The push for the 2019 season is upon us, so, as fans, it’s time to put on our prognosticating caps, stare into our crystal balls, and see what the future has in store. Here are some bold predictions for the 2019 season, but these are bold predictions our prognosticators actually, truly believe.
Dan Slaubaugh: Willy Adames will put up a 4-WAR season.
Expectations were understandably high when Willy Adames, aka “The Kid,” was first called up to the big leagues. The prize of the David Price trade, Adames failed to live up to those expectations in his first 33 major-league games (.196/.248/.295). Then Adeiny Hechavarria was designated for assignment, and for the two months after that, Adames officially broke out. From July 1 on, Adames slashed .330/.408/.477 with a 146 wRC+ and .381 wOBA.
As Jim noted in his Adames season preview, the rookie was pulling the ball more and hitting the ball hard nearly twice as often from July 31 on (per Statcast, Adames’ exit velocity jumped from 83.7 to 88.0 mph around this inflection point as well). Whether he can tap into any more power potential will be something to watch, and with this being a roundtable about bold predictions, I’m booking 20-plus dingers and a .260/.340/.475 slash-line for for the bulked-up Adames.
The 23-year old shortstop will put up a 4-plus WAR season, claim his spot among the top American League shortstops, and he will continue to prove he’s the long-term franchise shortstop the Rays have been hunting for their entire existence.
Ian Malinowski: The Rays will have top-5 production from 2B and DH, but nobody will have an All-Star case.
Fans like a set starting lineup for them to fan on. Players want to play everyday so they can establish a rhythm. Some managers probably like to know who their starters are so they don’t have to think too much. But the annoying thing is that platoons work. Batters hit opposite-handed pitching better than they hit same-handed pitching, and if you have the players to do it, and if those players buy in, a true platoon made up of quality players is a pretty good bet. The Rays have the team to do it.
I’m not sure Joey Wendle can reprise his rookie-of-the-year level performance, but I know he can defend at second base, and I think he can hit righties a little bit. I’m not sure if Daniel Robertson will hit 30% above league average ever again, but I know he can defend at second base, and I think he can hit lefties a little bit. I’m not sure Brandon Lowe, with his slim figure, is really a .200+ ISO guy, but I bet he can hit righties. I really don’t know much about Christian Arroyo at this point. But he’s around, and right-handed.
Moving to Designated Hitter, Ji-Man Choi might or might not be an elite major-league slugger. One of the major reasons the Rays didn’t pay a little bit more to bring Nelson Cruz to town is because they think it’s worth their while to find out. If it turns out that he’s not, though, I bet he can still hit righties pretty well. He’s been 20 percent above average against them in his limited career, and while he doesn’t have enough PAs to put much stock in that number, he sure looks like a guy who should crush a few sliders that don’t quite get to his back foot. And the good news is that, if it turns out that Choi is not someone you can count on as an everyday-DH, the Rays have an insurance policy in the form of Avisail Garcia. I don’t love the idea of Garcia in the field. I don’t love the idea of Garcia as my DH against righties, but in almost 600 plate appearances against lefties he’s been 20% above average. Also there’s Yandy Diaz in the mix here, and some average hitters who might get a day of from the field, but probably only in situations where their bat is expected to play.
Not many of the names I’ve listed above will get you excited on their own, but put them all together, and you have the most anticipated TB platoon since The Brothers Gabe started 2009 as the Rays’ right-field duo. Of course, that plan fizzled a bit, as plans sometimes do, and this one could too. But stockpiling a bunch of pretty good players so that you can put them all in favorable matchups is a pretty good plan. Check the production at the end of the year.
Jim Turvey: Daniel Robertson will end the year as the Rays third-best player
In my mind, Blake Snell and Tommy Pham are the clear top dogs on the Rays roster right now—the Mr. and Mrs. Smith that are locks to put up incredible numbers and lead the Rays on their respective sides of the ball. The battle for the third-best Ray seems like a lot more open field.
