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The State of the Rays in 2020

We are 1⁄3 of the way through the 2020 season.

MLB: Game Two- Tampa Bay Rays at Toronto Blue Jays Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Rays are 23 games into the season. In a normal season teams usually spend the first month letting players get into the rhythm of the everyday grind, but 2020 is anything but normal.

In 2020 this puts the Rays over a third of the way through the scheduled 60 game season. Most teams that aren’t the St. Louis Cardinals or Miami Marlins are in similar spots.

It’s time for hard evaluation with smaller samples than you would like, but the trade deadline is only two weeks away, and the Rays have already made one move

The Rays offense has woken up.

Overall the Rays offense looks good. The Rays are hitting .248/.340/.436 and putting up a 116 wRC+.

  • 121 runs scored - 2nd in MLB
  • 5.26 runs per game - 7th
  • .340 OBP - 4th
  • .776 OPS - 6th

The way the Rays have gotten there has been a roller coaster where the Rays started off ok at home then went on a week where it was difficult to find runs. Then a trip to Boston and Buffalo saw the Rays take advantage of weaker pitching staffs.

This isn’t all that different than what has been observed throughout the league.

First two weeks (Through August 6)
MLB - .232/.312/.396, .708 OPS
Rays - .211/.303/.365, .668 OPS

Since August 7
MLB -.252/.326/.440, .766 OPS
Rays - .287/.378/.511, .889 OPS

The results have been more extreme than the rest of the league and a series against the struggling Boston Red Sox pitching staff helped and is weighed heavily in the sample. The Rays have been the best offense in the league over the last 11 days.

The Rays offense has drawn a lot of walks all season, but the difference has been the power has started showing up along with an increased BABIP. The Rays offense isn’t as dominant as the last week and half would suggest relative to the league, but they are a solid offense that should put an above average group together on most days.

By design, the Rays have a lot of moving pieces with players playing multiple positions and take the platoon advantage more often than not.

Position By Position Breakdown
C - .119/.224/.224, 32 wRC+ (27th)
1B - .190/.289/.393, 89 wRC+ (21st)
2B - .271/.367/.576, 157 wRC+ (2nd)
SS - .304/.382/.557, 156 wRC+ (2nd)
3B - .314/.416/.407, 136 wRC+ (5th)
LF - .214/.309/.429, 103 wRC+ (10th)
CF - .253/.337/.316, 89 wRC+ (17th)
RF - .258/.309/.517, 123 wRC+ (14th)
DH - .271/.370/.459, 129 wRC+ (9th)
PH - .294/.458/.412, 153 wRC+ (5th)

The Rays have been carried by standout performances on the infield.

In particular, Brandon Lowe has been on another level this year and after a huge week claimed a very deserved American League player of the Week award on the way to a .338/.404/.738, 205 wRC+ start. He leads the American League in a plethora of offensive categories.

If it’s possible to quietly put together a torrid start to a season Willy Adames has accomplished it. Adames is hitting .284/.377/.522 and putting up a 147 wRC+.

With Lowe stealing the show it’s understandable that people haven’t really noticed what Adames has done. His go ahead homer in extra innings in the second game of Sunday’s doubleheader should allow him to get some recognition for the work he’s done at the plate. With his only two homers of the season coming into the season it’s surprising to see him with an ISO over .200, but he ranks fourth in the majors with eight doubles and has added a triple.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Boston Red Sox Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

The majority of the damage done at third base comes from Yandy Diaz and his .301/.433/.329 line and 126 wRC+. He has yet to hit a homer and only possesses a .027 ISO at this time. Some more balls hit well in the air would be a welcome sign, but the real story has been the 18.9% walk rate and 12.2% strikeout rate. He’s been an on base machine this year even if the power has yet to show up.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Mike Brosseau’s contributions. He has mostly been a starter against left handed pitchers and pulled at the first sight of a right handed pitcher, but the results have been fantastic. He’s hit .367/.424/.767 and put up a 219 wRC+ in 33 plate appearances. It’s a small role, but he’s filled it well.

