Tampa Bay Rays 2019 Season Preview

Tampa Bay Rays 2019 Season Preview

As featured on MSABR.COM
By Felipe Zwanzger

2018 Record: 90-72 (3rd AL East)

2018 Payroll: $51,129,166 (30th)

Projected 2019 Lineup:

All player projections for 2019 from Steamer

1. CF Kevin Kiermaier, .238 AVG/.306 OBP/.395 SLG, 2.6 WAR

2. LF Tommy Pham, .256 AVG/.352 OBP/.430 SLG, 3.3 WAR

3. 2B Joey Wendle,  .255 AVG/.303 OBP/.374 SLG, 1.0 WAR

4. DH Avisail Garcia, .255 AVG/.311 OBP/.423 SLG, 0.2 WAR

5. 1B Ji-Man Choi, .241 AVG/.334 OBP/.418 SLG, 0.8 WAR

6. RF Austin Meadows, .265 AVG/.315 OBP/.436 SLG, 1.3 WAR

7. SS Willy Adames, .248 AVG/.323 OBP/.381 SLG, 2.0 WAR

8. C Mike Zunino, .210 AVG/.283 OBP/.410 SLG, 1.5 WAR

9. 3B Yandy Diaz,  .271 AVG/.363 OBP/.371 SLG, 1.0 WAR

Projected 2019 Rotation:

1. Blake Snell, 189 IP/3.24 ERA/1.20 WHIP, 4.0 WAR

2. Charlie Morton, 152 IP/3.50 ERA/1.23 WHIP, 3.0 WAR

3. Ryan Yarbrough, 105 IP/4.48 ERA/1.38 WHIP, 0.7 WAR

4. Tyler Glasnow, 135 IP/3.92 ERA/1.34 WHIP, 2.0 WAR

5. Yonny Chirinos, 100 IP/4.27 ERA/1.32 WHIP, 1.0 WAR

Offseason Recap:

Baseball is not a game of pity, but when a team wins 90 games and misses the playoffs, it’s an inevitable feeling. The Rays responded to this disappointment with one of the better offseasons in franchise history. This began on December 12th, when the Rays signed Charlie Morton to a two-year, $30 million-dollar deal (the largest free agent contract in franchise history). Coming off his first career All-Star appearance and three straight seasons with a K/9 higher than 9.4, Morton slots well into the second spot in a rotation that needed a veteran presence.

The Rays quickly followed that up with one of the more underrated moves of the offseason, one which may have gone unnoticed to many fans. In a three-team swap with the Indians and Mariners, the Rays sent longtime heralded prospect Jake Bauers to the Indians for versatile infielder Yandy Diaz. Bauers’ rookie season failed to live up to expectations despite a 95 wRC+, a testament to just how rapidly the prospect glitter and shine can fade away. While trading away Bauers left a temporary opening at first base, Yandy Diaz has the potential to become a true talent for the Rays. Ranking 24th in exit velocity (92.1 MPH) among batters with at least 100 at-bats last season, Diaz only managed to hit ONE home run all season long. His extreme groundball tendencies are trending in the right direction, and his hard contact rate increased from 32.8% in 2017 to 44.4% in 2018. Diaz may never become a player who hits more than ten home runs, but factor in his versatility and ability to consistently make contact and the Rays have a truly valuable player on their hands whom one figures they can help continue improving.

Earlier in the offseason, Mike Zunino and Guillermo Heredia were acquired from the Mariners in exchange for Mallex Smith (who had quite a significant impact on the team last season). While Heredia serves as insurance for another inevitable Kevin Kiermaier injury, it will be Zunino whose impact will be felt throughout the organization. He remains a below-average offensive contributor (84 wRC+ in 2018), but his true value lies in his ability to maneuver a pitching staff. Consistently ranking as one of the better defensive catchers in the game, Zunino may be key in the development of Tyler Glasnow and Brent Honeywell later on in the season. A young starting pitcher is only as good as his battery-mate, and Zunino’s defensive impact is key to the continued development of this young but highly promising pitching staff.

The final key move of the offseason was to bring in Avisail Garcia on a one-year, $3.5 million deal. Essentially serving as the replacement of Carlos Gomez, who disappointed in his own one-year deal with the Rays, Garcia will split time between DH and right field. Over his career, Garcia has been a roughly league-average player, but the potential for a breakout season (137 wRC+ in 2017) will always be present in a player with his skillset.

All told, the Rays added approximately 10 wins (including the departures of Smith, Gomez, and CJ Cron) with financially flexible, short-term contracts that allow the team to remain competitive in 2019 without damaging the franchise’s long-term payroll outlook. As franchise owner Stuart Sternberg continues to wheedle the city of Tampa for a new stadium, these offseason moves address the improvements that needed to be made on the field while providing ownership the financial flexibility to explore new stadium sites and avoid the possibility of relocation, which has unfortunately been a cloud this franchise for the past half-decade.

2019 Season Preview:

The road to building off their surprise 90-win season will be a bit more interesting. Expecting AL Cy Young Blake Snell to replicate his 2018 is a tall ask, and there may be regression coming his way. This doesn’t mean he’ll become a bad pitcher, but an ERA closer to 2018 xFIP of 3.18 is more likely than another sub-two ERA. Tyler Glasnow (who is further analyzed later in this piece) is the x-factor for this rotation. If he can replicate his short bursts of success from 2018, he can very well become the pitcher many expected him to become as he rose through the Pirates minor league ranks. Overall, the rotation is well-rounded but not very deep. This is of little to no concern for the Rays, who will continue to use their “Opener” strategy to give starting pitchers an extra day or two of rest between starts on occasion.

