Tampa Bay Rays: 2020 World Series Champions?

If there’s one team that seems primed to take advantage of the anomalous 2020 MLB season, it’s the Tampa Bay Rays. The 60-game schedule and expanded rosters that are likely to define the forthcoming campaign play right into the hands of an organisation that won 96 games last year. The Rays are, after all, about as deep as any team in any division right now and were recently described by Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci as perhaps the most dangerous team in baseball. So let’s take a closer look at why the Rays are receiving so much hype.

The rotation

Arguably, the Rays have one of the strongest starting rotations in baseball. Charlie Morton, Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow alone give their team an opportunity to compete with anyone, and all three will be looking to build on the success of the 2019 campaign.

Collectively, the Rays’ starters logged an ERA of 3.64 last year, which was the fourth-best in baseball. A closer look at the data, however, reveals that despite this, they don’t strike out opposing hitters at anywhere near the rate of the league’s best. Last year, that accolade went to the Astros, whose starters were responsible for a total of 1,063 strikeouts, while the Rays’ starters were just 14th best in that category with 796. Interestingly, the group was responsible for just forty of the team’s total wins (21st overall), recording the second-lowest number of innings pitched (702.1). This was thanks, in part, to playing in front of the strongest bullpen in baseball, and often behind an opener (eleven different pitchers started games for the Rays in 2019).

Over the course of the regular season, their starters gave up just 284 earned runs and 191 walks (both league bests), while recording a WAR of 17.6 (sixth-best overall).

In 2020, Morton is likely to benefit from playing fewer games and will no doubt be feeling confident after claiming two of the Rays’ three 2019 postseason wins. Snell made just 23 regular season starts in 2019 due to injury, but still recorded a 3.32 FIP that suggests he may be able to recapture some of the 2018 form that contributed to his outstanding 1.89 ERA, 4.8 WAR and 21 total wins.

Meanwhile, Glasnow avoided arbitration by agreeing to a $2.05 million, one-year contract following twelve starts in 2019, during which he recorded a record of 6-1 while logging a 2.26 FIP. At just 26 years of age, commanding an average fastball velocity of 96.9 miles per hour, he’s already looking like an ace in the making and will be hoping to take another step forward in 2020.

We can most likely expect Ryan Yarbrough (who went 11-6 with a 4.13 ERA last year) and Yonny Chirinos (9-5 with a 3.85 ERA) to fill the other two slots, while Brendan McKay (considered the 15th best overall prospect by MLB Pipeline) also has an outside shot.

The bullpen

As mentioned, the Rays had the strongest bullpen in all of baseball last year. Their collective 772 innings pitched led all other teams, whose relievers averaged just 603. This contributed to an MLB-leading 56 wins, 46 saves (seventh-best) and a league-best 3.71 ERA and 7.7 WAR.

As always, the Rays used the offseason to move a handful of players in order to get younger while also saving some money. One of the most notable departures was last season’s saves leader, Emilio Pagan. Last year, he was one of the best relievers in baseball, posting a 2.31 ERA with 20 saves in 66 appearances. While the team reportedly remains tight-lipped about just who will serve as closer this year, Nick Anderson seems the most likely candidate, having registered a 2.11 ERA and 20.50 strikeout/walks ratio for the Rays in 2019 after joining the team from the Miami Marlins at the deadline. Should they opt to take a ‘closer by committee’ approach though, expect Diego Castillo (3.52 ERA, 1.17 WHIP in 26 IP) and Jose Alvarado (3.60 ERA, 1.35 WHIP in 24 IP) to also be in line for some save opportunities.

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Elsewhere, reclamation project Peter Fairbanks has become the poster boy for Tampa Bay’s reputation as, in the words of Sports Illustrated, “the Antiques Roadshow of baseball.”

The former ninth-round pick learned a new way to throw after undergoing Tommy John surgery twice and, coupled with the Rays’ teachings; he now possesses a 98 mph fastball. Last season he reduced his ERA from 9.35 in 8.2 IP with the Texas Rangers to a considerably better 5.11 in 12.1 IP in Tampa Bay after joining the Rays via trade. Leveraging his ability in the middle order, along with the reliable arms of Oliver Drake and Colin Poche, should ensure that the Rays’ bullpen is once amongst the best in the game.

The Bats

It’s no secret that the Rays relied almost exclusively on their defence to be elite last year. Frankly, they had to, as their offensive production laboured in the middle of the pack, registering a .757 OPS, which was just below league average. As the good folk over at Rays Coloured Glasses observed, the 2019 lineup delivered above-average results from the first two spots but performed below league average at almost every other spot. To compound matters, they then traded Tommy Pham, one of the players who often occupied one of those first two spots while hitting 21 home runs and 68 RBI in 2019, to San Diego. His replacement Hunter Renfroe (33 home runs and 64 RBI), will be asked to pick up the slack while giving the Rays four years of control as opposed to Pham’s one.

Elsewhere, the Rays struggled against left-handed pitching last year and will need to make improvements in this area if they are to compete. Left-handed hitters Ji-Man Choi and Brandon Lowe (.629 and .674 OPS respectively) were particularly bad, while Kevin Kiermaier has a .298 career OBP against lefties.

Kiermaier is perhaps of broader concern for this team. While his defence is exceptional, he’s hit just .223 with a .666 OPS since the start of the 2018 season. Thankfully for the Rays, his six-year, $53,500,000 contract is fairly team friendly and could probably be moved if they see Manuel Margot as a better long-term fit.

Given that the Rays are matchup-driven and highly versatile, we can probably expect the line up to shift considerably from night to night. Guys like Austin Meadows (who hit .291 with 33 home runs last year), Yandy Diaz (whose .476 slugging mark was one of the best on the team last year) and newbie (to the Rays and to Major League Baseball) Yoshitomo Tsutsugo will all be fun to watch, while Jose Martinez, Nate Lowe and Margot offer platoon options galore. Earlier in the year, the Rays were rumoured to be in the running to secure the services of Yasiel Puig, who could be just the kind of bat this team needs.

So, can they win it all?

ESPN Senior Writer Dave Schoenfield certainly thinks so. But as with a lot of teams, health is likely to be a major factor. The Rays clearly have plenty of pitching depth, but a recurrence of the injuries that hampered Snell and Glasnow in 2019 could still be catastrophic. A shorter season should reduce the overall risk, but it also increases the likelihood that a long-term injury becomes a season-ending injury. If the staff stays healthy and succeeds in recapturing last year’s form, the Rays may be just an offensive upturn away from genuine contention.

Sean Guest is a guest writer for Bat Flips and Nerds.

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