With pitching depth for days, the Tampa Bay Rays head into the 2019 off-season poised to crank up their offense to make another run in 2020.
The Rays, once again, had an elite pitching staff in 2019. Their 3.65 team ERA was best in the AL. Though they handled their arms about as unorthodox as any team in recent memory, it can’t be argued that the pitching staff is a huge reason for their first playoff appearance in six years.
Charlie Morton, who finished third in the AL Cy Young voting in 2019, will be back as the ace of a staff that will look to be healthy heading into Opening Day. Throw in Tyler Glasnow, Blake Snell, Yonny Chirinos, and Ryan Yarbrough and you have yourself a pretty solid rotation.
I’ll reiterate the word “healthy.”
Morton was the only pitcher on the Opening Day rotation to avoid the IL in 2019. Multiple position players were lost for chunks of the season. Only Willy Adames and Tommy Pham avoided any lingering injuries.
As the calendar rolls into December, decisions need to be made. The 40-man roster needs to be full to avoid any important prospects being lost to Rule 5. The Winter Meetings are also less than a month away.
Baseball never really ends, folks. So let’s start with the questions:
Q. Will the Rays roll out a true five-man rotation on Opening Day?
I, for one, enjoy the “opener.” Leaves a level of mystery to every opposing manager and Kevin Cash has mastered that. It can also be argued it comes back around to bite the skipper and the pitching staff once in a while. Do I want to see the ‘ol five-man rotation rolled out there in 2020? If I’m being honest – yes, I’d like that. The “opener” was fun for a couple years but it’s time to let the starters start and the relievers relieve. If all five of the names mentioned above open camp healthy – it’d be hard to see a starting five different than that.
Q. How will the catching situation play out?
I’d wager that’s the million dollar question heading into the off-season. Mike Zunino had a very sub-par year offensively. Michael Perez was injured most of the season. The two of them were supposed to be your 1-2 punch.
That didn’t quite play out. Enter Travis d’Arnaud.
It will be very difficult to bring back d’Arnaud after his break-out season with the Rays. He seemed to enjoy playing for Cash, a former catcher, himself, and had some huge and memorable moments in 2019. A case could be made for him being the team’s MVP despite joining the club mid-way through the season.
It wouldn’t shock me to see Zunino and Perez back. Cash and Co might write his 2019 off as a “down year” and hope he can return to the slugger he was in Seattle and continue to work with this young, elite pitching staff. Don’t be too surprised to see them make catching their #1 priority at the Winter Meetings, though.
Q. Will Adames be the next man paid?
If I was a betting man – I’d say absolutely. They’ve locked up Snell and Glasnow until 2024. All Star outfielder Austin Meadows isn’t a free agent until 2025 and infielder Brandon Lowe got his contract through 2027. It would make perfect sense for them to solidify the middle of their infield and lock up Willy.
Adames is coming off a break-out offensive season hitting 20 home runs for the first time in his career. He quietly had a solid year defensively and probably should have been a finalist for a Gold Glove. It’s really only a matter of when they give him that extension at this point.
Q. Can the Rays make a deeper run in 2020?
The quick answer is “yes.” The realist in me says it’s way too early to talk such things. This Rays team was exciting and inspiring in 2019. They also dealt with more injuries than anyone in baseball save for the Yankees. Cash is a back-to-back AL Manager of the Year finalist. It just might take the Rays winning the AL East for him to actually win the darn thing. It will be, as it is every season, a dog fight to the finish between Tampa, Boston, and New York in the East. The rest of the AL doesn’t seem to be slowing down with the Astros, Twins, Indians, and Athletics all looking to continue to be contenders.
If they get back to the post-season in 2020 they will be more experienced and mentally ready for a deeper run. So “if” they get back I can absolutely see them giving the rest of the field a fit once again.
Q. How will they improve their offense in 2020?
Losing the likes of Avisail Garcia to free agency will hurt. But getting a full season out of Lowe and Yandy Diaz will help. d’Arnaud showed he had some pop in his bat and came up clutch at the plate quite a few times in 2019 but he’s likely also lost to free agency. Could Nate Lowe get more of a chance in 2020? His bat has some thunder in it. If Pham, Meadows, and Adames all produce then the Rays may be in better shape than it appears. Ji Man Choi broke out in 2019 and will likely be the Opening Day man at first base. Diaz will likely get reps at third, first, and DH if he stays healthy.
Then there’s the rumblings about the Rays being in on Edwin Encarnacion and Howie Kendrick. Either one of those bats in this lineup could do wonders and almost immediately make an impact.
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