By fWAR, only Snell was better on the Rays in 2018 than Joey Wendle, who was worth 3.7 fWAR in his out-of-nowhere rookie season. Storyline-wise, if it wasn’t Wendle, it was maybe Ryan Yarbrough who won 16 games and accepted his role of “bulk guy” with aplomb, helping to settle what could have easily been an unstable Rays rotation. Kevin Kiermaier is probably the answer most folks would give. Mallex Smith probably would’ve been my pick as the Rays third-best player for 2019 had the team not traded the lovable speedster, and although the player they got in return will be making a challenge of his own for third-best Ray, there’s another player who has caught my eye.
D-Rob, the 24-year-old super-utility-but-not-in-an-insulting-way player will head into 2019 having missed the final two months of the 2018 season with a thumb injury. He also dealt with a hamstring injury earlier in the season, and if he can’t shake the injury bug, this plaudit will obviously not be bestowed upon him by season’s end. However, one doesn’t have to look far past the injuries to see the makings of an absolute stud. In the 88 games in which Robertson did make it onto the field for the Rays in 2018, he slashed .262/.382/.415 for a wRC+ of 127, with a 12.6 percent walk rate and 22.6 percent strikeout rate. He played basically everywhere on the diamond last year, and Kevin Cash will undoubtedly use him as Zobrist-lite again in 2019.
One of the Rays biggest strengths is their depth. There are innumerable players that it’s possible to imagine being the third-best Ray this season, but my money is on D-Rob.
Darby Robinson: The Opener will fail, but not for the Rays
The Opener strategy took the baseball world by storm last year. Through the fire and flames of the baseball hot takes that would follow, I noticed a troubling trend. Far too many folks saw the Opener as a way to turn bad pitchers into good ones through some sort of analytical alchemy. This is why this strategy will fail in 2019 for several teams.
Baseball innovation leads directly to baseball copycats. When the Rays decided to go all in on catcher framing and had good results, several other teams started to invest in it too. Same with the defensive shift. One team is first through the wall, and soon the others will follow.
The Rays had a plan. Opening a game with a reliever and then transitioning in a “starting pitcher” after to handle multiple times through the order was a strategy the Rays have been experimenting with for awhile. Throughout their minor league system, we saw the Rays use their pitchers in non-traditional ways. The key here is: the Rays had a plan.
Through a series of calamities to the Rays 2018 starting pitchers that would make the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant softball team feel sympathetic, the Rays were forced into using the Opener strategy much more than they were originally planning on. But they did plan on using it, opting to start the season with a four-man rotation. Using good, young, but maybe not great starting pitching prospects, with high leverage but not your best relievers, allowed the Rays to use their talent in ways to maximize their abilities.
But the key is this: the strategy is not magic. Just like the rest of the game, it takes talent to perform. We are going to see the Rays continue to use the strategy, and I fully predict it will continue to be successful for the Rays. I also predict I we will see a lot of copy cats who half-ass the strategy, trying to turn coal into gold. Last year, the Oakland A’s and Milwaukee Brewers experimented with the strategy, and used it to some success. They utilized good pitching prospects to try and maximize their abilities, limiting them to one or two times through the order against the other team’s best hitters. We will see more and more teams “try” it, and that’s when we will see teams fail at it. We will see teams just decide to flip a mediocre reliever into the first inning, in an attempt to save all their best arms just in case.
The Rays committed years to experiment with this in their minor league system acting as an incubator. The pitchers they used in these roles weren’t just tossed in but had to buy in. Without buy-in, without commitment, without the process, what you are left with is luck.
It’s a strategy that will try and eke out a few percentage points of an edge over the other team. The Rays will continue to be the shining example of employing that strategy in 2019, but that bright light will lead other team’s like moths directly into the flame.
So those are our bold predictions we actually believe for 2019, got any of your own?