The Tampa Bay Rays are famously a small market team that makes the most out of every bit player, every small advantage, and probably every coffee stir stick as they make a race out of the AL East. They haven’t been shy about moving some parts around this offseason, trading away a starting outfielder – Tommy Pham – and bringing two outfielders on board in Hunter Renfroe and Jose Martinez (who is only called an outfielder because it says “OF” on his baseball card). Did the Rays outfield get better or did they just shuffle deck chairs? Let’s take a look at the two trades and the prospects for the 2020 Rays outfield.
Tommy Pham is a really good hitter and will continue to hit moving forward as he creeps slowly into the decline phase of his career. One aspect of the Rays trade of Pham was that it made the Rays younger. Pham will turn 32 just before the season starts. While he appears to be the type of player who will age slowly and gracefully, everyone ages and declines, even Rickey Henderson, and so too will Pham. Hunter Renfroe, who came to the Rays in the Pham trade, turns 28 a couple months before Pham turns 32. While Pham is clearly a better hitter than Renfroe at this point, Pham is a free agent in 2021 while Renfroe is under team control until 2023. Pham was a 121 wRC+ hitter who contributed 3.3 WAR in 2019 and slashed .273/.369/.450 in line with his career numbers, but put up subpar defensive numbers. Renfroe put up good defensive numbers to get to 1.9 WAR in spite of his 98 wRC+. He has tremendous power (33 bombs in 2019) but struggles to control the strike zone – something Pham is quite good at. That said, what the Rays are probably dreaming on is Renfroe’s improved walk rate each of the last two seasons from 5.6% in 2017 to 6.8% in 2018, and 9.3% in 2019. The K rates are still frightening (31.2% in 2019) and the hit tool isn’t great, but Renfroe will be fine in the 6 or 7 hole hitting 35 homers if he walks 9% of the time like last year. Pham is settling in as a 3.5 WAR player while Renfroe is probably a 2.0 WAR player, unless there is some growth left. Either way, Renfroe will play a corner outfield spot in Tampa Bay and hit a lot of home runs while Pham does his Pham thing in San Diego.
Don’t look into Kevin Kiermaier’s piercing blue eyes or he will steal your soul. It’s good to have a superpower when you don’t hit enough to carry your position which describes Kiermaier. His baseball talent lies in his ability to track down anything hit near him in center field. After winning his second Gold Glove last season, Kiermaier will get another chance to show that he can hit enough to warrant starting. Last season was his second sub-80 wRC+ season in a row (79 in 2018 and 78 in 2018) so it is starting to look that the 29 year old Keirmaier’s bat is lost somewhere. It wasn’t always like this – he was a 104 wRC+ guy in 2016 and a 113 wRC+ guy in 2017, which is plenty good for a Gold Glove centerfielder. Multiple injuries may have sapped his offensive abilities, but the Rays can probably afford to carry Keirmaier’s bat for another season as their team wRC+ was 9th in all of baseball last season even with KK starting the majority of Rays games in center.
Boy, did Austin Meadows have a coming out party last year! Playing most of the season as a 24 year old, Meadows took a giant step forward in his first full season in the majors. A 142 wRC+, 4.0 WAR season in your first full look with the big club is the mark of a superstar, so expectations will be high for the Rays corner outfielder. Meadows looked like he might develop into a hitter who was entirely dependent on his batting average to get on base, but in 2019 he walked 54 times for a 9.1% walk rate. While that isn’t particularly sexy, 33 home runs is. Power hasn’t been Meadow’s highest rated tool and 2019 was only the 3rd season in which he had reached double digits in his entire career dating back to 2013. There were hints that this was coming as he had reached a career high in 2018 with 18 homers. Still, don’t expect Austin Meadows to turn into a 45 homer guy anytime soon, in fact don’t be surprised if his home run total slides back to around 20. His highest ranked tool has always been his hit tool, so while it is possible that a swing change was responsible for the power surge, you can count on the batting average to stick around and the power to fluctuate until he does it again. Meadows’ hard hit rate (over 45%) was high – that is certainly one way to make sure you get on base a lot – just hit the ball really hard. Whatever Meadows turns into, his slash line of .291/.364/.558 was a thing of beauty and can take a little bit of regression and still be worthy of a starting spot.
