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Rays Find a New Sense of Urgency to Heat Up the Race for the AL East

In trading for slugger Nelson Cruz, Tampa Bay showed a willingness to be aggressive buyers in an attempt to win back-to-back pennants.
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En route to its second World Series appearance in franchise history last year, the Rays made a couple of low-key moves leading up to the trade deadline that ended up having outsized effects not even Nostradamus could have foreseen.

The first was linking up with the Royals to acquire Brett Phillips, whose inexplicable walk-off single in Game 4 of the World Series won the team 2020’s game of the year. The second was trading Jose Martinez to the Cubs to make room on the 25-man roster for Randy Arozarena, who emerged as the face of the 2020 Rays while setting the MLB record for postseason home runs.

While those would end up qualifying as significant transactions in hindsight, they barely caused a blip on the radar of most observers. On Thursday, the Rays ramped up the pressure on their competitors and executed what probably qualifies as the splashiest ‘win-now’ deadline deal in franchise history. By acquiring veteran slugger Nelson Cruz from the Minnesota Twins in the first blockbuster deal of July, Tampa Bay greatly boosted their chances of returning to the Fall Classic with a move to match the urgency the moment requires.

Tampa Bay, with its shoestring payrolls and analytical front office, has never been the sort of team to shop for expensive upgrades in the middle of the season.

In 2008, despite the Rays competing in a playoff race for the first time in the organization’s 11-year history, then-GM Andrew Friedman elected to stand pat at the deadline. His team rewarded his trust with the franchise’s first World Series appearance.

In 2009, however, the Rays failed to build on their pennant-winning squad. With Tampa Bay (48–41) 3.5 games behind the Yankees in the wild-card race at the All-Star break, Friedman again entered August with nothing to show from the trade market. The Rays finished in third place at 84–78, 11 games out of the playoffs. In fact, the franchise's only deadline deal to ever pay immediate, direct dividends came in 2018, when Chris Archer’s departure to Pittsburgh brought back Tyler Glasnow, in addition to Austin Meadows and top prospect Shane Baz. Glasnow pitched well down the stretch in another failed playoff chase. But that deal, as lopsided as it’s turned out to be, was more about selling Archer than acquiring pieces to win in the moment.

Now, however, the Rays have gone and displayed a true buyer’s attitude in July for the first time. The reasons are aplenty—a desire for sustained success, San Diego’s reported interest in Cruz, drawing fans to avoid relocation—yet it’s still a remarkable turn of events.

Minnesota Twins designated hitter Nelson Cruz (23) during the game against the Minnesota Twins at Comerica Park.

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The Rays, who opened the season with MLB’s fifth-lowest payroll at $66.7 million, will take on approximately $5 million more in Cruz’s salary. They also lose a couple of talented, starter-caliber arms in Joe Ryan and Drew Strotman, ranked by MLB.com as Tampa Bay’s No. 10 and No. 17 prospects, respectively, before the trade. But this is a deal worth making for an organization with the top-ranked farm system in baseball.

Cruz immediately becomes their best hitter. He’ll likely be the best hitter traded before next Friday’s deadline. And his fit in Tampa Bay, which has seemingly become the place to be for 40-somethings seeking professional sports championships, could hardly be better.

The 41-year-old’s 279 home runs since 2014 are the most in the majors. This year, he’s batting .294/.370/.537 with 19 homers, which is tied for the second most among designated hitters this year. Rays DHs, meanwhile, have ranked in the bottom five in home runs, batting average and OPS this season. Boomstick will also certainly better Tampa Bay’s effectiveness against left-handed pitchers after the Rays ranked 26th in the majors in OPS against southpaws thus far. On an offense with an MLB-high 26.5% strikeout rate, Cruz’s 18.2% strikeout rate (70th percentile) will add some much-needed contact into the mix.

“We expect [Cruz] to make us a much more formidable, offensive group,” general manager Erik Neander told the Tampa Bay Times’ Marc Topkin. “It’s an impact bat that’s been one of the best bats in baseball … As good a bat as you’re going to find, as good a bat as we’ve had here.”

How the Rays construct the lineup around their new full-time DH is unclear. Meadows, whose 47 games at DH were the most of the seven different players who’d gotten starts there, leads the Rays with 66 RBIs and is second on the team in plate appearances and OPS (.788). He could take one of the full-time corner outfield spots and push Manuel Margot into a center field platoon with Kevin Kiermaier, whose .236/.291/.330 slash line is offsetting his Gold Glove caliber defense. Or perhaps Meadows, who has a .904 OPS against righties and a .580 OPS against lefties, moves into a platoon role himself. Either way, the Rays are really improving the offensive output at both DH and an outfield spot.

Every little bit will help Tampa avoid the wild-card game. The Rays and Red Sox look to be locked in a fierce battle for the AL East. Both clubs pulled out extra-innings 5–4 victories Thursday night to keep Boston’s divisional lead at one game.

The two teams could also be set to compete over the next week on the phone lines. Boston’s biggest weakness—its rotation—will soon be addressed by the return of Chris Sale, who made a rehab start in Double-A on Tuesday. But beyond Sale and Nathan Eovaldi, it’s hard to imagine Red Sox manager Alex Cora fully trusts any of his starters to avoid a blow-up in a playoff game. With the injured Glasnow’s status unclear, Tampa Bay’s two most reliable starters are 41-year-old Rich Hill and rookie Shane McClanahan. They too would benefit from another reliable starter, even if Glasnow returns with a clean bill of health.

Could the Rays maintain this newfound aggressive attitude into an acquisition for a pending free agent such as Rangers All-Star Kyle Gibson or Colorado’s Jon Gray? They certainly have the advantage over their rivals in terms of what they can offer in return—even if the front office is restricted from adding more payroll, the prospects at Neander's disposal could convince trade partners to remain responsible for most of the salary of whichever starter heads to the Trop. It’s just a matter of whether the defending AL champs are willing to act like the boldest buyers on the market. It’d be a new look for an organization that may be realizing it needs to be more assertive to win its first World Series—and further bolster Tampa's Titletown credentials.

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