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MLB: Game Two-Cleveland Indians at Tampa Bay Rays
Nick Sandlin
Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Rays Trade Targets: Five relievers for 2022

The Rays have been trading for unheralded relievers for years. Who might be next?

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Over the past few years, the Rays have been known as somewhat of a pitching factory around the industry. New free agent signee Brooks Raley even described Tampa Bay as “The Mecca of Pitching” in his introductory press conference.

The Rays find their pitchers through many different avenues, but one of the primary markets they shop in is the trade market. Below is a list of the major league pitchers they’ve acquired via trade in the past 3 seasons/off-seasons alone.

This list does not include waiver claims.

  • 2021: DJ Johnson, Shawn Armstrong, JT Chargois, Matt Wisler, Drew Rasmussen, J.P. Feyereisen, Sean Poppen, Jeffrey Springs, Chris Mazza
  • 2020: Luis Patiño, Cody Reed, Edgar Garcia
  • 2019: Nick Anderson, Trevor Richards, Pete Fairbanks, Aaron Slegers, Oliver Drake, Emilio Pagan, Cole Sulser

That’s a lot of names! For the most part, these pitchers were pretty unaccomplished before coming over to Tampa Bay, but a similarity that most of these guys share is that they had many years of team control remaining at the time of the acquisition. Matt Wisler is the only pitcher listed above who had less than 3 years of team control remaining when acquired.

Since we we know that the Rays have a history of acquiring controllable, unheralded pitchers via trade, it’s fair to expect more arms of this type to be brought in during 2022. Using under-the-hood metrics and pitch data that the Rays have shown to value in the past, I identified five potential relief trade targets for Tampa Bay this off-season.

This list also purposely contains pitchers with current but insignificant MLB track records, as that was the case with the majority of the pitchers listed above. You wont find popular trade candidates (like Craig Kimbrel for example) here.

Given the number of Rays relievers returning from injury this year, it’s possible the organization is not looking to add any more bullpen arms this winter, but these are all names I believe are worth consideration now or later in the 2022 season.

1. Josh Sborz — Texas Rangers

Sborz is a 6’3” right-handed reliever for the Texas Rangers who pitched to a 3.97 ERA and 4.00 FIP over 59 MLB innings this year. He posted an impressive 26.8 K% along with a not-so-impressive 12.5 BB%. In recent years the Rays have acquired pitchers with big stuff and shaky command with hopes of improving upon the latter. Sborz would fit this bill perfectly.

As for his stuff, Sborz possesses a hard fastball with great carry, a trait that the Rays have shown to value. In fact, Sborz had the only fastball in MLB last season that averaged both 96mph or greater and 19 inches of Induced Vertical Break or more (minimum 50 fastballs thrown). Batters hit just .226 with a .363 SLG and a 27.7 whiff% on the pitch. It’s a really strong offering:

His fastball isn’t his only plus pitch, he possess two strong breaking balls as well. His slider in particular held hitters to .213 AVG and a 44.3 Whiff%. He throws it at a crisp 88mph with very little spin efficiency which can lead to deception. This is known as a gyro-slider. Here it is in action:

The fastball/slider combo is Sborz’s bread and butter, but he also has a hard 83mph curveball as well. There are a lot of intriguing ingredients in his profile.

Although his stuff is great, his main weakness is throwing strikes. His BB% was in just the 10th percentile this season. If he can limit his walks and let his stuff play in the zone, he has the upside of a late-inning power reliever. Sborz is turning 28 this off-season and has 5 years of team control remaining.

A rebuilding team like Texas may be reluctant to trade him, but there are a lot of holes on that roster and trading Sborz may be a way for them to address other needs. Texas and Tampa Bay also have an abundant trade history, which could bode well for the chance of a future deal.

2. Nick Sandlin — Cleveland Guardians

Sandlin is 24 year-old side arm reliever who made his MLB debut this season with Cleveland. His 2.94 ERA and 2.96 FIP were both strong figures. An even stronger figure was his 34.0 K% which ranked 17th highest among the 255 relievers who threw at least 30 innings this year. He mainly lives off of his strong sinker and slider, both of which have intriguing pitch characteristics.

There are two interesting things going on with Sandlin’s sinker. First is the strong horizontal movement that the pitch gets. The Rays have been loading up on pitchers with this type of sinker lately. Next is the unique velocity he throws it at. At first glance, a 94.5mph sinker doesn’t sound like anything special. However, no other pitcher in baseball that had a release point lower than Sandlin’s threw their fastball that hard. He generates a ton of velocity for a side-armer:

Sandlin’s slider also gets good horizontal movement, but in the opposite direction of his sinker which makes the two pitches play well off of one another. His slider held hitters to a miniscule .100 AVG and induced a lofty 47.7 Whiff%. The big sweep on the slider from his unorthodox arm slot generated some ugly looking swings from hitters this year, such as this one:

Sandlin’s two plus offerings worked awfully well in his first big league stint. He’s quite similar to current Rays reliever Ryan Thompson in a lot of ways, but probably has even better stuff than Thompson. Sandlin could do with less walks (12.1 BB% in 2021), but overall the profile is a very intriguing one.

Cleveland has longed for better production from their outfield group for years now and the Rays have no shortage of outfielders on their roster, could a trade make sense here? Sandlin will be 25 this off-season and has all six years of team control remaining.

