The Tampa Bay Rays have long had the reputation for developing their own players – mostly pitchers – and then cobbling together the rest of the team with castoffs and role players to maintain one of the lowest payrolls in baseball. Well ok, so not too much has changed as their payroll is the lowest in all the land, and still $12 million below the next lowest team at around $61 million. But due to some shrewd trades their offense is no longer so much “Punch and Judy” as it is “knock out punch” at least to start the season. It is safe to say that the Rays surprised most baseball people in 2018 by winning 90 games in the same division as the Yankees and Red Sox, but 2019 might be more surprising as they were mostly picked to finish 3rd again and are off to a fast start, leading the East by two games over the Yankees and their $208 million payroll and the Red Sox and their league-leading $225 million payroll by five and a half games (Payroll numbers thanks to Spotrac.com – https://www.spotrac.com/mlb/payroll/). And while their pitching is still tasty, it isn’t all home-spun, as the Rays added free agent starter Charlie Morton to the fold. Yes – the Rays signed a top flight free agent and a pitcher no less. Their pitching is very likely to be close to the top of the league but their offense will determine how far they can push the Yankees and Red Sox.
The Rays currently sit 6th in all of baseball in wRC+. The question is how much of that is real and sustainable and how much is small sample size aberration? Let’s start with the outfield where homegrown defensive wizard Kevin Kiermaier -he of the piercing blue eyes – mans centerfield and recent trade acquisitions – Tommy Pham and Austin Meadows hold down the corners. Kiermaier is one of the best defensive outfielders in all of baseball, and largely because of how he goes full tilt all the time in the field, he has a hard time staying off the injured list. With only one season of more than 500 plate appearances – his 4.3 WAR 2015 season – it is hard to know what you will get aside from excellent defense when Kiermaier is on the field. With speed and some pop, there has been a lot of speculation about what he could be with sustained playing time and good health but at 29 it would be folly to expect him to get healthier or to become a better hitter. His career 96 wRC+ average would be a nice get for the Rays if he plays in 120+ games and continues his Gold Glove ways in center. So far Kiermaier is sitting at a .262/.308/.476 slash line which isn’t too far from his career numbers. The bump in slugging pushes his wRC+ over 100 and his low OBP illustrates the main knock on Kiermaier’s offensive game – not enough walks (6.8% career walk rate). Still, if he just stays where he is offensively and defensively, the Rays will be thrilled if they can write him into the lineup most days.
Tommy Pham is 31 and didn’t get a chance to play regularly in the majors until 2017 when he put up a 6.1 WAR season for the Cardinals. 6.1 – that is superstar level production, but when Pham wasn’t hitting like he had in 2017, St. Louis traded him to Tampa Bay with some international bonus slot money for three minor leaguers. He still managed a 4.0 WAR season which is still excellent. He is playing like it is 2017 with a slash line of .304/.420/.457 and a wRC+ of 144 so far, looking every bit the part of a superstar. Pham has played center field in the past but is a corner outfielder (playing mostly left field) since the Rays have Kiermaier, so he should produce good defensive numbers as well. Pham hits for some power and gets on base a lot so the Rays are using him mostly in the 2 hole. He should score a lot of runs and drive in his share as well while playing solid or better defense. One of the knocks on Pham has been his inability to stay healthy, but he has surpassed the 500 plate appearance mark two seasons in a row so hopefully that is behind him. Most teams, including the Cardinals, would be thrilled to get his level of production from the 2 hole.