The strength of this team, as hinted by the presence of the Opener, is the bullpen. Jose Alvarado and his 3.15 xFIP head a bullpen which was in the top 10 in nearly all statistical leaderboards. Ryne Stanek excelled in his role as opener, with an ERA of 3.38 in the role with well over 11 strikeouts per nine innings. The hidden gem in the Rays bullpen remains Chaz Roe, Tampa Bay’s own version of Adam Ottavino. He throws an elite, wicked slider with one of the best spin rates in the game. This past season, the Rays helped his harness this untapped weapon to post a BB/9 lower than 4.0 for the first time in his career.

Heatmap of Chaz Roe’s slider in 2018. Source: baseballsavant.mlb.com

Here’s the bold prediction for 2019. The Rays middle infield (Willy Adames, Joey Wendle, and Daniel Robertson) will combine to produce 10 bWAR for the Rays in 2019. Adames’ 2018 was a tale of two stories, with .604 OPS in the first half and .818 OPS in the second half. Growing pains should always be expected with any young player, and Adames’ strong second half may be a sign of what is to come in 2019. Joey Wendle had an absolutely outstanding rookie season and is firmly entrenched as the team’s second baseman, and Daniel Robertson’s positional versatility will bring back memories of the ultimate jack-of-all-trades Ben Zobrist’s time in a Rays uniform.

The outfield is the one area in which the Rays may simply hit or miss. While the upside of an outfield with Tommy Pham, Kevin Kiermaier, Avisail Garcia, and Austin Meadows is tremendous, there is also considerable risk with each of these players. With Garcia and Kiermaier, the concern lies within their inability to stay healthy over the course of a full season, and running on artificial turf for 81 games a season (90 if you add Toronto) isn’t necessarily welcoming to an athlete’s knees. Tommy Pham’s second half resurgence after being traded from the St. Louis Cardinals paved the way to a 1.071 OPS and 194 OPS+. One of the few full five-tool talents in the game of baseball, Pham may very well be the best offensive asset in Tampa Bay, and if he can keep his vision issues in check during 2019 he should have no problem producing another well above-average season patrolling left field. Austin Meadows really concerns me. He burst onto the scene batting .409 with the Pirates in May, but fell off considerably since then, hitting .230 from June to the end of the season. Once a consensus Top 50 prospect in baseball, Meadows’ stock had dropped considerably as a result of injuries and relatively uninspiring performances in the minor leagues, and it seems quite plausible that his May performance helped the Pirates salvage some trade value rather than paint a picture of the player he may be.

Record Prediction: 91-71

Prove me wrong, Tampa Bay. I genuinely hope you do. It’s tough to ask a team to improve on 90 wins, and it’s even harder when that team is in the same division as two teams that are likely to win 100 games this coming season. The beauty of the American League is that even if the Yankees and Red Sox win 100 games each, a path to the playoffs exists for Tampa Bay as the second wild-card. They will face steep competition from the Athletics, Angels, and Twins, but this team is well positioned to compete and secure the second wild-card.

Player to Watch: Kevin Kiermaier 

In what sounds like a broken record regarding numerous promising major leaguers, injuries have simply had no mercy with Kiermaier. Despite playing in only 88 games last season, he still managed to muster 2.5 bWAR. Look deeper into the numbers though, and there’s legitimate reason for concern. While defense has always been his calling card, he has made consistent offensive improvements until last year, where he only posted an 80 OPS+ (after a 113 OPS+ in 2017). As a centerfielder heading into his age 29 season, there’s not much reason to remain optimistic about his health considering he’s only played in 291 games in his last 3 seasons combined. It also doesn’t help his cause that he ranked 305th out of 332 major leaguers in exit velocity last season (84.5 MPH), leading to further skepticism of a potential bounce-back offensive season. His ability to stay on the field will determine his success this coming season, as his defense has shown no signs of deteriorating to this point. It’s highly unlikely Kiermaier hits .217 again this coming season, so a 3-4 win season is very well within reach. Remember that the Rays were comfortable trading away Mallex Smith and his 3.4 bWAR, so the franchise is clearly confident in Kiermaier’s ability to regain his form this coming season.

Player to Watch: Tyler Glasnow

The headliner of the Chris Archer trade, Glasnow finally showed glimpses of the potential that made him one of the most tantalizing prospects in baseball before injuries and ineffectiveness withered away that promise of greatness. In only his second game with the Rays, Glasnow struck out 9 batters in just 4 innings, albeit against a weak Orioles lineup. Looking forward to 2019, it will be interesting see if Glasnow continues to increase his slider usage (non-existent prior to 2018, 8.9% with the Pirates and 14.2% with the Rays). He remains an interesting player to observe, because there is no guarantee that the success he experienced as a starter with the Rays will repeat itself in 2019. Given the Rays’ propensity to use the Opener, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Glasnow transition and truly blossom in this role were he to face adversity as a starter in 2019. Unsurprisingly, his 4.24 ERA as a reliever compared to a 5.93 ERA as a starter makes the possibility of Glasnow transitioning into a dynamic bullpen role a lucrative one for both himself and for the Rays. Glasnow may very well become a right-handed version of Josh Hader if he does eventually transition into a regular role in the bullpen.

Player to Watch: Nate Lowe

For a team that is extremely deep on the field at both the major and minor league levels, first base remains a bit of mystery for the Rays. Enter Nate Lowe: another mid to late round draft pick on which the Rays have struck gold. Across three levels in 2018, Lowe slashed .330/.416/.568 with 27 homeruns. Over his minor league career, he has walked at a 12% clip while striking out in 18% of his plate appearances. While his defense won’t win him any gold gloves, former GM Jim Bowden describes Lowe as a prospect “who can swing it and has loud, lofting line-drive power”. The Rays will likely start their 2018 organizational player of the year at AAA Durham, but a promotion to the big leagues in June seems plausible given the lack of depth at the position for the Rays.

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