Ji-Man Choi got off to a quick start and stole Major League Baseball fan’s hearts by hitting a homer right handed in the opening series. Things haven’t gone as well. He’s hitting .180/.282/.328 and putting up a 72 wRC+. He’s faced a handful of left handed pitchers as a right handed batter until going back to hitting left handed Sunday, but he has still primarily been used in a platoon role. It’s still early and he could turn it around. He’s drawing his walks, but the strikeout rate has spiked. The strikeouts need to come down, but his 91.0 mph average exit velocity is only behind Yoshitomo Tsutsugo (91.9) and Adames (91.2) among players with more than two plate appearances. There’s time to turn it around.

There is no other way to describe the Rays offensive production at catcher than awful. Mike Zunino is hitting .091/.200/.250 and putting up a 29 wRC+ while Michael Perez has been worse hitting .136/.200/.136 and putting up a 0 wRC+. These batters should hit better, but it’s by far the weakest part of the offense currently.

The Defense

The Rays defense mirrors the offensive production. It started off with a lot of errors and missed plays, but it has been moving in the right direction.

Despite the sloppy start they have combined for a +6 DRS (10th in the majors) and +3.1 UZR (8th in the majors).

DRS/UZR by Position
P - 0/NA
C - -2/NA
1B - -1/-0.9
2B - +2/+1.4
SS - -1/-0.9
3B - 0/-1.9
LF - +4/+1.7
CF - +6/+2.8
RF - 0/+0.9

Most of these numbers aren’t that surprising. Center field has carried the positive defensive contributions as Kevin Kiermaier continues to make his case for being the best defensive center fielder in the game, tied for first with +6 DRS with Byron Buxton, while his +3.3 UZR lags both Buxton and Trent Grisham by 0.1 of a run. Kiermaier has missed some plays that Rays fans are used to seeing him make, but his arm has been on point all season. It continues to baffle me why people keep testing the arm. It’s based every imaginable test, but I’ll continue to gladly accept all outs the opposition give us on the bases.

The one place that sticks out as a surprise is left field. The Rays lead the league in DRS at the position and come in third in UZR. The work has been split by Yoshi Tsutsugo (+2 DRS, +1.9 UZR) and Austin Meadows (+2 DRS, +0.7 UZR).

Adames had a rough stretch. When the defense was at it’s worst Adames was the primary contributor, but things have been trending in the right direction.

The most disappointing aspect has been catcher defense. The Rays have historically gone for defense first catchers with little care about what their offensive production has been. Zunino and Perez have the offensive production in the tank, but the defense especially from Zunino has been poor.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Atlanta Braves Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

This year Z has put up -4 DRS with a lot of passed balls (5 - leads league) and wild pitches (11 - leads league). He’s already surpassed his four passed balls allowed last year while is quickly approaching the 25 wild pitches he allowed last year. He’s normally been a very good defender putting up +8 DRS last season and +48 DRS for his career coming into the season. Bats can slump, but the defensive production has disappointed me far more. There is still time to turn things around, but it’s getting late.

You can never have enough pitching.

The old adage might even be more true this year more than any other season in history. The Rays have a lot of pitching. They still have some depth to lean on in case of emergency, but it’s getting tested.

The Rays rotation looked set to be one of the best in the majors headlined by Blake Snell, Charlie Morton, and Tyler Glasnow. Backing them were solid MLB contributors in Ryan Yarbrough, Yonny Chirinos, Trevor Richards, and Brendan McKay.

Then Morton and Chirinos went to the Injured List, and McKay was delayed after a positive COVID-19 test. Last week the Rays decided to shut him down for a week due to shoulder soreness, so we’ll see when or if he can throw a pitch for the Rays in 2020. Fortunately Chirinos returned to the team on Sunday.

Snell had some soreness before the season got shut down, and is just now building himself back to a starter workload as he went 5.0 innings in his last start. Yarbrough and Richards have been the only starters left unscathed.

Fortunately the Rays have a good bullpen, but injuries have felled them too. Colin Poche underwent Tommy John surgery right before the season began. Andrew Kittredge will join him after being pulled from his opening duties last week. Oliver Drake and Jose Alvarado currently are on the Injured List for less serious injuries, but are unavailable nonetheless.

