Roster Requires Upgrades, But All Is Quiet In San Diego
The Tampa Bay Rays are still in search of offensive upgrades with the most glaring need in the outfield and designated hitter. They could also stand to improve the offensive footprint of the catching tandem.
“This is always, this setting, with everyone here under one roof, it does serve as a catalyst for conversations and activities.” Rays Senior Vice President and General Manager Erik Neander said. “I think in that respect I would fully expect us to have conversations with clubs to see if we can push some things forward. And certainly free agents as well.”
As most clubs will wrap up their operations tonight and spend Thursday flying back to their respective cities there hasn’t been even a careless whisper about what the Rays may be up to.
Neander believes the Rays are prepared in terms of the way the club see the players that are possibilities for them. “Typically, it always takes two but we’re usually ready to act and more than happy to act quickly if its there.”
Before thinking about acquisitions, it’s fair to ask about the budget and the team’s willingness to spend. Principal owner Stu Sternberg notes that after the 2008 World Series appearance the team spent on Pat Burrell and the team went flat in 2009. He also looks at the other side as the Boston Red Sox won 108 games and the World Series and returned basically the same unit in 2019 and won just 84 games.
“With that as a background we’ve learned that standing pat isn’t necessarily an ideal way to operate.” Sternberg said. “And when you have success you’re more opt to stand pat and when you have a bad situation, you’re more apt to blow stuff up. Neither are good scenarios.:
So what does this mean for the Rays and their 2020 payroll. Sternberg notes that the team, as always, will go into the offseason with a measured approach. If the Rays had a team motto it would certainly be always operate with one eye on today and the other on the future (see the Tommy Pham to San Diego trade).
Sternberg acknowledges that trading Pham makes it hard to imagine the team being better in 2020 than they were in 2019, but says “they have plans in place and things we’ll try and do and I think we’ll try and execute.”
The Rays saved approximately $5MM by trading Tommy Pham to the San Diego Padres. When asked if the Rays would reallocate that money into the 2020 payroll, Sternberg noted that isn’t the way he views it saying the team isn’t going to reallocate it just because it’s there. “By the same token,” Sternberg notes ” we anticipate this year spending more money than we did last year. We anticipate that, we expect that, so now it’ll be spent in a different way.”
“We’re very open to spending. We believe we’re going to spend money, but clearly we’re going to fish in a pond that we’re used to fishing in. The nice part is that we don’t have to think about the [Anthony] Rendon’s and [Stephen] Strasburg’s and those other guys. We can focus on the other guys.”
Catching Improvement In Depth And Quality Required:
If the season opened today, the catching position would be the same tandem that opened 2019 with Mike Zunino getting the bulk of the work with Micheal Perez serving as the backup. Promising prospect Ronaldo Hernandez is also on the 40-man roster but he spent the entirety of the 2019 season with the High-A Charlotte Stone Crabs and will open the season with the Double-A Montgomery Biscuits. He is probably at least a year away from helping Tampa Bay at the big league level.
Zunino struggled with the bat for the second year in a row batting .165/.232/.312 with 9 homers in 289 plate appearances while throwing out 39% of base runners attempting to steal (league average 27%).
Perez showed to be a capable backup early in the season hitting .265/.370/.385 in 46 plate appearances before hitting the injured list with a strained oblique in early May. When healthy he was optioned to the Triple-A Durham Bulls where he hit .245/.338/.495 with 13 homers in 216 plate appearances. He returned to the Rays in September and went hitless in his nine plate appearances. He only threw out 21% of baserunners attempting to steal.
Neander still considers the catching position an area where the team can upgrade but won’t force anything. He expects better seasons from Zunino and Perez based on the same reasons why the front office was excited about going into last season. “At the same time, we are trying to be diligent and if we can get better there either by an established major league player or by increasing the competition for Mickey’s (Perez) spot.” Neander said. “Those are two ways to do and I think we’ll be open to which direction, whatever direction that takes on.”
As the meetings near wrapping up Neander admits that the Rays have had more conversations about outfielders than catchers. “There aren’t that many catchers so there are only so many conversations you can have.”
Limited Number Of True Outfielders On Roster:
“We have a lot of infielders are capable of kicking out there as well and that can be part of the mix.” Neander said. “I think certainly where we stand today that’s a unit or a position group that we almost certainly need to increase our numbers and ideally we do that in a way that also increases the quality of that group.”
Meadows had a fantastic 2019 season batting .291/.364/.558 with 33 homers but was a below average defensive outfielder with -6 defensive runs saved. He was able to hit both right-handed pitching (.298/.384/.576) and left-handed pitching (.275/.316/.521).
Hunter Renfroe, acquired from the San Diego Padres, has immense power potential. In 2018 he appeared in 140 games logging 494 plate appearances batting .216/.289/.489 with 33 home runs. He supplements the power with elite defense across all three outfield positions registering 22 defensive runs saved in 2019 and was second in MLB with 13 assists. Renfroe struggled against right-handed pitching in 2019 (.208/.274/.459) but excelled against left-handed pitching (.239/.331/.575).
Kevin Kiermaier struggled with the bat in 2019 hitting .228/.278/.398 with 14 homers and 19 stolen bases. In an a complete reversal from his career he hit left-handed pitching (.311/.341/.443) much better than right handed pitching (.197/.254/.382). He is an elite defender, winning his second gold glove, finishing 2019 with 13 defensive runs saved.
Brian O’Grady only appeared in 28 games for the Cincinnati Reds in 2019, his first taste of the big leagues, and hit ..190 (8-for-42) with a pair of homers. With the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians he hit .280/.359/.550 with 28 homers and 20 stolen bases. While with Indianapolis in 2019 he played all three outfield positions along with first base and third base. “A left handed hitting option that has that kind of versatility that can cover first and cover the corners.” Neander said. “A nice guy to have in the mix to come in to compete and us to get to know him better before making any decisions about how exactly how he fits but we’re excited to have him right now.”
Of course, Avisail Garcia also added 869.1-innings in the outfield for the Rays and he remains unsigned on the free agent market. Would the Rays be interested in a reunion in 2020? Neander says that “that those (Garcia and Eric Sogard) that we’ll continue to talk to and if there’s a way to keep them here that makes sense for both sides. Without setting any expectation. No doors have been closed.”
Like many other teams, the Rays like to use the designated hitter as a flex position. Somewhere to roll guys in and out to give them a half day off. Could the Rays look to sign or trade for more of a bat to be their designated hitter in 2020? “Certainly a possibility. the DH spot is afforded to American League clubs to put as much offense into that position as possible without regard to much else.” Neander said. ” It is nice to have the freedom to move guys through it but it’s also nice to fully leverage that role and not just use it as a place to give guys a half a day off.”
Currently, with Ji-Man Choi the better glove at first base, against right handed pitching the perfect designated hitter candidate would be Nate Lowe. Lowe made his big league debut for Tampa Bay in 2019 and appeared in 50 games batting .263/.325/.454 with seven homers spanning 169 plate appearances.
How Aggressive Will Rays Be?
The free agent market and trade market has a glut of players that could help the Rays in 2020 and beyond. Some will cost more in terms of prospects or in terms of dollars and in some cases both. Coming off a 96-win season and chasing the Yankees in the AL East, the question is how aggressive will Tampa Bay be in filling the holes on their roster?
“I guess it just kind of depends on what aggressive means.” Neander said. “You want to be disciplined, you don’t want to be stubborn. You want to cherish opportunities while your really good to leverage them but that’s the balance we always have to strike. We do like where we are at competitively near term or long term.”