Austin Meadows came to Tampa in the same trade with the Pirates that netted them Tyler Glasnow and passed Chris Archer along to the Pirates. Meadows was a first round pick but never managed to stay healthy enough to make it to Pittsburgh. After a solid cameo in Pittsburgh in 2018, followed by a trade to the Rays, and a good spring training, the 23 year old outfielder won the starting job in right field and was raking when he injured his thumb. He is likely out for a few weeks but didn’t need surgery so with some luck he will pick up mostly where he left off although sustaining a .400 BABIP is just not going to happen. Meadows is more the high average, middle level power (with some projection) kind of hitter. If he can find his way back to his minor league walk rates then that profile will look something like Tommy Pham’s. His slash line, frozen because he is on the IL, is .351/.422/..676. His inflated BABIP and low walk rate (career 6.6% but early season 9.6%) make it unlikely that he will keep that up, but if he can keep his average around .300 and get his walk rate up over 10% and get to 20 home runs (currently at 6) then he will be a solid contributor from the batter’s box. His defensive numbers haven’t been great, but that is a small sample size and he is generally well-regarded as a defender in the outfield. He is a starter for sure and the Rays have reason to hope that he will become a star.
Avisail Garcia is perfectly cast as a 4th outfielder. He hits for power and plays good defense. Yeah, he chases anything in the stadium (league average swing rate is around 67% on pitches out of the zone and Garcia swings about 80% of the time) and strikes out a lot, but if he didn’t he would be a starter and maybe a star. At 27 there is still some room for growth but the Rays most likely understand that Avisail is what he is. The White Sox kept hoping for the star to emerge (like in his 2017 4.2 WAR season) and got tired of waiting for that to happen instead of appreciating what they had – a good defensive outfielder with some pop and a bunch of holes in his approach. He can start for stretches and if he catches fire or finally figures it out then you maybe have a star. He was free talent for Tampa Bay after the White Sox threw in the towel and non-tendered him. So far he is doing exactly what they paid him to do – hitting some home runs, playing solid defense, and filling in admirably for the injured Austin Meadows.
Joey Wendle was acquired from the A’s before the 2018 season and did nothing for the Rays except hold down second base and hit like a mother all season. Wendle slashed .300/.354/.435 producing 3.7 WAR in his first full major league season. The price for Wendle was a high-A catcher so it will be a while before the trade can be evaluated – so far though, the Rays have done very well. Primarily the starting second baseman, Wendle also played some shortstop, 3rd base, and left field so he is versatile enough to get to 500 plate appearances even if there is competition at second base, and excellent with the glove at second base where he produced 5 DRS in his first full season in the majors. Even if Wendle regresses offensively (his 2018 BABIP was .353), he will have value because he is likely to still hit for a decent average and pop a bunch of doubles (33 in 2018) while playing excellent defense anywhere they stick him. Off to a very slow start this season, Wendle then broke his wrist and will miss significant time.
One area that often separates the big money teams from the little guys at the bottom of the payroll ladder is depth and when injuries hit small market teams, they often run into trouble. The Rays have had their depth stretched already this season with Wendle’s and Meadows’ injuries. Brandon Lowe has stepped in and hit with power in Wendle’s absence. The power isn’t a big surprise as Lowe has turned into a power source in his last couple of seasons in the minors. He clubbed 28 homers last year between double-A, triple-A, and Tampa Bay. His .388 BABIP inflated average (.291) has been a bit of a surprise but that will eventually even out. Lowe is another versatile gloveman who has contributed at first, second, and in the outfield corners although his reputation with the glove is not great – but you know, scoreboard. He is only 24 and as a versatile lefty with power, Lowe is a valuable asset for the Rays now and moving forward, but if he is starting everyday, the Rays don’t have any room for another injury or prolonged ineffectiveness.
Ji-Man Choi has one of the coolest names in baseball and the starting first base job for the Rays, at least against righties. The book on him is that he can’t hit major league lefties – not one little bit. His .456 career OPS in very limited playing time against lefties in the majors is ugly, but his splits in the minors are much more promising so we shall see how many chances he gets to disprove the knock on him. Fortunately, Ji-Man lives in a world where lefties who can pitch are more rare than righties. So far, the castoff from the Brewers, who already have the market cornered on first base types, is hitting .286/.387/.444 with a pair of homers in 75 plate appearances – only 12 of them against lefties. In fewer than 200 plate appearances last season he had 25 extra base hits including 10 home runs. He is going to hit for power and he is going to take walks. He has a .303 career average in the minors, but even if he only hits .270, the power and walk profile plays. So if the Rays keep him away from lefties so be it. He will still have a lot of value with the bat. The glove, eh – let’s just say he is a DH who can play first base rather than a first baseman who will occasionally DH which is the kind of compromise you have to make when you are a small market team like the Rays.
