Offseason Outlook: Tampa Bay Rays

In conjunction with this post, Darragh McDonald will hold a Rays-centric chat on 10-20-23 at 11 am Central. Click here to ask a question in advance.

The Rays continued their impressive run of success while working with limited funds. Despite having one of the lowest payrolls in the league, they made the playoffs for a fifth straight season in 2023. Their offseasons generally see plenty of roster turnover, but it’s possible they spend a little bit more this winter in order to keep the gang together.

Guaranteed Contracts

  • Wander Franco, SS: $174MM through 2032 (includes buyout on 2033 club option)
  • Zach Eflin, RHP: $29MM through 2025
  • Jeffrey Springs, LHP: $27MM through 2026 (includes buyout on 2027 club option)
  • Tyler Glasnow, RHP: $25MM through 2024
  • Yandy Díaz, IF: $18MM through 2025 (includes 2026 club option with no buyout)
  • Manuel Margot, OF: $12MM through 2024 (includes buyout on 2025 club option)
  • Brandon Lowe, IF: $9.75MM through 2024 (includes buyout on 2024 club option; deal also has club option for ’25)
  • Pete Fairbanks, RHP: $8.48MM through 2025 (includes buyout on 2026 club option)

Option Decisions

2024 financial commitments: $76.82MM
Total future commitments: $303.23MM

Arbitration-Eligible Players (projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)

Non-tender candidates: Tapia, Beeks, Bethancourt, Sulser, Fleming

Free Agents

The 2023 campaign started out incredibly strong for the Rays, with the club winning its first 13 games and jumping out to a big lead in the American League East. But the injuries mounted as the season went along, forcing the club to limp into the playoffs via a Wild Card spot before getting euthanized by the Rangers, as Texas outscored them 11-1 in the two-game sweep.

This would normally be the time where speculation would turn to which players the club will trade before the next season. Given their tight budgets, the Rays generally operate by trading players as they get more expensive and closer to free agency, with Tommy Pham and Blake Snell being some of the examples from recent years. It’s possible that this offseason will be different, as president of baseball operations Erik Neander recently said that the club might move the payroll up in order to limit the turnover. That’s partially related to their new stadium funding deal, which is kind of sort of almost official.

Time will tell whether that comes to fruition or to what extent. The data at Cot’s Baseball Contracts has never seen them push beyond the $80MM range in terms of an Opening Day payroll, but Roster Resource estimates their 2024 payroll to be around $125MM right now. A few of their 16 arbitration-eligible players will surely end up non-tendered, which will cut into that number a bit, but it will still take a substantial payroll increase if the club legitimately wants to keep the roster intact.

Even if there aren’t a lot of changes this winter, there would still be question marks, particularly on the pitching staff. Each of Jeffrey Springs, Drew Rasmussen and Shane McClanahan required elbow surgery in 2023, with each of their respective recoveries expected to carry into next year. Springs underwent Tommy John in April and is probably out until the middle of 2024, even in a best-case scenario. Rasmussen had the slightly milder internal brace procedure in July, which puts him out of action until at least midseason as well. McClanahan had TJS later in the year and is expected to miss all of 2024 as a result.

There are some names that can be pencilled into next year’s rotation, as each of Zach Eflin and Tyler Glasnow are under contract. They both have fairly spotty injury histories but they were each largely healthy in 2023. Aaron Civale didn’t finish strong but has a solid track record and can be retained via arbitration.

After that, things get less certain. Shane Baz missed all of 2023 recovering from his Tommy John surgery and should be healthy enough for next year, but he may have workload concerns. He only pitched 40 innings in 2022 between the majors and minors, and 92 the year before. There were no minor leagues in 2020 due to the pandemic and Baz was largely in short-season ball before that, meaning he’s yet to reach 100 innings in a season.

Zack Littell was gradually stretched out as the 2023 season wore on, similar to Springs and Rasmussen in previous years, though the results weren’t quite as emphatic. Littell tossed 87 innings as a Ray with a 3.93 ERA but striking out just 19.8% of opponents. His 2.5% walk rate in that time was excellent but is probably unsustainable in the long run. Amongst qualified pitchers this year, only George Kirby limited free passes at that rate.

Taj Bradley is on the depth chart as well, though he’s not a sure thing. He came into 2023 as one of the top pitching prospects in the league but posted an ERA of 5.59 in his first 104 2/3 innings. He won’t turn 23 years old until March and can certainly still put it together, but there’s clearly more development needed.

