This is it, folks. Just 24 hours to go. Let’s kill the time (man, that clock sure is moving slow, huh?) with some breakout picks for the Rays in 2019. Put your own selections in the comments section!
Darby Robinson: Mike Zunino
I don’t consider Zunino to be that bold of a pick, but looking around, it certainly seems an offensive resurgence would surprise quite a few folks. Zunino for his career has been a 89 wRC+ hitter, while bringing stellar framing and catcher defense. In 2017, Mike Zunino reshaped his swing which led to his best offensive season (slash of .251/.331/.509, 25 home runs, and 127 wRC+). That so far has been an outlier, and I’m not bold enough to predict he gets back to that level. However, if Zunino can stay healthy, I believe his new swing and confident approach can help him get to an attainable 100-105 wRC+ in 2019. I believe in Mike Zunino. He’s going to K a ton (seriously, one-third of his at-bats are going to be a strikeout) and that’s fine. He’ll launch it, he’ll frame it, and with a 10-point wRC+ increase from last year, Mike Zunino will be a 4-WAR catcher.
JT Morgan: Austin Meadows
Meadows is handed the opportunity to take the reigns in right field. Late in the year with Durham his homer power really started to manifest itself in game action. By the All-Star break, Meadows makes it clear who the three starting outfielders are for the Rays. In addition to the good batting average and on base skills, Meadows hits 20 homers out of the leadoff spot.
Bradley Neveu: Brendan McKay, Designated Pitcher Hitter
Brendan McKay has pitched great since being drafted in 2017 with the fourth overall pick, but the bat hasn’t kept up. In 2018, he slashed .214/.368/.359 at the plate while compiling 103 strikeouts and a 2.41 ERA in 78 innings. Brendan will put down the first base glove and be a designated hitter in 2019, which will lessen his workload by taking fielding practice out of his daily routine. This will allow him to focus on pitching and hitting, and it will result in a production boost at the plate while maintaining his stellar pitching performance. McKay will end the year banging down the door to the majors with a sub-3.00 ERA on the mound and .280/.380/.480 slash at the plate.
Jared Ward: Yandy Diaz
I think there is a very good reason the Rays decided to give away Jake “Our First Baseman” Bauers PLUS $5 million if they didn’t believe in him. Mottola has been able to help fix Wendle, D-Rob and possibly Choi. Why can’t they believe in Diaz? Also. Dat exit velocity tho.
Brian Menendez: Kevin Kiermaier
I’m gonna think outside the box and go Kevin Kiermaier here. That may sound weird because he’s already “broken out,” but here’s a guy who has quietly been one of the most valuable players in the American League over the past four seasons. In his platinum glove year (2015), he was sixth among position players in rWAR (7.5) with a league average bat. We know he’s going to play elite defense, and I am convinced there is a 120 wRC+ bat in there. Everyone is talking about Tommy Pham as an under the radar MVP candidate, but I think KK is right there too. Admittedly, a lot more has to break right for him than does Pham, but KK could be the more valuable one if he can find the field for 150 games.
John Ford: Ji-Man Choi
My pick is Ji-man Choi, for completely selfish reasons. Lots of this offseason was rough. I had huge crush on Jake Bauers, and I was coveting my neighbor’s DH in Nelly Cruz. Then the Rays traded Jake and passed on a reasonable Cruz deal, and I was pretty crushed! And honestly, last year I would have spent at least the first part of the season hating on Choi and Yandy Diaz, because they were the guys that replaced my True Love(s). Or well, at least my True Love and my side piece. Or not even MY side piece, but my buddy’s side piece who smiled at me once at a party, and I would be SO MUCH BETTER for him than Minnesota can’t he see that???
Um. I think this analogy is breaking down...
Anyway, Denard Span taught me last year not to hate on the guy who replaces your True Love. I know now that my baseball heart is big enough for Misty’s boy AND the Ji-Man!
So just like the RFO, I’m all in on the big Korean. Because he’s fun, he’s charismatic, and he has a really sweet swing. He has tried and failed and _survived_, and now he’s ready to thrive.
Jim Turvey: The Player We Least Expect
Looking up and down the 2019 Rays roster, there are so many options for breakout seasons. We have six listed above, and there are probably another dozen or so sprinkled throughout the organization that will get a shout in the comments section. But honestly, think back to last year: Would any of you (be honest) have pegged Joey Wendle as the breakout star? How about Vidal Brujan as the breakout minor leaguer? Our own JT has been all over Bru-Ha-Ha for a minute, but he was under most folks radar, to say the least.
So, who will we be? Someone none of us are even thinking of. Maybe Joe McCarthy finally stays healthy; maybe Guillermo Heredia’s defensive metrics all line up—in a positive way; maybe Jeff Sullivan makes his new presence felt in the front office and Wilmer Font becomes an All-Star. Heck, based on last year, it could well be someone the Rays trade for a month or two into the season and isn’t even on the roster right now. There’s only one way to know: Start the season already!