Offseason Outlook: Tampa Bay Rays

In conjunction with this post, Darragh McDonald will be hosting a Rays-centric chat today at 1pm. Click here to ask a question in advance, join in or read the transcript after it’s complete.

The 2022 Rays fell short of capturing their third straight AL East crown but still qualified for the postseason for a fourth straight season. They have a small free agent class, meaning the vast majority of the gang can be brought back for another year. However, with a huge arbitration class that featured 19 players lined up for raises, and large number of Rule 5-eligible prospects, they will be forced to make some tough decisions, a process that has already begun.

Guaranteed Contracts

  • Wander Franco, SS: $176MM through 2032, including $2MM buyout on $25MM option for 2033.
  • Tyler Glasnow, SP: $30.35MM through 2024.
  • Manuel Margot, OF: $19MM through 2024, including $2MM buyout on $12MM mutual option for 2025.
  • Brandon Lowe, IF/OF: $15MM through 2024, including $1MM buyout on $10.5MM club option for 2025. Club also has $11.5MM option for for 2026 with $500K buyout.
  • Brooks Raley, RP: $5.75MM through 2023, including $1.25MM buyout on $6.5MM club option for 2024.

Option Decisions

Total 2023 commitments: $27.85MM
Total future commitments: $248.6MM

Arbitration-Eligible Players (projected 2023 salaries via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)

Free Agents

The Rays entered 2022 having won the division title in 2020 and 2021, looking to be strong yet again. It was a bit of a disappointing season though, with the club bitten pretty hard by the injury bug, particularly on the pitching staff. Despite various ailments, they still snuck into the playoffs by going 86-76 and taking the final Wild Card spot in the first year of the 12-team expanded playoffs. With much of the same roster in place for next year, it’s possible that the club will be better in 2023 just by having better luck on the health front. However, as is always the case with the Rays, payroll concerns might lead to some notable subtractions and creative solutions, especially with the loaded arbitration class.

Since Tampa’s decisions are usually motivated by money in some way, let’s talk turkey up front. Roster Resource estimates that the club’s 2023 payroll is currently slated to be around $72MM. The club had an Opening Day figure of $84MM in 2022, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts. A surprise splurge can’t be totally ruled out, since they reportedly made an offer to Freddie Freeman a year ago. However, that didn’t come to fruition and they ended up making modest signings while trading away arb-eligible players players like Austin Meadows, Joey Wendle and Jordan Luplow. If they are planning to spend at a similar level next year, they won’t have much to work with, though they could give themselves more breathing room by non-tendering or trading some of that big arb class. They’ve already gotten some of that work done, having traded Ji-Man Choi to the Pirates, as well as putting Nick Anderson and Roman Quinn on waivers. Those latter two elected free agency and Anderson has already signed with Atlanta.

The future offseason moves will hinge on where they subtract and where they add. Pitching seems to be especially in flux, with the club reportedly discussing Ryan Yarbrough, Shawn Armstrong and Yonny Chirinos in recent trades. None of those pitchers are essential pieces of the pitching staff, meaning the Rays are in a position to make some minor moves and still wind up in a decent position overall. Even with Shane Baz undergoing Tommy John surgery and likely to miss all of 2023, the rotation still consists of Shane McClanahan, Tyler Glasnow, Drew Rasmussen and Jeffrey Springs in the front four spots.

Yarbrough is a candidate for the fifth spot, but he has a 4.90 ERA over the past two seasons combined. If they pull the trigger on a deal, that would leave a hole, but they have other options to fill it. Luis Patiño was limited by injuries in 2022 but is just 23 years old and could still establish himself as a valuable starter. There’s also Taj Bradley, considered to be one of the best pitching prospects in the game. He finished his season with 12 Triple-A starts and should be in position to make his MLB debut in 2023. Even if no one steps up to secure the final rotation spot or an injury creates another hole, the Rays have shown they’re not afraid to rely on bullpen games to grind through parts of the schedule. A free-agent addition can’t be ruled out, as the club signed Corey Kluber last year for a modest one-year, $8MM deal. However, they also have enough in-house options that it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them spend elsewhere.

The bullpen is also in pretty good shape, unsurprising given Tampa’s penchant for finding unheralded arms and helping them find their best selves. Pete Fairbanks, Jason Adam, Brooks Raley, J.P. Feyereisen, Jalen Beeks, JT Chargois all posted ERAs under 3.00 in 2022 and should form a solid backbone for the relief corps. A trade can never be ruled out with Tampa, but none of that group is projected to make more than a few million. Given the club’s knack for finding hidden gems, it’s possible they’ll make another low-key signing or two in order to supplement the group. Raley, for instance, posted a 4.78 ERA with Houston in 2021 as a 33-year-old before signing a $10MM deal with the Rays. He then earned a 2.68 ERA in Tampa this year. Adam, the owner of a 1.56 ERA through 63 1/3 innings with the Rays this past season, is an even more extreme example; he signed for just $900K prior to the 2022 season.

