the club enjoying some rare continuity. The Rays roster turnover has been bonkers the past few seasons, but this young and fun squad seems like it could really see some improvement in 2020. To reference our own JT Morgan again, he’s got Willy Adames pegged as a 2020 breakout; Meadows and Glasnow are shaking off their Pittsburgh dust even more fully; Diaz could be one of the best leadoff hitters in the game against lefties; and Lowe would’ve hit 30 homers as a rookie if he stayed healthy.

Honestly, looking over that roster, mixed with a rather pedestrian free agent class, and it’s just not really clear what moves you’d want to make. Maybe Abreu for Choi. Maybe make an offer to Zack Wheeler or Tanner Roark. Late-career Howie Kendrick kind of seems like a classic Rays addition, right?

But those are all fringe moves. (The white whale remains Josh Donaldson, but I’m just not holding out hope for the Rays winning a bidding war for the 34-year-old.)

And maybe that’s not the worst thing. This was a team that won 96 games and was the third-best team in baseball by Third Order Winning Percentage. (I know, I know.) Take into account the Astros very possibly losing Gerrit Cole, while Justin Verlander hits his age 37 season, and it’s not a far cry to picture the Rays winning that ALDS. (Of course, if the Yankees get Cole, then we get to face him even more in the regular season, and he remains an impediment to a pennant. But let’s not think about that.)

This will be an interesting off-season for the Rays. For the first time in years, there’s a real chance that the Rays stay very quiet. And while that’s always tough to watch—who doesn’t enjoy a piping hot stove?—it may bode well for 2020.