Tampa Bay Rays


Kevin Cash's club had their work cut out for them entering the 2018 season, attempting to compete in a powerhouse-laden American League with baseball's lowest payroll and a roster seemingly void of enough impact players to hang with the big boys over a six-month stretch. The face of the franchise in Evan Longoria had been shipped out west, and no one was quite sure what to expect from a group that had won a respectable 80 games the year prior but whose clubhouse was now occupied by a large contingent of relatively unheralded rookies.
A 3-12 start didn't help matters, but the Rays rebounded. The season really began to turn on a mid-May evening in Anaheim when the team utilized the "opener" strategy for the first time. Veteran reliever Sergio Romo started a game against the Angels, striking out the side in the first before Ryan Yarbrough followed with 6 1/3 innings of one-run ball for the victory. The former All-Star closer would start again less than 24 hours later, leaving with one out in the second and sparking a revolutionary trend that would become the talk of baseball.

While this unorthodox approach may have been analytically-driven, it was mainly adopted out of necessity thanks to a not-so-deep pool of starters that became even thinner when staff leader Chris Archer was jettisoned at the trade deadline. To the surprise of many and the chagrin of some traditionalists, the "opener" worked well for the most part and helped the scrappy small market team win 90 games for the first time since making their last playoff appearance in 2013. Instead of subtracting, the Rays have added notable pieces over the winter and seem primed to compete for a wild-card spot this year.
What's New
Tampa Bay welcomes right-hander Charlie Morton and his razor-sharp curveball into the fold, signing the 35-year-old to a two-year, $30 million pact in late December. Morton was 29-10 with a 3.36 ERA over two seasons with Houston, striking out 364 batters in 313 2/3 innings and earning the win in both Game 7s of the '17 ALCS and World Series.
Morton's new batterymate will be Mike Zunino, the third overall pick in 2012 acquired as part of a five-player trade with Seattle in November. Entering his age-28 season, the Florida native has not yet lived up to the high expectations that have followed him throughout the better part of his 20s but has showns signs of what could be over the past two campaigns. A high-power, high-strikeout bat with plenty of upside, Zunino does an excellent job behind the dish and could prove to be a top-5 catcher at some point in the near future.
Newcomer Avisail Garcia signed a one-year, $3.5 million deal last month, which contains incentives that could raise his pay another $2.5M if met. The veteran right fielder is just one season removed from a .330/.380/.506 All-Star showing and should add some pop to the middle of the order.
Promising infielder Yandy Diaz slides in at first base after coming over in a three-team trade that cost the Rays an exciting player in Jake Bauers. The 27-year-old Cuban slashed .312/.422/.797 in 39 games with Cleveland last year, and may also see some time across the diamond at third.
Romo is a free agent and probably won't be back, while speedy outfielder Mallex Smith left town in the Zunino deal.
What Could Change
With a sizable group of free agents still on the market and many being forced to accept lower-tier, short-term contracts, Tampa Bay might not be done tweaking the roster and could certainly use some more bullpen depth despite the addition of Emilio Pagan from Oakland. Even with potential moves between now and the end of camp, the club will likely once again rank at the very bottom of the list salary-wise and has both the prospects and financial wiggle room to be active at the deadline should they find themselves in contention.
This is an organization that must think outside of the box to win against those with much deeper pockets, and they've shown the ability to do so successfully. Although the core group of youngsters is in place, it would not shock anyone if the Rays remain active on the transaction wire both in the coming weeks and leading up to July 31.
What's Coming
Morton should slot in nicely behind reigning Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell atop the rotation, with right-hander Tyler Glasnow getting a chance to take hold of the number three spot. The rest of the rotation is up for grabs, with the "opener" almost certainly coming into play often with the likes of Yarbrough and Ryne Stanek factoring in.
As Joey Wendle, Willy Adames and others get more reps at the big league level their offensive output should continue to improve, giving the Rays just enough firepower to remain within striking distance in many of their games. Cash and company will need to remain creative, though, and guys like Tommy Pham and Ji-Man Choi will be relied upon to give the sparse Tropicana Field crowds a decent amount of home run souvenirs throughout the long summer if they hope to stay on the right side of .500.
Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projections have the Rays at 86-76, good for the second AL wild-card. BP has division-mates New York and Boston (95-67, 89-73) also playing in October, so if the calculated crystal ball holds true the AL East will be a tough place to play yet again.
Best-Case Scenario: Morton continues his newfound dominance as Glasnow has a breakout campaign, combining with one of the game's elite arms in Snell for a formidable 1-2-3 punch that is supplemented by the reliever-first strategy to propel Tampa Bay into the AL wild-card game.
Worst-Case Scenario: The "opener" isn't as effective as last year and Glasnow is inconsistent start to start, leaving the Rays scrambling to fill innings while their offense doesn't do enough to close the gap in a season that's deemed a lost cause by All-Star break.


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