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How the Rays handcuffed their trade deadline aspirations and still came out on top

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MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at New York Yankees
Ryne Stanek’s time Opening for the Rays has come to a close.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Rays have made five targeted, albeit imperfect, acquisitions at the trade deadline that should help the major league team in 2019: 1B Jesus Aguilar, UTIL Eric Sogard, RHP Trevor Richards, RHP Nick Anderson, and RHP Peter Fairbanks.

Tampa Bay met their needs for right handed power and right handed pitching depth. But there’s a reason these five players were available for a price (in trade and salary costs) agreeable to the Rays. Age, injury risk, and poor performance are part of the story for all these new players.

Tampa Bay did not make any big-salary additions at the trade deadline; not even 33-year old veteran Eric Sogard is making more than the league minimum, although he’s a pending free agent. The other four players are still on the league minimum side of their rookie contracts, and that’s a positive if you’re looking for players who can help the Rays in 2020 and beyond. But it’s also a positive if you’re looking to keep the Rays cash flow under control.

The Rays made these acquisitions at minimal trade cost as well, sticking (with noteworthy exceptions) to the players at the low-end of the 40-man roster or ones soon the be added. In total, 11 players near or at the major league level were jettisoned:

  • RF Jesus Sanchez (current Top-100 prospect)
  • INF Christian Arroyo (former Top-100 prospect, injured)
  • DH Nick Solak (fringe Top-100 prospect)
  • UTIL Andrew Velazquez (speedy bench player)
  • LHP Adam Kolarek (bullpen depth)
  • RHP Hunter Wood (bullpen depth)
  • RHP Casey Sadler (bullpen depth)
  • RHP Jake Faria (bullpen depth)
  • RHP Ryne Stanek (injured bullpen Opener)
  • RHP Ian Gibaut (injured bullpen depth)
  • LF Joe McCarthy (injured outfield depth)

Among those players you’ll find only one prospect ranked in the Top-100 (Sanchez), as well as two fringe-100 guys (Arroyo and Solak). None of those three players had a road to the majors in Tampa Bay now or soon, and were instead exchanged for value at a time when the Rays had holes to fill for their playoff run.

What you do not see listed above are any of Tampa Bay’s top prospects. Indeed, the No. 1 farm system in baseball appears to have been committed to not trading any of the big six names in the farm system not named Sanchez:

MLB Pipeline’s top Rays prospects as of Aug 1

The Rays have a solid major league projection on each of these Top-100 ranked prospects, and reasonably so; McKay will be pitching in the rotation down the stretch, Franco is the top prospect in baseball, and Brujan just may be the club’s future at a premium defensive position, perhaps even center field.

Behind those three names are the bread and butter of how the Rays compete: elite pitching from the minors. The Rays were in search of landing a deal for the expiring contract of Zack Wheeler on the Mets, for instance, but a refusal to deal from the top three names and a need to hold on to the latter three limited the Rays trading ability to, essentially, Sanchez.

Even combining Stanek (the major league piece eventually moved) with Sanchez was not enough to move the Mets, so the Rays turned their sights to Miami to find their RHSP of need.

The Rays did not get the “best” names on the market (although many of those names like Kennedy and Vazquez and Bumgarner were not moved!). It appears that they made a choice to handcuff themselves to a strategy of holding on to top prospects while targeting low-salary players. That strategy means that the players they have acquired all have their problems:

The 29-year old Aguilar has been struggling for most of the season, despite an All-Star season in 2018. Tampa Bay is betting on his hard-hit rate continuing to rise until his 2019 phoenix is fully formed, just in time for the playoffs.

Anderson, age 29, is very impressive in his FIP but his ERA is only a bit above average. The Rays will be betting on the former as they raise the breaking ball usage of the expensive (in traded players, not dollars), late blooming reliever. He might approximate a Ken Giles-like acquisition, but at the cost of another reliever in Stanek and given the volatility of reliever performance for those without a track record, it’s a gamble.

Richards has 45 starts under his belt since the start of 2018 but was recently converted to relief in Miami (for reasons not clear!). He’s somewhat of a two-pitch pitcher, and although some in the industry might consider his change up elite, the 26-year-old lacks the third pitch you’d like to see from a rotation stalwart.

The 25-year old Fairbanks is a 100-mph throwing reliever with an elite hard slider who recently revamped his approach to the Driveline method, following a second Tommy John surgery. Like with Anderson, the Rays ponied up in value to get a prospect they think can be “the guy” in the bullpen, but he has yet to see the Rays major league squad... yet!

The Sogard acquisition hard to argue with; he can play most positions on the field, and his bat has been potent enough this season that it should slot into the starting line up most days at 5th or 6th overall... but could that level of performance possibly be real? Sogard previously had only one season with an above average bat in his career, can the Rays expect his 120+ wRC+ to continue?

We will have much and more on the comings and goings of the Rays trade deadline throughout the week — including the positives on the five major league players acquired — but it is important to understand the thinking behind their approach, and the inherent limitations of their strategy.

In the end, the Rays reduced eleven current or potential 40-man roster spots into only four while adding zero salaries above the league minimum. They held onto what the team clearly evaluated as their top six prospects while trading away injured or fringe players with the exception of Sanchez, a player they’ve been shopping since last off-season.

Post-deadline, the Rays are better in 2019 and probably better in the future with a less crowded 40-man roster. On the whole, that’s a trade deadline win.