Jose Martinez came from the Cardinals where, in spite of his bat, he was stuck without a position and that is the problem with Jose – his glove really doesn’t play anywhere. I mean you can always hide a guy in the outfield or at first from time to time if he can rake, which Martinez can. But when Paul Goldschmidt is your first baseman and scouts and analysts describe you as a butcher in the outfield, AND your team has a truckload of outfielders who can actually play the position, you won’t get to show off your bat as often as you’d like. Fortunately the Rays play in that other league where they have that DH rule. At 31, Martinez is more or less a known quantity even though, because of his aforementioned defensive limitations, he only has 1288 plate appearances, or about two full seasons in the majors. The Cards got Martinez’ bat in the lineup by splitting his time mostly between first base and right field. He was bad at both, but more awful in right. Just turn away when he plays in the field and look back at his career slash line of .298/.363/.458 and his career wRC+ of 122. The Rays already have a bat-first guy playing first base in Ji-Man Choi and a new signing from Japan to play DH – Yoshi Tsutsugo, so Martinez will have to work to get at bats, hopefully first base occasionally, the outfield when they have to, and a lot of DH with Tsutsugo who is a lefty (Martinez is a righty).
While “Yoshi” is probably a cool enough nickname, Yoshitomo Tsutsugo is one of the best home run hitters from the Nippon Professional Baseball League so he deserves a cooler nickname like “The Wakayama Hammer” or “Blast Master Yoshi”. Regardless of what we call him, Tsutsugo is a masher from Japan, who will be experiencing stateside baseball for the first time this year as a 29 year old. His game was definitely the long ball in Japan (205 career home runs), but he also drew a slew of walks. Tsutsugo is listed as a DH on the depth charts so perhaps the Rays are skeptical about his defensive game. Still, listing him here seems reasonable because Jose Martinez is listed as an outfielder and Tsutsugo was an outfielder in Japan. Until you see him hit in Spring Training and regular season games, it will be hard to say what he can do as there aren’t even projections for him yet. That said, plate discipline is plate discipline. We will have to wait and see about how the power translates.
Last season, depth was a concern for the Rays, and they seem to have taken care of that with moves to bring in Martinez, Renfroe, and Tsutsugo. Another outfielder who came over in the Martinez trade from the Cardinals was Randy Arozarena, who appears ready for the majors after slashing .358/.435./593 at triple-A Memphis last year. Arozarena turns 25 just before the season starts and just had his first taste of the majors at the end of last season where he raked and got on base in 20 at bats which is barely a sip of coffee. Arozarena is probably not a star as his tools are solid across the boards, while nothing stands out at this point. Maybe his best tool is his ability to get on base and that has value. His career OBP in the minors stands at .373 and was above .420 at each stop last year. He has spent some time in center in the minors so he would be a great fourth outfielder and insurance if Kiermaier suffers another injury or gets off to a slow start with the bat. With three minor league options left, Arozarena might just be racking up serious frequent flier miles shuttling back and forth between triple-A and Tampa Bay.
There are obviously other guys sitting at triple-A who might get a chance (like Brian O’Grady), but the Rays finally have enough depth that they don’t need to bring those guys up yet. Unlike last season, they have enough pieces in the majors to withstand an injury or two. It is likely that the starting outfield will be Kiermaier in center with Renfroe and Meadows in the corners – probably Renfroe in right. Martinez and Tsutsugo will find their way out there from time to time, but hopefully grow dust on their outfielder’s gloves. Arozarena is a better bet to take a 4th outfielder spot if there is room. He is a more complete player than Martinez and Tsutsugo (or so it seems now), but they are both capable of generating a lot of offense, where Arozarena isn’t a proven commodity with the bat yet. The Rays bench bats and newly added outfield depth should make the team more slump/injury proof and make the Yankees, if not fearful, at least attentive to what the Rays are doing in 2020.