The club is generally unafraid to be creative in constructing its pitching staff, frequently deploying bullpen games or openers to get through a season. Perhaps they feel this group gives them enough of a rotation to start the year, with Springs and Rasmussen options to jump in later in the season. If that doesn’t come to fruition, reinforcements could always be found at the deadline.

In the bullpen, the club generally does a good job of finding quality arms without paying too much, and that could be the case again next year. Each of Pete Fairbanks, Jason Adam, Colin Poche, Andrew Kittredge and Shawn Armstrong had an ERA of 3.09 or lower in 2023. Fairbanks is already under contract for around $3.82MM next year and none of the other four are projected to catch him via the arbitration process.

On the position player side of things, the shortstop position is a giant question mark given ongoing investigation into Wander Franco’s alleged inappropriate relationships with underage girls. It’s a fairly unprecedented situation and it’s unclear how long it will take to be resolved, but the club will likely operate under the assumption that they can’t rely on him. That likely leaves some combination of Taylor Walls, Osleivis Basabe and Junior Caminero covering the position, with Carson Williams perhaps debuting at some point later in the year.

Brandon Lowe, Isaac Paredes, Yandy Díaz and Harold Ramírez should be able to cover the non-shortstop positions, with Curtis Mead and Jonathan Aranda in the mix as well. The outfield mix seems solid with Randy Arozarena, Josh Lowe, Jose Siri, Manuel Margot and Luke Raley all slated to be back.

Catcher is a bit less certain, as Christian Bethancourt took a step back from a solid 2022 season. René Pinto got a decent amount of playing time down the stretch and held his own, so perhaps the club is content to give him a shot to take over as the lead backstop and bump Bethancourt to the backup role or cut him loose.

That still gives the club a strong core, but it’s also fair to wonder what kind of cuts may be coming. It’s not a guarantee that the payroll is going to suddenly get a 50% jump from the $80MM range to the $120MM range, so we might still see some classic Rays trades designed at saving some money and continually restocking the farm. Even if they do have that kind of money, it might be prudent to free some of it up in order to pursue upgrades to the starting staff or behind the plate.

Trading one of those arbitration relievers could still leave them with a solid bullpen, for instance. Arozarena is already set to make a projected $9MM, with two arbitration seasons after that. He’s still a bargain at that price but the Rays have shown that these kinds of players usually get dealt before reaching free agency. Ramírez hits well but is a poor defender, only getting 13 starts as a fielder in 2023. $4.4MM is still a good price for a solid bat but a Rays team that loves versatility could probably find a way to live without him. Lowe (Brandon, not Josh) is now just one year away from the end of his deal, perhaps allowing the club to make him available and replace him from within. Margot might be squeezed in that outfield picture a bit. He wouldn’t have a ton of trade value as a glove-first player with mounting injury concerns and declining defensive grades, but his deal has just one year and $12MM remaining. Many fans of rival clubs might look to Glasnow’s $25MM salary and dream of getting him out of Tampa, but the club probably can’t afford to thin out their starting depth any further.

Moving any of those players could help with the depleted starting staff, perhaps in a direct way by bringing pitching back the other way. Shane Bieber, Cal Quantrill and Paul Blackburn are some pitchers speculated to be available. The White Sox seem to be planning on contending, but Dylan Cease would be a logical trade chip if they pivot. The same goes from Griffin Canning and Patrick Sandoval of the Angels or Mitch Keller of the Pirates. Perhaps the Mariners feel they have enough pitching to part with Logan Gilbert or Bryan Woo while still contending.

Or perhaps the Rays will trade for prospects and then use the new payroll space to pursue a free agent pitcher. They wouldn’t be likely to shop at the top of the market, of course, but a targeted strike similar to last year’s Eflin deal wouldn’t be totally shocking. Perhaps they feel they can get the best out of someone like Jack Flaherty, since they almost acquired him at the deadline. Lucas Giolito, Seth Lugo, Michael Wacha or Sean Manaea should be similarly in that mid-rotation or back-end batch of free agents.

The Rays are often a tough team to project, given their willingness to churn the roster perhaps more than any other club, even if that means moving star players. The comments from Neander suggest this winter might be different, but it’s tough to accept that at face value when it contradicts their established modus operandi. However it plays out, the Rays are starting from a decent position. Their departing free agents are mostly relief pitchers, leaving most of their 99-win team intact for now. The starting pitching looks a bit flimsy but that’s been the case in the past and the Rays always seem to find a way to wriggle to success regardless.

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