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The 90-win Rays are stacked with ambiguity

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A closer look at the projected 2019 roster shows nothing is guaranteed.

Seattle Mariners v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images

Last year the Rays entered camp with a tense atmosphere due to the terribly kept secret that Corey Dickerson and Jake Odorizzi were soon to be traded, and those feelings were compounded once the players left and starters faced injury.

Still, in spite of the rough seas to start 2018, the Rays rose up to win 90 games. Now, they seem to be wearing those wins as a badge of honor, rolling into spring training with a championship mentality, even though half the squad looks nothing like last year’s team in camp.

Yes, the Rays were good in 2018, but have they earned this 2019 bravado?

Position-by-position, the Rays will be either fielding a new player or a giant question mark, so where is their current winner-take-all swagger coming from?

Let’s go around the horn and take a look.

Catcher

2018 starter: Wilson Ramos (73 games), Jesus Sucre (71)
2019 projection: Mike Zunino, Michael Perez

At the start of the offseason, the Rays had two center fielders on the roster, so they flipped their second best CF in Mallex Smith to the Mariners for former Gators catcher Mike Zunino — himself a quality starting catcher but not the name many hoped would land in Tampa Bay.

To land the big fish of the trade season in J.T. Realmuto, the Rays would have been sending the likes of Brent Honeywell or Brendan McKay to Miami — and when they eventually returned a similarly rated prospect in Sixto Sanchez, a deal in line with expectations — it makes sense for the Rays to have gotten out ahead of the market by dealing from a position of strength.

Holding onto their two best pitching pieces (who are close to the majors) when you only have three starters (more on that in a minute) is wise, but there is a whiff of missed opportunity here, particularly when the team’s secondary catcher was likely fourth on the Diamondbacks depth chart when acquired mid-year 2018 (as an emergency fill-in after the starter Wilson Ramos was injured).

This battery is essentially new, and the long list of relievers the Rays churn through will have a lot to teach them in a short time this spring.

Trading for talent is an inexact science, so whether the Rays made the right call is open to interpretation. The Rays could have acquired the top-rated catching talent in baseball, and perhaps they did (Zunino is Good), but the early returns say the Rays missed out on something more.

First Base

2018 starter: Jake Bauers (76 games), C.J. Cron (61)
2019 projection: Yandy Diaz?

The Rays could have gone for the best defensive first baseman in baseball in Paul Goldschmidt, but were outbid by the Cardinals. Instead, the Rays traded one of their top rookie talents and five million dollars to land... a third baseman with one home run to his name in Yandy Diaz.

According to Neil Solondz, the potentially versatile infielder will only have first base on his mind this spring:

“I feel happy since I’m going to have more opportunities here to showcase my talent and I’m happy to be here and help the team in whatever way I can,” said Diaz. “Last year I played a good amount of first base and I felt comfortable. This year, I’m going to focus more on my defense and play the entire time at first base.”

This is curious because the Rays have multiple first basemen in camp: Korean slugger Ji-Man Choi, and minor league Player of the Year Nate Lowe.

Given the Rays way of developing prospects (and by that I mean utilizing the rules of the CBA to guarantee seven years of team control), there’s no chance Lowe seeing the field in April unless he proves to be Hercules or the worst has happened to several other names.

Meanwhile, Choi was the primary designated hitter down the stretch in 2018, but don’t tell him that.

“It’s my job,” said Choi when asked if he was ready to handle first-base duties during Spring Training.

Who is playing first base this year? Your guess is as good as mine, but Choi and Diaz will sweat out the decision together.

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Second Base

2018 starter: Joey Wendle (101 games), Daniel Robertson (39)
2019 projection: Joey Wendle?

The Rays near-MVP last season is well-suited to playing second base. He put up 2.4 wins in a half season of play last season, boasting a 127 wRC+. His name is Daniel Robertson, and on any other team he’d be a shoe-in for second base, but his position on the field is not guaranteed.

That’s because the Rays had the WAR-leader among all rookies last season playing second base. His name is Joey Wendle, he put up 3.7 wins and a 116 wRC+ in a full season of play, and thus his position on the field is guaranteed.