Yandy Diaz will play some at first base because unlike Ji-Man Choi (can’t say that name enough!) he hits lefties and righties. Diaz has become the Rays primary starter at 3rd where he appears to be a pretty good defender with the small sample size caveat. Diaz looks like a power hitter at 6’2 with biceps of legend, but his offensive profile has always been that of an on-base machine. He carries a minor league career slash line of .311/.413/.414 and only has 26 home runs stretched across 1879 plate appearances. This season however, Diaz already has 6 big flies while still reaching base 37% of the time. If he actually has found a consistent power stroke while continuing to get on base like he always has then he is a star. It is a little early to get too excited but his .279 BABIP implies that his .277 batting average is probably a bit low based on bad luck. Keep an eye on Yandy and see if all that work in the gym blasting those monster guns is really paying off, or if he just looks better than the other guys in a tight shirt (but gets on base 38% of the time). He either has value as a starter or value as a star – either way the Rays win.
The Rays top prospect has been Willy Adames for some time now and he made it to the majors last year as a 22 year old. Adames can hit for a decent average, get on base by the walk – 74 walks as a 20 year old is quite a feat – and drives a bunch of extra base hits, although mostly doubles so far (and spot a Cylon skin job from a mile away). His defensive numbers at short weren’t good in extended time last year, but are improved to start 2019. He probably won’t win a Gold Glove but he will hold down the position for sure. His slash line in 2018 was .278/.348/.406 but included a hefty .378 BABIP which might indicate a truer batting average around .250 at this point in his career. The 10 home runs he hit in 323 plate appearances bode will for his future and, even though he is off to a rough start this season, he isn’t going anywhere. A starting shortstop who contributes with the bat is something the Rays haven’t had for a while and he is going to be a foundational player for the Rays moving forward.
Without a doubt Mike Zunino was acquired from the Mariners for his glove, not his bat. In particular, Zunino is coveted for his ability to steal strikes with his pitch framing skills. But Zunino also possesses excellent power blasting 25 and 20 homers in his two close-to-full seasons in the majors. One look at his career slash line (.208/.276/.434) shows the problem with Zunino’s bat – he makes way too many outs. Between his low batting averages and his limited ability to draw a walk, if he wasn’t a gifted pitch framer he might be out of a job. His career wRC+ of 89 at least puts him in the neighborhood of average catchers, but again it is his work behind the plate stealing strikes for his pitchers is why the Rays coveted Zunino. He has three seasons where he produced 2 or more WAR – 4.2 in 2014, 3.9 in 2017, and 2.1 in 2018. The Rays would take that, but Zunino is 28 and might have more in the tank if he fits the profile of a catcher who develops late as a hitter, which is a thing. If his OBP can get to .300 with 20 bombs then the Rays are in business.
It always feels good when the little guy sprints past the big fellas so a lot of baseball fans should be rooting for the wee Rays to beat up on the behemoth Yankees and Herculean Red Sox. So far so good, but the Rays are about out of depth players as they are dealing with two injuries, whereas the Yankees, who have been hammered by injuries already, have shown how deep they really are. New York has stayed close to the Rays even though the Yankees currently have an astounding $81,688,167 worth of player contracts on the IL. That is more than the overall payroll of 9 teams! The Rays will have to hope for luck in the health department or make some moves to give them the depth to stay ahead of the big boys the rest of the way. Right now they have the bats to complement their pitching staff and beat their 90 wins from last season. The Rays could win the AL East. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, big boys of the East!