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Tampa Bay Rays
2019 Record: 96-66
Second Place, AL East
Team ERA: 3.65 (2nd in MLB)
Team OPS: .757 (T-14th in MLB)
What Went Right
The Rays’ young offensive nucleus gelled around veteran outfielder Tommy Pham, who served as their main catalyst, thanks to his impressive plate skills and power/speed production. The 31-year-old eclipsed the 20-homer plateau for the third consecutive campaign and also matched a career-high with 25 stolen bases in 654 plate appearances. Highly-touted former top prospect Austin Meadows put together a legitimate breakout campaign, hitting .291/.364/.558 with 33 home runs and 12 steals across 591 plate appearances. The 24-year-old outfielder garnered his first All-Star selection in the process and figures to be at the epicenter of the Rays’ long-term plans for at least the next half decade. While his full-season breakout was cut short due to a strained left quad, which sidelined him for nearly the entire second half, second baseman Brandon Lowe took a major step forward offensively at the big-league level. After cobbling together a robust .270/.336/.514 triple-slash line with 17 homers and five stolen bases across 327 plate appearances, the 25-year-old appears to be on the precipice of joining Meadows and Pham as an integral component of their lineup and middle-of-the-order masher for years to come.
Veteran right-hander Charlie Morton, who inked a two-year, $30 million deal in free agency last offseason, became one of the driving forces behind the Rays’ return to the postseason. The 35-year-old made a career-high 33 starts -- recording a sparkling 3.05 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 240/57 K/BB ratio across 194 2/3 frames -- to anchor an extraordinarily deep and versatile pitching staff, which posted the second-lowest team ERA (3.65), yielded the fewest home runs (181) in the league and recorded the third-most strikeouts of any franchise during the regular season. Despite omnipresent injury issues between their dynamic tandem of top-of-the-rotation starters -- Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow -- the Rays managed to fill the void thanks to the emergence of Yonny Chirinos and Ryan Yarbrough, who managed to log a whopping - innings, despite oscillating between traditional starts and bulk relief appearances.
While their rotation blossomed into one of the most formidable in the game, the undeniable strength of the Rays pitching staff was their bullpen, which recorded a major league-leading 3.66 ERA during the regular season. In addition to lights-out righty Nick Anderson, who emerged as one of the most dominant relievers in the game after being acquired via trade in late-July, the Rays also struck going when they plundered unheralded journeyman Emilio Pagan off the scrap heap in an offseason trade with the Athletics. The 28-year-old righty posted a team-leading 20 saves and recorded a pristine 2.31 ERA and 96/13 K/BB ratio across 70 innings of work. While he struggled to keep the ball in the yard, he’s clearly evolved into a reliable late-inning option moving forward. Meanwhile, the Rays also got breakout campaigns from relief prospects Colin Poche and Peter Fairbanks.
What Went Wrong
The Rays creativity, flexibility and unorthodox approach served them well during the regular season, but ultimately came up short when stacked up against the Astros’ historic three-headed monster rotation comprised of Cole, Verlander and Greinke in the ALCS. Simply put, Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow weren’t fully healthy for the vast majority of the regular season. On the heels of a remarkable Cy Young campaign, Snell was limited to just 23 starts after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left elbow in late-July. Meanwhile, Glasnow managed to sustain the late-season control gains he made after being acquired from the Pirates in the Chris Archer deal last summer. The polarizing 26-year-old right-hander recorded a sublime 1.86 ERA, 0.91 WHIP and 55/9 K/BB ratio across eight starts to begin the year before a flexor strain in his right forearm in early-May sidelined him until late-September. If Snell and Glasnow can stay healthy, this rotation has a chance to be the best in the American League for years to come. It’s difficult to find anything that went wrong for the Rays in terms of their lineup or bullpen. However, after looking like one of the premier late-inning relievers in the game, hard-throwing left-hander Jose Alvarado struggled to stay healthy and saw his control evaporate in a shocking fashion before an elbow injury ended his season in early September.
-- Perhaps the most savvy acquisition at the major-league trade deadline, rookie right-hander Nick Anderson posted a microscopic 2.11 ERA, 0.66 WHIP and an eye-popping 41/2 K/BB ratio over 21 1/3 frames after being acquired from the bottom-feeding Marlins in late July. The Rays have an abundance of bullpen talent including Pagan, Poche, Fairbanks, Diego Castillo, Chaz Roe, Andrew Kittredge and Oliver Drake. However, it’s unclear if any of them will be utilized as a traditional closer entering the 2020 campaign. The Rays have employed an unconventional approach to the late innings, preferring to mix and match at the end of close contests, but given Anderson’s dominant two-month finish to last season, he should be considered the favorite to garner the vast majority of the save chances in Tampa Bay moving forward.