Between the two of them, Robertson’s retooled swing that produced a 127 wRC+ last season is the sexier play, but his season derailed with a thumb injury just as he was trending back up on the roller coaster that all players ride throughout the season:

Should he be in a utility role, or more specifically should second base be guaranteed to Wendle? That depends on what you think of Wendle’s bat moving forward:

Wendle never climbed as high as Robertson, but was able to ride the roller coaster through the valley and concluded the season on a high note.

The ambiguity here is that this roster spot is not an openly discussed competition.

Meanwhile the Rays helium prospect of 2018 was a second baseman as well, a thin second baseman boasting Statcast power numbers on par with the likes of Nelson Cruz. His best position to defend is second base, but because he’s third on the depth chart, his position on the field is not guaranteed — so now he’s learning first base... Huh.

Add Brandon Lowe to the list above, then.

Third Base

2018 starter: Matt Duffy (125 games), Joey Wendle (20), Daniel Robertson (19)
2019 projection: Matt Duffy?

Once upon a time Matt Duffy was San Francisco’s Joey Wendle. Fast forward four seasons, and he’s the biggest defensive question mark the Rays have penciled into the 2019 roster, with a bat that leaves much to be desired.

Last season third base was manned by the ghost of Matt Duffy’s potential, and as the season wore on he was unable to play every day at the position that made him a star for the World Series-winning Giants.

To his credit, Duffy did everything he could to prepare for 2019, including adding some 25 lbs of muscle to get back into playing shape.

Will some added weight allow him to step back into his throws? And will he have done enough to cement his position on the roster?

Matt Duffy

Year Age PA OPS+
Year Age PA OPS+
2014 Giants 23 64 74
2015 Giants 24 612 108
2016 Total 25 366 82
2017 Rays (did not play) 26 0 0
2018 Rays 27 560 104
2019 ZiPS (projection) 28 522 94
ZiPS courtesy of FanGraphs

Knocking on the door is fellow former Giants player Christian Arroyo, the most desirable piece of the Evan Longoria trade due to the weight of Denard Span’s contract. The Rays eventually moved Span by pairing him with the team’s closer (who was also expensive) in a trade to the Mariners for spare parts (my notes here say Andrew Moore on them?).

Arroyo himself is a third baseman boasting recovery from injury via weight adjustments (this offseason he dropped 15 lbs). They gave him Archer’s jersey number, so perhaps they think he’ll stick.

What’s curious, though, is that both of Duffy and Arroyo appear to be favored over Team MVP Daniel Robertson or costly acquisition Yandy Diaz, both natural third basemen with better defensive grades that Duffy and Arroyo. What the Rays have planned at third base is a mystery.

Shortstop

2018 starter: Adeiny Hechavarria (61 games), Willy Adames (75)
2019 projection: Willy Adames!

At least here we only have one name to consider, and this time it’s a player full of promise who will need to prove himself on offense.

Willy Adames had a rude awakening upon joining the Rays in 2018, but overall has proved to be the prospect-that-was-promised when the Rays made him the centerpiece of the David Price trade. But what does that mean for his sophomore season?

Will he be able to continue trending in the right direction? Steamer has Adames’s wRC+ projected to fall from last seasons cumulative 109 down to 95. Similarly, ZiPS projects Adames to fall from a 109 OPS+ down to an 88.

The only other position players vying for shortstop are of the backup variety. Adames is thus far in this article the only sure thing, but that’s the projection of a batter hitting eighth.

Left Field

2018 starter: Denard Span (34 games), Mallex Smith (38), Tommy Pham (37)
2019 projection: Tommy Pham!

Finally, you can sigh a breathe of relief. Here the Rays have a plan in Tommy Pham.

The former MVP candidate in the National League fell out of step with the Cardinals coaches and staff, and they eventually sold low by sending him to Tampa Bay for a couple 40-man prospects.

Tampa Bay Rays v Cleveland Indians Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

From the Rays’ perspective, it was a brilliant move, and Pham proved them right by hitting for a 191 wRC+ in 174 PA over 39 games after the acquisition.

