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Evolution or Revolution: Tampa Bay Rays

 

Evolution or Revolution is a series that examines whether a team needs a few tweaks or a fundamental reboot. In this edition, we focus on the Rays’ run to the World Series, the challenges they’re facing this offseason and whether it’s time to Wander.  

By: Graham Bell

In a year that would see crowds restricted in Major League ballparks, it seems obvious now that the franchise to benefit most would be one perfectly accustomed to playing in front of rows of empty seats.

And usually, when talking about the club with the No. 1-rated farm system, it is hard to believe there could be any suggestion but it being a case of evolution.

But this is the Tampa Bay Rays – baseball’s perennial low-payroll masters. Despite claiming a second American League pennant, they’ve already declined options on a host of players this offseason, citing pandemic concerns on the bottom line, and hopes of getting ‘creative’ to keep their current stars.

The Rays will move on without ALCS Game 7 starter Charlie Morton, who signed with the Atlanta Braves.

Charlie Morton, who many expected to retire as a Ray, was the first to take his talents (and $15 million-a-year contract) elsewhere. Now the rumor mill finds itself in full churn on the rest of the roster.

So where do the Rays stand? Our adjusted team rankings, which is calculated using a model that combines each club’s Raw Value data (of which we’ll have more later) into a single ranking system, had the Rays as ‘only’ MLB’s 10th-best team in 2020, so there’s certainly room for growth.

Tampa Bay Rays, 2020OffenseRotationBullpenOverall
Adjusted Team Rankings207510

In AL Manager of the Year Kevin Cash, Tampa Bay boasts one of the most creative minds on the bench, so let’s take a deeper dive into what he might have at his disposal rolling into 2021.

SNELL AND THE STABLE A MUST

After a disappointing 2019, Blake Snell was back near his Cy Young-winning best during the curtailed season, going 4-2 with a 3.24 ERA in 11 starts while recording a Raw Value- of 90 – above the league average.

Blake Snell showed glimpses of his 2018 AL Cy Young form this season.

As a reminder, Raw Value- (RV-) examines how a pitcher performs throughout each pitch of an at-bat rather than just the end result, while Raw Value+ (RV+) does the same from a batter’s perspective. The lower the number, the better for pitchers. Conversely, for batters it’s the higher the better. And the league average for both is 100.

A lot of that can be contributed to Snell’s elite Extreme Chase+, which measures a pitcher’s ability to generate swings on pitches far off the plate. Snell finished fourth in the majors in that metric among those who threw at least 500 pitches, even though he was 12th in overall swing and miss percentage.

The offseason has been filled with rumors that the Rays were open to trading Snell. If that were to happen, the starting rotation would be lacking a bit in experience despite still having Tyler Glasnow, who finished with a solid RV- of 78 and ranked second in MLB in Extreme Chase+.

Former first-round picks Brendan McKay and Shane McClanahan, and long-time prospect Brent Honeywell are options in 2021 if Snell does move on.

Where the Rays’ strength in 2020 came was in the bullpen, or the ‘Stable’ as they became known. Tampa relievers recorded the third-best ERA (3.37) in the majors as 12 (count ‘em) different arms recorded saves. Nick Anderson might have flamed out a little come the postseason, but the right-hander delivered an RV- of 44 during the 60-game regular season.

SWING AND MAINLY MISS

Now let’s get this out the way early – the Rays like to swing the bat. A lot. The high-risk, high-reward strategy saw the team record the league’s most strikeouts (608) during the course of the regular season. However, they were somewhat surprisingly second in the majors in base on balls (243 – eight behind the Yankees).

Randy Arozarena celebrates after homering in Game 7 of the ALCS.

In some ways, that truly encapsulated the Rays’ offensive performance, which ranked 21st by our RV+ metric at a below-league-average 95. The decision to decline Mike Zunino’s (58 RV+) option and release Hunter Renfroe will go some way to improving that mark.

There’s no doubt that Randy Arozarena was the break-out star of the team’s run to the World Series. He set Major League records for most hits, home runs and total bases in a single postseason – all this despite being a rookie. This bookended an impressive display that saw the Cuban lead the team in RV+ (140) after being picked up from the Cardinals in January, a decision that leaves those in St. Louis still scratching their head.

Brandon Lowe (as in WOW) continues to put together strong performances, leading the team in runs (36), hits (52), homers (14) and RBI (37) while finishing with an RV+ of 128. Meanwhile, Austin Meadows will be hoping to bounce back from a season that was derailed by COVID and oblique issues. He suffered a near-90-point drop in his batting average from an impressive 2019 campaign.

The seemingly annual concern about who will be behind the plate looks set to continue as the Rays are without a single catcher who appeared in a game for them in 2020. Prospect Ronaldo Hernandez might be a preferable option as a backup, and while dreams of J.T. Realmuto (111 RV+) coming to the Sunshine State are likely to be just that – a dream. It’s more likely a one-year stopgap will once again fill the spot.

STATS PERFORM VERDICT – A WANDER-FUL REVOLUTION

It’s impossible to talk about the Rays in 2021 without mentioning one of the most-hyped prospects of all time. Wander Franco hasn’t played above High-A ball yet, but the 19-year-old is probably the only player in the whole Rays system who isn’t available in a trade right now.

While some might be wanting to use 2020 as a springboard, the Rays need to focus on winning down the line. There’s little point in putting a financial strain on the franchise now, which could have a negative impact on the roster in the years to come.

Tampa Bay has never been shy of making these big impactful changes. David Price, Evan Longoria, Chris Archer – all faces of the franchise; all traded away. After the success of 2020, this feels like a one-year shot to do something similar. Improve the offense, sort out the catching situation, re-tool the starting rotation and get ready for the Wander years.

 

Data modeling provided by Lucas Haupt.

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