Have the Rays done enough to keep up with the big boy bats of the AL East?
We’re officially less than a month away from pitchers and catchers reporting to Port Charlotte on February 14th. That means it’s time to dissect the off-season. Have the Rays done enough? Has the front office finished adding pieces to make a playoff run this season?
Over the next few weeks we will take a look at every branch of the Rays tree with our “Five Keys” series. First up, arguably the most pivotal branch – the offense.
Player(s) to watch: LF Tommy Pham, DH/RF Avisail Garcia
The Rays got a small taste of what Pham is capable of last season. In 39 games after being traded from the Cardinals, the 30-year old hit .343/.448/.662 with 7 home runs and 22 RBI. Pham hasn’t won over the fan base this off-season with his comments earlier about the area’s lack of a fan base. He wasn’t the first Rays player to call out the fans over the years and he won’t be the last. If he plays 150 games (played in career-high 137 in ’18) he will likely garner some MVP votes as he did back in 2017 in St. Louis in just 128 games.
Projected spot in the Opening Day batting order: 2nd, starting in LF
Projected 2019 stats: 28 HR, 80 RBI, .300/.350/.460
Garcia is the latest (and maybe last) acquisition this off-season. He’s not long removed from a 2017 campaign in Chicago where he finished second in the AL with a .330 batting average and an All Star appearance. He set a career-high last season with 19 home runs but just a .236 average battling injury, playing in just 93 games for the White Sox. He will likely get most of his at-bats as DH. A full season of Garcia could become one of the bigger steals of the off-season in MLB.
Projected spot in Opening Day batting order: 5th, starting at DH
Projected 2019 stats: 20 HR, 65 RBI, .275/.315/.400
Can Adames/Wendle carry the infield?
Can anyone see second-year man, Willy Adames, hitting 25 bombs? Why not?
The Rays starting shortstop hit 10 in just 85 games in his rookie year of 2018. He never hit more than 11 at any full season in the minors but it’s safe to say he’s got more protection around him this season. He’ll likely hit third for Kevin Cash on most nights with Pham and Joey Wendle ahead of him, both very good on-base guys in the lineup.
Wendle made a strong case for AL Rookie of the Year in 2018. Can he repeat his impressive 4.3 WAR from a year ago? Despite hitting just seven home runs, he drove in 61 and hit .287 with runners in scoring position. His .356 on-base % and .300 batting avg make him a strong candidate to lead-off. Though we may see Cash want to give Kevin Kiermaier another shot at the top of the order.
A healthy Daniel Robertson will get plenty of at-bats. The versatile 24-year old played six positions in 2018 (if you include 2 innings at 1B and a perfect inning on the mound). Brandon Lowe impressed in his limited time at MLB level in 2018. He might find himself starting the year at Durham but if he picks up where he left off, won’t be down long.
A crowded outfield might be among the best in MLB
Along with Kiermaier cemented in center, Pham in left, right field is likely Austin Meadows job to lose. Defensively that trio will be nightmares for opposing hitters. Offensively – they could do the same for anyone on the mound. Pham and Meadows have 25-30 home run potential and both make loud contact when bat strikes ball. A full season of Kiermaier (that’s a huge question mark) could provide the Rays with their strongest offensive unit top to bottom. Throw in the defensive prowess of newly acquired Guillermo Heredia who was primarily signed for his glove off the bench – it’s going to be an exciting group to watch.
Zunino/Perez could be as solid a catching duo as Rays have had
Mike Zunino was among the best defensive catchers in the AL in Seattle in 2018. He also hit 20 home runs despite his just north of .200 batting average. Michael Perez, in his rookie year with Tampa, hit .259 with six home runs in just 24 games last year.
Barring a flip to Miami if the Rays truly are still in on J.T. Realmuto – Zunino could be one of the best gets of the off-season for Tampa.
The Rays were a scrappy-hitting team in 2018, finishing third in the AL with a .258 collective average at the plate. Their 150 home runs were second to the bottom and they were 9th in the AL in runs with 716. Still, they finished with 90 wins thanks in large part to their pitching staff that was among the best in baseball. Not sure if the home run totals will get much higher so competing in that department with the likes of the Yankees and Red Sox might be a task too tall. Runs might not be hard to come by if Cash can manipulate the lineup accordingly every evening. In the end – that’s what wins ballgames.
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