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It sometimes feels as if the thrifty Rays, trading and trading and trading in an endless quest for incremental improvements, are trying to win an episode of Flea Market Flip just as much as the AL East.
They made three of the winter’s more interesting deals. First they sent outfielder Tommy Pham to San Diego for outfielder Hunter Renfroe (33 homers in 2019) and high-A shortstop Xavier Edwards, 20, with prospects filling out the deal. Tampa Bay not only got younger but also turned Pham’s one remaining season of control into Renfroe’s four. The Rays then sent a top pitching prospect, ’18 first-rounder Matthew Liberatore, to the Cardinals for outfielders José Martínez, 31, and Randy Arozarena, a 25-year-old from Cuba. Finally, closer Emilio Pagán went to the Padres for centerfielder Manuel Margot, 25, and a prospect.
While these deals crowd the Rays’ roster (even with the addition of a 26th spot, pitchers are capped at 13), they create platoon options for a team whose lefthanded batters need help. Against lefties last year, first baseman Ji-Man Choi (.629 OPS) and second baseman Brandon Lowe (.674) struggled, while centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier has a .298 career OBP against southpaws. The model here might be the ’14 A’s, who made the playoffs while platooning at four spots (the most possible with 13 position players).
Whoever fills out the Rays’ outfield, their defense should be elite. Kiermaier is one of the best of his generation; Margot, in three seasons in the majors, has been a vacuum in center; and Renfroe gunned down 13 base runners from the corner spots last season. Tampa Bay pitchers also had the second-best strikeout rate and third-best walk rate in baseball last year. With full seasons from top-line starters Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow, the Rays could very well allow the fewest runs in the AL. — Joe Sheehan
Projected Record: 94-68, 2nd in AL East
Thanks to the league’s best pitching staff, the Rays ended a five-year playoff drought in 2019. The bats they added this winter will keep them contending in ’20 and beyond.
Key Question: Can the Rays catch New York?
Tampa Bay is the most resourceful organization in baseball, and after another strong offseason, the Rays should be a playoff team again in 2020. How they get there has yet to be determined, but it will be tough for them (and everyone else) to skirt the Yankees. — Matt Martell
Moving Up: Brendan McKay, SP/DH
The first U.S. prospect developed as a two-way player in 50 years, the lefty made 11 starts (56 K’s in 49 IP) in 2019 but had only two hits in 10 at bats.
Moving Down: Kevin Kiermaier, OF
As great as Kiermaier is in centerfield, he has hit .223 with a .666 OPS since the start of ’18. He turns 30 in April, so his defense may tail off, too.
Watchability Ranking: Please Watch
Take last year’s fun squad and add in a full season of Brendan McKay, a likely promotion for Brent Honeywell, Jr. (he has a screwball!), and the roster trickery needed to accommodate this many DH-types (Yoshitomo Tsutugo, José Martinez, Nate Lowe), and you’re looking at some quality entertainment. — Emma Baccellieri
Preview of the 2030 Preview
Wander Franco, 2B: A huge fan favorite in Charlotte since the Bofas (never open up naming to a fan vote) moved to town in ’28, Franco has the AL’s lowest strikeout percentage each of the last three seasons. Toss in the double-digit homers and .300-plus batting average and you have one of the best players in the game—and the signature superstar the Bofas never kept when they were in Tampa Bay. When you lead the league in attendance three years running (average: 3.7 million) you can afford a top-five payroll. — Craig Goldstein