The Rays then did him a solid by taking him to court, trying to haggle Pham’s first trip through arbitration under four million dollars. They lost, and Pham will make $4.1 million in 2019, with most assuredly a positive outlook on the team after hearing the Rays lawyers dissect his potential for the worst.

This, of course, was after Pham spoke openly about the Rays attendance woes. Yeah, his position is secure, but is his relationship with the team? Hope springs eternal once pitchers and catchers report, but the front office and Pham need to get in-step before things get publicly worse.

Center Field

2018 starter: Kevin Kiermaier (88 games), Mallex Smith (71)
2019 projection: Kevin Kiermaier

Kevin Kiermaier is still the best outfield defender in baseball, and still picking up a “fluke” injury every season. In 2018, that meant his batting line finally fell below average, with a 78 wRC+ and .653 OPS (80 OPS+).

And although ZiPS projections do not expect his bat to bounce all the way back to league average in 2019 (95 OPS+ projected), his elite level of defense does provide the highest WAR projection by the same system.

For his part, KK is saying all the requisite things this spring, per Juan Toribio:

“I don’t think I’ve ever had a bigger chip on my shoulder,” Kiermaier said Saturday. “I want to go out and show that I’m still a really damn good player. And I’m going to go prove that.”

“I’m going to sound like a broken record all spring, but I have a lot to prove to you guys, to my teammates, the fans, everyone,” Kiermaier said. “I love where I’m at right now. I couldn’t ask for anything else, and now it’s just my job to go execute and maybe win some hearts back for my performance last year.”

Whoever has Kevin Kiermaier’s voodoo doll, please stop it.

Right Field

2018 starter: Carlos Gomez (100 games), Mallex Smith (47)
2019 projection: [open]

The Rays have two doors and both of them contain an unknown gambit.

Door No. 1 is a prospect who was drafted ninth overall and once ranked as high as No. 6 on Baseball America’s Top-100. Acquired in the Chris Archer trade, Austin Meadows could be the right fielder in 2019. He exceeded rookie limits during 2018 season, so there isn’t a concern of him getting held in Triple-A, but he still needs to win the job. The 24-year-old hit well prior to the trade last season (116 OPS+ in 191 PA), perhaps full season work will allow him to continue.

Door No. 2 is the hurdle Meadows must clear: former All-Star Avisail Garcia, who boasted 4.2 WAR in 2017 before an injury hampered his 2018 season to only 93 games and 385 PA. The former season was a shock, as Garcia was a replacement-level outfielder. At his best, perhaps he can hit for a 137 wRC+ again, but his most likely path is probably a platoon role, and the short side at that.

The role is Meadows’ to lose, but if he fails to prove himself this spring, the Rays did try Brandon Lowe in this position last season, too.

Designated Hitter

2018 starter: C.J. Cron (70 games), Ji-Man Choi (44)
2019 projection: Ji-Man Choi?

If Yandy Diaz is the favorite for first base, the designated hitter job is Ji-Man Choi’s, but the real change here is the lack of C.J. Cron, who played half of his games at DH and was released after the Rays couldn’t find a trade partner(!) for his 122 wRC+ in the offseason.

DH should be more of what you’d expect from previous Rays seasons, where the position sees a steady rotation of players not defending that day, and it’s an ambiguity the Rays will be happy to lean into unless Ji-Man Choi shows he can repeat his 135 wRC+ level of performance from his 221 PA last season.

Starting Pitching

2018 starter: Blake Snell (31 games), Chris Archer (17), Jake Faria (12), Nathan Eovaldi (10)
2019 projection: Blake Snell, Charlie Morton, Tyler Glasnow, Jake Faria, Wilmer Font

The Rays opened spring training in 2018 with seven possible starters (Archer, Snell, Eovaldi, Faria, Brent Honeywell, Jose De Leon, Anthony Banda), and by mid-April four names on that list were injured, and three needed Tommy John surgery. One of the remaining starters won the Cy Young award, while two were traded.

