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AL East Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

Featured Image:  March 31, 2018 – Brian Blanco/Getty Images North America courtesy of Zimbio.com

2018 Record: 90-72 (3rd AL East)
Estimated 2019 Payroll: $63 million

Free agent losses:
Carlos Gomez and Sergio Romo

Free agent additions:
Charlie Morton (2 years, $30 million)
Avisail Garcia (1 year, $3.5 million)

Notable Trade acquisitions:
Yandy Diaz from Cleveland Indians
Mike Zunino from Seattle Mariners

Let me tell you about something from last year. I fully predicted that the Tampa Bay Rays would be a huge dumpster fire. How could I not? Heading into the 2018 season, the team lost the likes of franchise icon Evan Longoria, two starters in Alex Cobb and Jake Odorizzi and a plethora of other players. The team intentionally designated Corey Dickerson for assignment and traded him in what amounted to a salary dump. They were planning on using an “opener” instead of a starting rotation. All of the ground work was there for a dumpster fire! They even traded their ace, Chris Archer, for crying out loud!

Then as the season wore on it became clear that the Tampa Bay Rays were adjusting to the opener and something was happening down there in Saint Petersburg.

The Rays won 90 games in 2018, and finished 18 games out of first place behind the Boston Red Sox. The fascinating part about the Rays and their 2018 is that they would have been 1 game behind in the AL Central, tied for 1st place in the NL East, and 2 games out in the NL West. The Rays would have been a playoff contender if they were in a different division.

I’m here to tell you that I’m a little bit more optimistic about the Tampa Bay Rays heading into 2019. The team has seemingly embraced the opener role. They spent money on Charlie Morton to beef up their starting staff. They added an upgrade at catcher in Mike Zunino. The Rays made a flurry of trades this offseason, as has become their norm. They even had Edwin Encarnacion in the fold, if only for a day or two.

The Rays will head into the season with their normal low payroll, but they’ve added pieces around breakout guys like Joey Wendle who had a year that made him seem like a legitimate option at 2nd base. Wendle had a .300/.354/.435 slash line to go with 61 RBIs, 16 stolen bases and 7 home runs in 139 games. There isn’t much power there, but he does not strike out a lot (17.6% strikeout rate) and was worth 3.7 WAR. He will look to build on that and help Tampa Bay become even more relevant in 2019.

Blake Snell (he of the newly minted $50 million extension) is another player to watch on the Rays. Snell threw 180.2 innings in 2018 for the Rays and emerged as a guy who did not need an opener. He went 21-5 in his starts to an ERA of 1.89 and struck out 221 batters as well. His FIP shows there might be some regression to a 2.95 ERA, but that is still star potential for the young lefty.

They added a guy who found more velocity on his fastball as he has aged in Charlie Morton. They added a guy who was plagued by injuries in Avisail Garcia, who has otherwise been productive in his career. They already have Kevin Kiermaier in the fold as well, even if he has been bitten by the injury bug the past few years. This team has added pieces that should help them be the same, if not better in 2019.

The Tampa Bay Rays will not be a dumpster fire this year. The Red Sox and the Yankees might be the beasts of the AL East, but I expect the Rays to give them a hard time all year long. They think outside of the box with their openers (to pretty good success) and really push the envelope of baseball analytics. I expect the Rays to be right there in the wild card hunt this year and with a little luck, pushing for an AL East title.

 

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