It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
The Rays started the season on a 14-5 run, proving to be the most dominant team in baseball over the first three weeks. They held their own well into May. Then some leaks started leaking water through the hull. Fast forward two more months and the Rays might need to begin bailing water, and that comes through three key losses from the roster:
Tyler Glasnow, who performed like the best pitcher in baseball with a 1.27 ERA, strained his elbow in mid-May. The Rays closer Jose Alvarado stepped away from the game for several weeks in June to deal with family issues. The team’s most trusted right handed bat, Daniel Robertson, never returned to 2018 form before succumbing to a knee injury.
And now the offense slowly started to slump.
Since that lightning fast start, the Rays have played .500 baseball, losing all the ground gained over the division and then falling out of even a Wild Card position at the start of this week.
The Rays have been treading water for too long, and last night’s loss sucked the last bit of wind out of the faded sails draped across the interior of the dome. The front office needs to plug the holes in the ship — pronto.
Watching this season has been like trying to hold water in your cupped hands at the beach. You can't hold it forever, and if you look away and look back, it seems like there's less and less there each time.— DRaysBay (@draysbay) July 23, 2019
With the trade deadline eight days away, Tampa Bay is only one game out of the playoffs, but the Red Sox are only one game behind them in the division. The time to act is now.
All-Star Charlie Morton has carried a lot of weight in the rotation, and Blake Snell is not far off from his Cy Young form. But with Glasnow’s return far away (and perhaps not until 2020), there is no No. 3. We were pretty accepting when the Rays went into the season only setting a three-man pitching rotation, but a two-man rotation? I don’t think so.
Now to be fair, in fact Yonny Chirinos and Ryan Yarbrough have emerged as dependable No’s 4 and 5, pitching first as “bulk” guys and now more frequently as traditional starters able to get through a good lineup at least two times. But the Rays still need someone who can somewhat compensate for Glasnow’s loss.
And Jalen Beeks — as great as he has been once through the order — is not that guy. That was clear last night, when he was unable to handle a second time through the order against the Red Sox.
Although he is often described as filling the “bulk guy” twice through the order role, that is not what Beeks has done so well this year. Most of his outings have been 2 to 4 innings, and facing a lineup once seems to be what he does best. This is nothing against the pitcher. His 2.70 ERA entering the game was as a reliever, not a stretched out starter.
Brendan McKay is likewise not suited to the Rays needs in the short term, as the team’s top pitching prospect remains on a six-day schedule and was sent back to the minors to keep it that way.
Jose De Leon was activated from the Injured List and optioned without a call up; which suggests the Rays don’t see him as an improvement over the guys currently on the roster. Anthony Banda is in rehab games but probably not close to effective multi-inning major league appearances. Brent Honeywell will not, we assume, be pitching in 2019 due to his fractured elbow.
It’s clear the answer for the Rays rotation must come from outside the organization. And here’s the good news: If there’s a name out there on the trade block there’s no doubt the Rays have inquired. But comes to starting pitching, but the clock is ticking.
If the Rays want to make an expensive splash they could have by now, in-division Marcus Stroman and in-contention Trevor Bauer are reportedly available, and the pitching market writ large is deep this year, but the team is likely being more reasonable in their search.
A short term contract like Bauer’s makes sense for the team’s needs (even if you have to grit your teeth for the off-field antics), but, particularly after the last couple days saw Beeks falter and McKay demoted (a move that remains surprising), 2019 needs an answer now.
Here’s the first mistake the Rays made this season: when Jose Alvarado took his leave of absence, the Rays needed a replacement right away to stop the bleeding.
Yes, it’s easy in hindsight to say that the team should not have expected Alvarado do essentially disappear from the 25-man, but it is the front office’s job to anticipate losses and make corrections accordingly. Situationally, it’s no different from an injury, and indeed Alvarado has been injured in his attempt to return to play.
A handful of losses last month could have been mitigated by a high leverage arm filling in for the likes of Chaz Roe (8.10 ERA since June 1), Diego Castillo (7.71), and Colin Poche (6.75) in high leverage.
With Alvarado now out for most of the season and fireman Ryne Stanek also on the injured list with a hip issue, the Rays cannot wait any longer.