Tampa Bay has replaced Chris Archer with his trade acquisition Tyler Glasnow (who performed better than Archer the rest of the way and has shaved something like 0.4 seconds off his delivery this offseason), and 2018 World Series hero Nathan Eovaldi with 2017 World Series hero Charlie Morton (who signed a three-year deal with a one-year option).

Morton’s highest-ever Rays salary comes with question marks on health, but his veteran presence will be appreciated. His signing was both key and the bare minimum of what the Rays needed to do this offseason, but there are still two open rotation slots that remain.

As a result of the aforementioned injuries, the Rays essentially bullpenned their way through 2018, debuting The Opener to protect long-relievers Ryan Yarbrough, Jalen Beeks (acquired 1:1 for Eovaldi), and Yonny Chirinos — and all three of those names will return, as will 2017 surprise success Jake Faria and 2018 injured starter Wilmer Font.

Should Faria and Font falter, and the minor league invites in camp not pan out, Tampa Bay can use The Opener again for those two open slots, but that’s no less ambiguity than what the Rays had last year, when the closer had the sixth most innings pitched on the season.

Relief Pitching

2018 starter: Sergio Romo (73 games), Jose Alvarado (70), Chaz Roe (61), Ryne Stanek (59), Diego Castillo (43), Ryan Yarbrough (38), Andrew Kittredge (33)
2019 projection: Jose Alvarado, Chaz Roe, Ryne Stanek, Diego Castillo, Adam Kolarek, Emilio Pagan, Hunter Wood

The Rays had a veteran closer in 2018, and they traded him. They then relied on a different veteran closer (who also happened to have Giants World Series experience) and he signed with the Marlins for bottom dollar. So now they have none.

But where the Rays lack a closer, at least there is an Opener, namely Ryne Stanek who made the role his own last season, as well as flamethrower Hunter Wood who dreams of that back of the bullpen role but may be optioned due to the need for bulk guys on the roster in April.

Competing with Wood will be returning fellow fireballers Jose Alvarado and Diego Castillo, and although neither earned the closer title in 2018, a rose by any other FIP would smell as sweet, and as would left specialist Adam Kolarek’s. Alongside Snell, those three led the team in FIP (minimum 30 IP).

Also in camp is veteran Chaz Roe, who entered camp under the weather but still features an unfathomable slider, and early standouts Emilio Pagan (who was curiously acquired for three pitching prospects and the 38th overall pick in the 2019 draft) and Triple-A star Colin Poche.

At the end of the day that’s only two new names alongside a couple missing ones, but if reliever is your position of consistency, what does that say about your 90-win projection?

Conclusion

The Rays might have a 90-win reputation and 90-win swagger, but the roster is largely filled with new names and ambiguity.

After the offseason promised ample opportunity for the Rays to either spend big or make splashy acquisitions with the wealth of prospects at their disposal, the Rays ultimately made only a handful of acquisitions that may seem like the bare minimum, and will instead lean into the ambiguity versatility of their roster.

Let’s run through it again: The catching tandem is essentially new, first base will have a player out of position, second base has no competition where there should be one, third base has the complete unknown of a player returning to health, the outfield has four names but some concerns, the rotation has three names instead of five, which means The Opener is still happening, and there is no closer; just a young core.

But the Rays are gonna be good. Just ask them:

”We all feel the same way, we think playoffs are something we need to get to,’’ Snell said after Monday’s first full-squad workout. “And we think the World Series is something that is very attainable.’’

Based purely on the numbers, this is indeed a better team than what the Rays had in April of 2018, because the team that finished last season is the one worthy of that 90-win accolade.

The Rays boasted a 112 wRC+ as a team in the second half last year, winning 41 games (both of those stats second only to the Athletics). While the majority of teams took a step back in the second half, the Rays took strides forward until they were the last team eliminated from the playoffs in 2018. They missed the cut, but the vibes were earned.

Now the Rays return with the vast majority of the players who played in September, even with catcher, first base, and right field in a total overhaul. Time will tell if the Rays can keep those vibes rolling with so many positions filled by new faces or unknowns.