One area without a solid foundation is the catching mix. The Rays picked up a club option on Mike Zunino for 2022, but he performed poorly over 36 games before requiring season-ending surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome. To fill that hole, the Rays acquired Christian Bethancourt in a trade with the A’s. The veteran was playing in the big leagues for the first time since 2017, having been bouncing around various organization, including a stint in the KBO. He ended up having the best season of his career, hitting .252/.283/.409 for a wRC+ of 101. He also got positive marks for his glovework, leading to 1.9 fWAR on the year in just 101 games. He can be retained via a modest arbitration raise, but do the Rays want to go into the season relying on a 31-year-old journeyman with an inconsistent track record, even if his 2022 was solid?

Francisco Mejía and René Pinto are also on the 40-man roster to give them some depth, but the Rays could still look to address the catching mix in some way. They don’t seem likely to spend at top-of-the-market rates for (e.g. Willson ContrerasChristian Vazquez), but there will be more affordable options, such as Omar Narvaez, Austin Hedges, Gary Sanchez, Tucker Barnhart and Roberto Perez. The trade market should also give them access to Oakland’s Sean Murphy or one of Toronto’s many backstops, though the latter scenario is likely difficult to line up for the AL East competitors.

For the middle infield, the Rays will be hoping for better health on the injury front in 2023. Shortstop Wander Franco and second baseman Brandon Lowe each missed significant time and neither got into more than 83 games on the year. Franco, of course, was considered the top prospect in the game and had a strong debut in 2021. Only 20 years old at the time, he then signed an 11-year extension to be the club’s shortstop and face of the franchise for over a decade. The first season was frustrating because of the injuries, but he’ll look to bounce back next year. Lowe is now 28 and has just two guaranteed years left on his contract, though there’s also a club option for 2025. You can never rule out a trade when it comes to the Rays, but given his down year, it would be selling low to make a move at this time.

For the rest of the infield, Choi has already been subtracted at first base but they still have many options for the corner spots and utility/bench roles. Yandy Diaz is coming off the best offensive season of his career and should have one spot locked down. He’s mostly played third base but can move across to first on occasion. Then there’s Isaac Paredes, Jonathan Aranda, Harold Ramírez, Taylor Walls, Vidal Bruján, Luke Raley and Miles Mastrobuoni on the 40-man roster. Not yet on the 40-man are highly-touted prospects like Kyle Manzardo, Xavier Edwards, Curtis Mead and Greg Jones. Those latter three will need to be selected this week to be protected from being scooped in the Rule 5 draft. That will surely lead to some classic Tampa roster shuffling in the days to come, but they should finish with many intriguing options for filling out the infield picture in 2023.

In the outfield, Randy Arozarena, Manuel Margot and Jose Siri are the three on-paper regulars, now that David Peralta is a free agent. Some of the utility infield options from the last paragraph will be in the mix for playing time on the turf as well, alongside former top prospect Josh Lowe and waiver pickup Bligh Madris. As said previously, no one can confidently say the Rays won’t trade from this mix. They’ve previously moved solid regulars like Tommy Pham and Austin Meadows, after all. While most of these current Rays have yet to reach arbitration, Arozarena just qualified as a Super Two and will now go through the arb process for the first of four times. Margot still has two years and $19MM left on his extension, making him the most expensive of the bunch. For now, they have plenty of options, but that can change in a hurry.

The path forward for the Rays is very unpredictable in terms of the specifics but it seems like it will follow a familiar path in a broad sense. Given their low-spending ways and roster crunch, they will surely be very active. They’ve already flipped Choi and cut Anderson, with more of those kinds of moves surely in the cards. Some of their arb-eligible players will likely be dealt or non-tendered, though there are so many options that even the Rays themselves can’t yet be sure just who’ll change hands.

Once the dust settles on those, they should have a few dollars to spend on modest additions to fill out whatever holes are created. It might not be as exciting as a team that’s targeting Aaron Judge or Jacob deGrom in free agency, but this is how the Rays operate and they do it well. Even in an injury-marred 2022, they still grabbed their fourth straight postseason berth. Given that most of their key pieces are still in place next year, a bit more luck on the health front should have them back in the playoff mix yet again, though likely with more than a handful of new names and new faces.

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