There has never been any secret about how the Rays operate. As a financial bottom-feeders, the team seeks cheap, controllable assets and trade far more active major leaguers than they bring in.
It’s a cyclical process that culminated last year when veterans Matt Moore, Steve Pearce and Brandon Guyer netted Tampa Bay six players. Two years ago David DeJesus and Kevin Jepsen returned four prospects. Three years ago David Price brought back a hefty reward.
This year… well, this year’s been different. First the Rays parted with minor league pitcher Ethan Clark and outfielder Braxton Lee last month to acquire Marlins shortstop AdeinyHechavarria. Then on Thursday morning, Tampa Bay used former first-round pick Casey Gillaspie to reel in 30-year-old reliever Dan Jennings. The topper came Thursday afternoon, when the team acquired Mets first baseman Lucas Duda in exchange for minor league pitcher Drew Smith.
If that sequence of events didn’t make it clear, let’s spell it out: The Tampa Bay Rays are buyers. Believe it.
It’s a significant shift from the roster management style demonstrated in the past, even in previous seasons when the team appeared to be in contention as much as it is now. After falling to the Yankees, 6-5, in 11 innings on Thursday evening, the Rays stand three games behind the AL East-leading Red Sox and 1 1/2 games behind the Royals in the Wild Card hunt. A 53-50 record doesn’t indicate the makings of a great team, but Tampa Bay’s place in the standings indicates a team worth taking a chance on. For once, it appears the team looked past dollars and cents, past contractual status and directed their focus no further than the opportunity to play October baseball.
While Hechavarria and Jennings are both under club control after this year, Duda presents the biggest departure from the team’s usual style of dealing. The former Met is merely a rental, heading toward free agency while footing the Rays with roughly $2.5 million of his remaining salary.
Duda slots nicely into Tampa Bay’s lineup as the designated hitter against right-handed pitchers. The lefty slugger hits significantly better against righties than lefties. Fourteen of his 17 home runs this season have come against right-handers, who he’s batting .253 against compared to .224 against lefties. The move will allow Corey Dickerson—in the midst of an outstanding year, slashing .304/.348/.535 with 18 home runs and 43 RBIs—to shift back into being the everyday left fielder.
Adding both Hechavarria and Duda, who can play first base in addition to DH, makes infielder Brad Miller or Tim Beckham expendable. ESPN’s Jerry Crasnickreported as much late Thursday night, but followed up by saying the club wasn’t shopping either player. It just means another move could come before Monday’s non-waiver trade deadline, the type of major leaguer-for-prospects trade the Rays are far more accustomed to.
There’s two primary reasons to justify Tampa Bay making their deals now and not during the last-minute chaos of the trade deadline. By shopping now, especially for the second-tier type of players they acquired, the Rays avoided any sort of July 31 bidding war that may have driven them away from the buyer’s mindset completely. But additionally, the team needs help now.
Thursday marked the start of a four-game stint against the Yankees, which kicks off a string of five consecutive series (17 games) against teams in playoff position. It’s the kind of measuring-stick stretch that management surely wishes came fully before the trade deadline, not in the middle.
Yet the team remained proactive and bolstered its bullpen and lineup. Instead of planning years ahead, the Rays planned for October. That alone makes this season a winning one.