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The Rays specialize in high variance players. Here are the top six

Honestly, there could be a dozen guys on this list

MLB: AL Wild Card-Tampa Bay Rays at Oakland Athletics Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Despite the Tampa Bay Rays overall high floor as a 96-win team with impressive depth, the ceiling-floor gap on many of the Rays 2020 players seems to be vast. Last week, when quizzing y’all on some 2019 Rays statistics, I made a passing reference to Joey Wendle having a similarly vast gap between his overall potential and his worst case scenario.

This comes with the territory of how the Rays build their roster.

The players without any question marks are often priced out of the Rays range, leaving a collection of players with question marks significant enough to make them available to Tampa Bay. The 2020 roster is no exception. In fact, if anything, it seems like one of the most notable collection of high-variance, make-or-break, star-or-just-plus players in recent memory.

With that in mind, let’s highlight the top half dozen of those names that seem like they will have the largest gaps between their possible outcomes in 2020.

Before we begin, however, a brief word on a few honorable mentions:

  • Joey Wendle — The man who prompted this article doesn’t even make the cut for the top six, which is telling in and of itself.
  • Ji-Man Choi — First base just has so many options that it’s not hard to imagine a few sticking and a few falling by the wayside, so not as big a deal for his ceiling-floor gap.
  • Yandy Diaz — A common theme to the article to come is: Was 2019 real? With Diaz I just happen to believe the answer is an emphatic Yes.
  • Daniel Robertson — I still stan this man, but it’s hard to picture his ceiling really being all that high, to be honest.
  • Kevin Kiermaier — Health isn’t what we’re talking about here.
  • Ryan Yarbrough — I think he’s proven what he is by now: An excellent back-end of the rotation arm.
  • The entire bullpen — All bullpens have absurdly high variance. It’s not that interesting to really dive deep into that.

Now on to the Big Six.

Brandon Lowe

Lowe broke on to the scene last season with a wRC+ of 125 and an fWAR of over 5.0 per 162 games. He’s just 25 years old and was considered a very intriguing prospect even before his debut. But he’s not on here just as a bit of concern trolling. The concerns are fair.

First and foremost, and I know I bang this drum more often than the Astros bang trash cans, but: plate discipline. Lowe carried a 34.6 percent strikeout rate in 2019, compared to just a 7.6 percent walk rate. Now, both of those rates are projected to improve in 2020, with Steamer projecting a far more palatable 27.6 K% / 8.9 BB%, based on his minor league numbers as well, but those types of improvements are going to be a must, rather than a best case scenario.

Why is that? Because Lowe likely will see a hefty drop from the .377 BABIP he posted in 2019. Lowe does have a sexy line drive rate (26.9 percent), and he avoids soft contact like the plague (11.4 percent), but even with those factors considered, it’s not hard to imagine his BABIP dropping down to somewhere in the .330 range. If that’s to be the case, if he doesn’t improve his plate discipline, it’s not hard to imagine the bottom dropping out of his batting average. The Rays can be patient with a batter who hits .240 or so, as long as he’s bringing the pop that Lowe does, especially given his role in the infield. However, if that average drops down to .220 or so, even though we know the difference is really only a few hits every couple weeks, it just becomes a harder sell — that’s the nature of the beast.

Right now, Steamer projects Lowe for a 105 wRC+, and I know this isn’t how numbers work, but it almost seems more likely we see him at 90 or 120 than somewhere in that happy medium.

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American League All-Stars Austin Meadows #17, Brandon Lowe #8 and Charlie Morton #50 of the Tampa Bay Rays take a selfie
Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

Austin Meadows

This doesn’t have all that much to do with his offense, and I am a big believer in the bat. The pedigree was always there, and even the notably stingy projection systems like him for somewhere in the range of a 120 wRC+ — outstanding stuff for a 24-year-old.

Where the questions come into play is on the defensive side of the ball. Meadows played 773 innings in the outfield last year (the equivalent to around 86 games) and, statistically, didn’t rate as the horror show that he was to the eye test at times. Meads was worth -6 DRS and -1.6 UZR in that time, but go up to any Rays fan and ask if they’d be comfortable with him taking a full-time role in the outfield this season based on what we saw last year.

With DH options aplenty in 2020 (J-Mart, Choi, Lowe, Diaz, Tsutsugo, et al.), Meadows needs to hold his own in the outfield.