Perhaps the Rays already made the necessary bullpen move, as the team recently acquired prospect Peter Fairbanks and stashed him in Durham after the pitcher showed a new look this year in recovery from his second Tommy John with the Rangers. With that new arm still in Durham, however, Alvarado’s and Stanek’s places in the bullpen remain open.
Rumors have the Giants entering the trade fray this week; perhaps the Rays might be able to find an answer there. The reliever market is deep enough that the cost to acquire is lower than usual. Tampa Bay has no excuse not to get something done as soon as possible.
Right Handed Bat
Here’s the second mistake the Rays made: letting the Yankees acquire Edwin Encarnacion, a perfect replacement for Daniel Robertson’s missing bat.
Not only did the team miss out on a much needed hitter (who ranks in the top-15 this season per Baseball Prospectus with a 135 DRC+), but he went to the division rival that has vaulted over the Rays in the AL East, in a season where the Rays were already paying a portion of Encarnacion’s salary!
The Mariners wanted to dump all of his remaining $8 million and the Rays had to say no, either out of self preservation for future trades with salary commitments or an unwillingness (or perhaps, even worse, an inability) to spend.
And the problem is only getting worse: Yandy Diaz (would-be first baseman filling in at third base) injured his foot in last night’s loss. All that’s left is call-up Michael Brosseau (who to his credit has a 150 wRC+ in 61 PA this year).
In place of Daniel Robertson, the Rays could have turned to Matt Duffy to take his place for the majority of third base reps this season, and we’d never be talking about a need for another RHB, but Duffy has been perpetually injured as well.
Duffy will seek to make his 2019 debut later this week, and perhaps that helps, but I’d venture to say the team needs better options against LHP than the following:
C - Mike Zunino
1B - Travis d’Arnaud
2B - Michael Brosseau
SS - Willy Adames
3B - Yandy Diaz (injured?)
LF - Tommy Pham
CF - Guillermo Heredia
RF - Avisail Garcia
DH - Matt Duffy (injured)
BN - Austin Meadows
BN - Nate Lowe
BN - Ji-Man Choi
BN - Joey Wendle
The Rays have been connected to Hunter Pence (129 DRC+), the current DH for the Rangers, and that’s the right sort of add for the Rays who need a low-cost solution. He came to the Rangers on a minor league deal, and the Rays need a bat like his yesterday.
The lineup above projects Duffy’s return this series, which has yet to occur. That line up will also need to re-introduce Kevin Kiermaier and Brandon Lowe from the injured list. Heredia and Wendle are the easy options off the roster when each returns, but it’s a difficult decision if the Rays do find another RHB.
Brosseau (150 wRC+ since June 1) and N. Lowe (180!) have performed well as of late, while Ji-Man Choi and Willy Adames are both in an offensive tailspin. One of those two plays a premium position of defense, the other does not.
If Matt Duffy arrives in form and a roster acquisition is made, some injured list shuffling could buy some time, but overall Choi may be on notice. As with the two previous situations, the Rays need answers now while the playoffs are still within reach.
Overall, the issue is not that the Rays have holes to fill; the issue is that the team has had these holes for weeks now, predating even the All-Star Break, and no counter moves have been made. They have two strikes against them in how long they’ve waited. Waiting any longer may be strike three on the season.
So, what will the Rays do?
It seems most likely that the Rays will acquire a starting pitcher in the near future — it’s the most logical reason as to why the team optioned Brendan McKay, and the rumors have the Rays well connected with most every arm available.
If the Rays acquire a starter, and preferably one with limited time remaining on his contract, then would-be starting options may be able to slot into bullpen roles to help stabilize the pitching situation overall.
If the Rangers are willing to become sellers, picking up Pence makes a ton of sense, but the market for hitters is relatively barren. It may be an expensive trade to make, but given team finances it may also be a necessary one if the Rays really fancy themselves contenders.
The Rays have one of the deepest farm systems in baseball. If this team really thinks it can contend and the window is open, then the time has come to use it. If the Rays do not make a move, that will say more about what the front office thinks this team is capable of more than anything else.
Statistics as of July 22nd.