3. Tanner Rainey — Washington Nationals

Rainey had a great 2020 season, posting a 2.62 ERA with a whopping 42.7 K%. 2021 was a completely different story for him though as he threw to a 7.39 ERA and 5.63 FIP. Most of his issues came from a career worst 16.6 BB%, but Rainey’s power strikeout stuff was still there.

If anything, Rainey’s 2021 struggles could potentially lead to a reduced acquisition cost in trade. The Jeffrey Springs trade from February is a comparable situation, as he posted a 7.08 ERA in 2020 but Tampa Bay still went out of their way to acquire him because of some intriguing under-the-hood metrics.

An average of 96 mph and great vertical movement are the reasons that Rainey’s fastball is a good looking pitch. The fastball didn’t get great results in 2021, but it has gotten plenty of whiffs in the past. Here he is blowing 99mph past Keston Hiura:

In addition to his fastball, Rainey’s slider is a plus offering as well. The raw movement on it isn’t special, but he throws it very hard (averages 88 mph) and at a super low spin efficiency. That creates a gyro shape on the pitch (just like Sborz’s slider) which has lead to excellent results. His slider led the entire league in Whiff% in both 2019 and 2020. For a look at just how sharp it is:

If Rainey can back in to the strike zone more often, he’s got a good chance at returning to his dominant self. He’ll turn 29 this off-season, and the Nationals are likely trying to add more youth to their roster. Could this be a good buy-low opportunity for the Rays to swoop in? I believe so.

4. Yohan Ramirez — Seattle Mariners

Ramirez has an electric arm and to no surprise, also has some command issues. Overall, he pitched to a strong 3.90 ERA with a 30.7 K% in 2021. His 10.5 BB% was actually quite good in comparison to most of his minor league seasons, so maybe a sustainable improvement has been made in that department.

As for his pitch mix, Ramirez may have the best slider of everyone mentioned in this article. His slider held batters to just a .133 AVG and a .289 SLG. It also induced a 52.2 Whiff% which ranked 8th best of 272 pitchers in 2021. The pitch is thrown hard and gets a ridiculous amount of sweep. You can see what I’m talking about in this strikeout pitch from him this year:

To go along with that wipeout breaking ball Ramirez also has a lively fastball. It doesn’t have great vertical movement for a 4-seamer, but it does get good run and is thrown hard from a fairly low arm slot which allows it to play well up in the zone. Batters hit just .220 against the pitch in 2021. Here’s 97mph coming up and in to a lefty:

Seattle probably isn’t trying to trade Ramirez this off-season, but it could make sense to move him in pursuit of filling larger team needs. The Rays and Mariners have certainly never been afraid to trade with one another before either. Ramirez is 26 years-old and has 5 years of team control remaining.

5. Justin Lawrence — Colorado Rockies

Lawrence did not have a good debut season in 2021, to put it lightly. In 16.2 innings, he racked up an ERA of 8.64 to go along with an absurdly high 22.1 BB%. His command was all over the place and the results followed. He has a far more interesting arm than the results showed however.

We’ll first talk about his nasty sinker. Lawrence throws from a low arm slot and can generate some serious velocity and arm-side run on his sinker. This should allow the pitch to induce plenty of whiffs and ground balls which is a recipe for success. To see what I’m talking about, watch how this pitch runs right off the outer edge of the plate at 101 mph. Warning: you may need to pick your jaw up off of the floor after watching:

Lawrence’s sinker is not his only weapon either, he possesses a slider that gets very strong movement in the completely opposite direction. The command of the pitch likely needs some improvement, but it still was able to induce a 46.7 Whiff% in 2021. Check out how badly Avisail Garcia missed this pitch:

For Lawrence, the stuff vs. command seesaw is tipped all the way to one side. What gives me hope is that after his struggles in the big leagues in 2021 he was sent down and posted a respectable 8.5 BB%. He also has always induced a ton of ground balls in his minor league career. Stuff-wise, there is a lot to like about Lawrence’s profile. The 27 year-old has all six years of team control remaining as well.

Final Thoughts

One of the two common ingredients between all of these pitchers mentioned is that their primary out-pitch is a slider. I targeted pitchers who throw good sliders for a reason. 27.2% of all pitches thrown by Rays in 2021 were sliders, the second highest percentage in the league. Additionally, 18 of the 20 Rays pitchers to throw 20 innings in 2021 threw a slider. Michael Wacha and Josh Fleming were the only ones who didn’t. This organization loves sliders.

The other skill that they share is that they are all stuff before command pitchers. The reason for this is that Tampa Bay has constantly targeted pitchers with good stuff but poor command in hopes to help them in this area. They have had good success in doing this too. All five of these guys would benefit from throwing more strikes, and their stuff is good enough to where pinpoint command is not a necessity.

As for a trade return, there are a lot of different directions that Tampa Bay could look to go. One strategy that they have used recently is trading a near MLB ready prospect (who is blocked on the depth chart) for a reliever. If you’re looking for candidates for this type of deal, Jonathan Aranda, Ford Proctor, Rene Pinto, and Tommy Romero are all upper minors prospects who are currently on the 40-man roster. Xavier Edwards, Jayden Murray, Heriberto Hernandez, and Austin Shenton are examples of guys who will need to be added to the roster next year.

Tampa Bay could also look to move on from some of their more established players who are either running out of team control and/or getting more expensive. We saw this type of trade on Tuesday when the team sent Joey Wendle to Miami.

Given the team’s history of trades, it feels like a good bet to think the Rays will acquire a reliever once the MLB lockout is over. In the meantime we’ll have to ponder about who might they go after.

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