Fortunately, Nick Anderson and Diego Castillo have been dominant.

Kevin Cash has continued to be very conservative when it comes to using his top relievers. They are used in big spots, but not the volume as most of the high leverage relievers around the league to this point. This isn’t really a criticism, but an observation.

Cash’s management of the bullpen has been one of his biggest strengths as a manager. Personally, I wonder how the change from 8 playoff teams including only one game by two of the teams to a 16 team format with at least games has changed the aggressiveness in this regard.

Due to injuries, the Rays have called on guys like John Curtiss, Ryan Thompson, Aaron Slegers, and Sean Gilmartin to pick up extra innings that likely weren’t part of plan B, C, or even D coming into the season. Of those they have performed about as you would expect, but with Curtiss being the lone exception with a 2.84 ERA/2.98 FIP/3.08 xFIP in 6.1 innings. He might be here to stay.

Due to the 16 team playoff the most important thing for the Rays is getting their pitching healthy, and hopefully they are on their way with the return of Chirinos and the optimistic timeline for Morton’s return.

The Rays have solidified their playoff chances.

14-9 is a good start no matter the expectations or length of a season. In 2020, getting off to a quick start gives you much more room for error as the season progresses. This would be a 99 win pace if we played 162. In a 60 game season that would be 37 wins.

Boston Red Sox v Tampa Bay Rays
Kevin Cash still throwing BP
Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

Right now the Rays hold second place in the American League East just ahead of the surprising Baltimore Orioles who sit just 1.5 games back. The Rays hold a 3.0 game lead over the Texas Rangers for the second American League wild card if things came down to that.

The playoff odds at FanGraphs have the Rays virtually locking up a playoff spot with a 97.5% chance of advancing. Things are looking good.

With .500 being a reasonable target for the playoffs this year, the Rays would have to only go 16-21 to get there. A bad run or string of injuries can always be around the corner, but the Rays have put themselves in a very good spot.

The Trade Deadline

This year the trade deadline has moved from July 31 to August 31. That is less than two weeks away.

Nobody knows how this year’s trade deadline is going to play out. In order to trade a player you must be on the 60 man player pool, but can be added using a Player To Be Named Later. So I imagine most trades that do happen will mostly involve PTBNL unless it’s a MLB for MLB player swap.

The Rays already made one swap today, picking up a reliever from the Phillies for a PTBNL, and moving Daniel Robertson to the DFA trade block.

But how many more trades are there going to be? There are many obstacles.

Teams look less willing to add payroll for additions, don’t have recent access to scout prospects (although a video sharing system may be available to teams who want to participate), and with the expanded playoffs most teams should have some plausible chance of making it.

Currently only 3 teams (Seattle Mariners, Pittsburgh Pirates, and San Francisco Giants) have less than a 10% chance to make it according to the simulations at FanGraphs. Lowering the threshold to 25% only adds 6 more teams (Los Angeles Angels, Boston Red Sox, Toronto Blue Jays, Miami Marlins, Kansas City Royals, and Detroit Tigers). Things could change in the next 13 days, but playoff odds will still be tighter than normal.

So who is going to be moved? I really don’t know. Mostly it will likely be some expiring veteran contracts to fill holes with below average players. Somebody could surprise and make a big move, but with so much uncertainty it’s hard to predict that kind of movement.

If things continue the Rays would likely want to add a veteran catcher, but the pickings are slim and uninspiring.

If the Rays need to add a pitcher they likely should call the Rays. There are plenty of pitchers in Port Charlotte should the Rays need to break the glass in case of emergency, as Shane McClanahan and Joe Ryan would likely be as good or better than any options readily available on the trade market. If they need an extra impact reliever it could be Shane Baz.

With all these caveats I would expect another random reliever to be added if they can.

This team is built to win now and might not have national star power, but they have a very deep team with not only replacement level players but quality depth. That depth is being tested and will continue to be tested, but so far they are passing the test.