And hopefully he will! Meadows is still very young and athletic, and the Rays coaching staff is good. Surely they can coax a reasonable corner outfield performance from him. The bat will play anywhere, but given the current roster construction, let’s hope Austin was honing those fielding skills over the offseason.

Blake Snell

On the one hand, having any pitcher on a list like this is kind of silly. Pitcher health is such a damn crapshoot, and we already said that’s not the goal of these “intriguing” ranks. That being said, this is a pitcher who went from a 1.89 ERA to a 4.29 ERA, with some of those struggles even coming before the injury-laden portion of his season.

Of course, underlying that jump in ERA is that fact that Snell’s FIP and xFIP barely changed from 2019 to 200, with his FIP jumping 0.38 and his xFIP barely budging, from 3.16 to 3.31. Heck, Snell’s K-BB% even went up from 2019 to 2020.

So maybe Snell won’t be all that “intriguing” in 2020, he’s just a damn fine pitcher. But try convincing yourself of that if he struggles in his first few starts in 2020. The intrigue will definitely be there as it always is with Snellzilla.

San Diego Padres v Milwaukee Brewers
The unknown
Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Hunter Renfroe

The new guy. First of all, the intrigue will be high because the cross-country comparisons to Tommy Pham are going to be around all season, even if that’s totally unfair, because the Rays also got a really, really good slapdick prospect, as well...

In all seriousness, when the Rays FO made this type of a Future Move, with the Rays window seemingly as present as it is, it’s going to put a spotlight on the player returning.

So how will Renfroe handle that spotlight?

He’s fresh off one of the stranger seasons you’ll see, one that saw him jump out to a 23-homer, .956-OPS first 66 games, but stumble to a 10-homer, .617-OPS final 74 games hampered in part by injury.

This was also a season that saw his defensive metrics take a massive leap into some rarefied air, despite previous seasons in which he displayed an elite arm but not a whole lot more.

Honestly, I don’t even know how to do too much of a breakdown here because it’s all so up in the air when it comes to Renfroe. There’s a good case for him having the highest ceiling-floor gap on the 2020 Rays roster.

Willy Adames

Is this the year Walkoff Willy becomes the face of the Rays? I kind of think so. Adames, 24, already seems like that guy, in the best way possible. He’s got handshakes with everyone, a flair for the dramatic, and just seems like the guy everyone would be best friends with. All of that is not to mention his on-field production which has been right at the precipice his first two seasons.

In his 2018 rookie season, the bat was there (110 wRC+), but the glove struggled. In 2019, his first full season, the bat slipped a bit (97 wRC+), but the glove came around. If Adames can combine the two in 2020, watch out. Steamer believes 2019 more than 2018, but I think these projection systems may be sleeping on Willy’s bat a bit. If Adames can recreate that 110 wRC+ from 2018 and add it to a full season of the defense he played last year, on a Rays team that is likely to be in the playoff picture, is a 5.0-WAR, down-ballot MVP season out of the question? I don’t think so at all.

With Walkoff Willy, the question really isn’t the floor, I think we’ve seen that, to be honest. The question is just how high the ceiling can go, and maybe I’ve been drinking a bit too much of the Kool-Aid, but I think that ceiling is pretty damn high.

MLB: ALDS-Tampa Bay Rays at Houston Astros
Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Tyler Glasnow (20) reacts during the first inning against the Houston Astros in game five of the 2019 ALDS
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Tyler Glasnow

Hands down the most intriguing Rays player for 2020, Glasnow combines the concerns raised about both Snell and Adames. The pitcher health question is always going to be there, especially with a starter who throws as hard as Glasnow does. However, the ceiling on Glasnow is a Cy Young, and that’s not even an exaggeration.

However, there are plenty of questions surrounding the tall righty heading into 2020. Can he stay healthy for a full season? Will more teams be on to the tipping of his pitches that he supposedly did in 2019? Will he actually be able to counter that and use it as a tool, not a deficit? How will the Rays even use him? Will they still have kids gloves on with him? Does he have the right skillset to be a full-time starter who can be there come postseason?

The Rays know they have an incredibly valuable commodity in the arm of Tyler Glasnow, what they do with it in 2020 is just one of the many, many intriguing storylines set for this upcoming season.