-- Second baseman Brandon Lowe has shown flashes of immense fantasy potential, but still needs to prove that he can stay healthy over a full season. He also needs to prove that he can consistently make contact versus left-handed pitching, otherwise there’s a risk that he could fall into a platoon role in the near future. He struck out in 36 of his 68 plate appearances versus southpaws last year. Granted, it’s a small sample size, but he needs to show improvement in that department if he’s going to truly blossom into a four-category fantasy stud.
-- Despite accruing nearly 1,000 major-league plate appearances over the last two years, it’s unclear what exactly the Rays have in Willy Adames. He’s a skilled defender and remains firmly entrenched as the franchise’s long-term answer at the shortstop position. However, he’s posted rather pedestrian offensive numbers, including an underwhelming .254/.317/.418 triple-slash line across 584 plate appearances this year. Sure, he popped 20 homers, but so did 14 other shortstops who started at least 20 games at the position in 2019. The occasional over-the-fence pop isn’t enough to overcome lackluster counting stats (69 runs scored and 52 RBI) and only four stolen bases. There’s plenty of long-term potential here, but at some point Adames has to start producing at the plate if he’s going to evolve into a mixed-league fantasy option.
-- What does a full season of Tyler Glasnow look like? Was his remarkable eight-start run a harbinger of Cy Young Award potential or merely a cruel mirage? The electrifying stuff suggests that he’s for real, but he needs to stay healthy for a full campaign before fantasy owners can safely project him as an elite fantasy option. There may not be a more polarizing starter in fantasy drafts this upcoming spring.
-- How does the playing time shake out at the infield corners and designated hitter next season? The Rays have a plethora of options at first base and third base, which means that the uncertainty surrounding roles and playing time will create a buying opportunity for fantasy owners in deeper formats. There could be some major changes over the offseason, but it appears likely that Yandy Diaz and Joey Wendle will divide up at-bats on the hot corner while Ji-Man Choi and Jesus Aguilar split time at first base. Top prospect Nathaniel Lowe will be in the mix for at-bats and versatile lefty-masher Michael Brosseau also remains in the mix. That loaded group doesn’t even include veterans like Matt Duffy and Daniel Robertson, who remain on the fringes of the roster, or the potential that they re-sign impending free agents like Eric Sogard or Travis d’Arnaud.
-- What exactly do the Rays have in left-hander Brendan McKay? The 23-year-old two-way sensation didn’t exactly set the fantasy landscape on fire upon arrival last year. However, he’s undeniably the most exciting player in the entire organization given his minor-league track record. The southpaw performed admirably in his first exposure to big-league hitters, recording a 5.14 ERA, 1.41 WHIP and 56/16 K/BB ratio across 49 innings of work (13 appearances, 11 starts). If he manages to secure a spot in the Opening Day rotation, he’s going to become a popular late-round target in all fantasy drafts next spring.
Offseason Team Needs: The Rays’ biggest loss this offseason may have occurred already when the Red Sox hired Chaim Bloom as their new chief baseball officer earlier this month. His departure after years as one of the key decision makers in Tampa Bay’s front office will have a ripple effect moving forward. However, from a purely on-field standpoint, the Rays boast one of the deepest starting rotations and bullpens in the major leagues. They’ll continue to take shots on reclamation projects and low-cost, high-risk prospects with multiple years of team control remaining as bulk relievers, but the core of their rotation should remain intact for years to come. Despite their impressive bullpen depth, they should be in the market for an experienced high-leverage reliever (preferably a left-handed one) this offseason. They struck gold with the trade acquisitions of Anderson, Poche, Fairbanks and Pagan but they could certainly use another left-handed option (besides Alvarado) at the back of their bullpen, especially if they’re going to make a deep postseason run in the near future.
The Rays extremely versatile core group makes them intriguing offensively, but they could stand to acquire the services of another middle-of-the-order masher to complement their veteran stabilizer Pham and their young nucleus comprised of Meadows and Lowe. If they fail to re-sign Garcia, who enjoyed a resurgent offensive campaign and emerged as a key cog in the heart of their lineup this season, they’ll need to replace him on the free agent market or in the trade market. They may not seem like major losses, but Sogard, who was acquired via from the Blue Jays in late-July, and d’Arnaud, who was plucked from the Dodgers minor-league purgatory in early May, both emerged as key offensive contributors over the final few months of the season and will need to be replaced in some capacity. If Morton, Snell and Glasnow remain healthy and Meadows takes another step forward as their primary offensive threat, the Rays will be contenders once again in 2020.