The Rays Came To A Fork In The Road And Took It

The Rays Bizarre Path To Two More Wins

The Tampa Bay Rays won the American League East in an albeit shortened 2020 season by seven full games over the New York Yankees. They went on to come within two victories of bringing a World Series Championship, a franchise first, back to St. Petersburg.

Two more wins…..

For the most part, outside of Aaron Loup, the entirety of the 2020 roster was under contract for 2021. Additionally, the franchise boasts the number one minor league system in all of baseball. It is the envy of most organizations.

Two more wins….

Sure, there were a few contract options and tender/non-tender decisions that needed to be made. From the point of few of two more wins, declining Mike Zunino‘s $4.5MM option was an easy call. Picking up Charlie Morton‘s $15MM seemed just as obvious decision but in the other direction.

Two more wins…..

As expected the Rays declined Zunino’s option. After all, hitting .147/.238/.360 in 2020 and a combined .161/.233/.323 over the past two seasons combined makes the decision not to pay the money. Production doesn’t equal the cost, despite glowing defensive work behind the plate.

Two more wins….

Charlie Morton, the vocal leader of the pitching staff, was under contract for $15MM in 2021. He was coming off a season which he missed time due to a sore shoulder but finished the season 2-2 with a 4.74 ERA over nine starts. Over his two years with the Rays, Morton had established himself at the top of the rotation finishing third in the AL Cy Young Award balloting in 2019.

In 2-years combined with the Rays, Morton made 42 starts and went 18-8 with a 3.33 ERA. He’ll pitch in 2021 at the age of 37, but it was still a surprise for a team needing just two more wins to decline the option and let him walk away leaving a big hole in the rotation.

Two more wins….

Not picking up the option on Charlie Morton stings. Watching him decide not to retire and signing with the Atlanta Braves for the same $15MM is a kick to the butt.

His departure leaves a welt on the psyche of the fans and a pit in the stomach of the rest of the Rays pitchers who looked up to him. To fill the void in the rotation, the Rays certainly have the ammunition to reach into the farm and acquire valued assets to plug into the 2021 roster. A quick glance around the diamond and first baseman Nate Lowe seems to be a candidate to be moved.

Lowe has little left to prove in the minors. In parts of two Triple-A season he hit .282/.401/.497 with 20 home runs spanning 516 plate appearances. In parts of two seasons at the big league level, Lowe has hit a respectable .251/.322/.447 with 11 homers spanning 245 plate appearances. Blocked by Ji-Man Choi at first base along with Yandy Diaz and others, surely, Lowe is the type of big league asset that could be used to add a viable member for the active roster in 2021, right?

Two more wins….

The Rays did trade Lowe to the Texas Rangers in a six player deal. Unfortunately, the return to St. Petersburg didn’t include Lance Lynn to help the rotation nor did it add Joey Gallo to add a big bat to the lineup. The Rays sent Lowe, minor leaguer Jake Guenther, and a player to be named later to the Texas Rangers in exchange for minor leaguers Heriberto Hernandez, Osleivis Basabe, and Alexander Ovalles. At the time of the trade, not one of the players was of legal age to drink alcohol in the United States nor had they progressed past Class-A baseball.

Two more wins….

There are plenty of catchers available this winter. Willson Contreras of the Chicago Cubs (trade candidate), James McCann, J.T. Realmuto, and other lower tier options like former Ray Curt Casali, Jason Castro, Tyler Flowers, Kurt Suzuki, and Yadier Molina.

While McCann and Realmuto and maybe even Molina are out of the Rays price range in dollars/years a trade for Contreras would fit the Rays team like a glove. A capable defensive backstop with two years of team control with a lifetime slash line of .265/.351/.463.

The Rays chose to re-sign Mike Zunino to a 1-year deal that will pay him $2MM and includes a second year option that will pay him between $4-$7MM (based on escalators) and includes a $1MM buyout.

Two more wins…..

It’s understandable that the Rays fans are frustrated in finding where the Rays are searching for those two more wins. The upgrade that was desperately needed at the catching position hasn’t been filled and the rotation still has a giant hole with the departure of Charlie Morton.

To fill that hole, the Rays signed Michael Wacha who had success from 2013-2018 with the St. Louis Cardinals making 127 starts going 53-32 with a 3.77 ERA. His career has fallen on hard times the last two seasons, 2019 with St. Louis and 2020 with the New York Mets. In those two seasons, Wacha went appeared in 37 games, made 31 starts, and posted an ugly 7-11 mark with a 5.15 ERA.

Like Morton, Wacha spent part of the 2020 season on the injured list with a sore shoulder, but that’s where the comparison ends. He finished the season with a 1-4 mark with a 6.62 ERA. The 6-foot 6-inch right hander will pitch next season at 29 year old and will hope that Kyle Snyder can turn his career around.

In other words, Wacha is a project. He may be end up being a suitable replacement for Morton, but for now he’s only a project, a wish, a hope, someone looking to relaunch their career.

Two more wins….

The Rays could still turn to the free agent/trade market to upgrade the catching position and starting rotation. A rotation of Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow, Ryan Yarbrough, Michael Wacha, and Josh Fleming could use one more established arm in the event of injury or poor performance. Ideally, the pitcher would be a suitable replacement for Charlie Morton.

Of course, the pitcher of the caliber the Rays should have been acquiring is the caliber of pitcher that the Rays shipped off. The Rays sent Blake Snell and his remaining three years of team control to the San Diego Padres in exchange for minor league pitcher Luis Patino, catcher Francisco Mejia, minor league catcher Blake Hunt, and minor league pitcher Cole Wilcox.

Two more wins….

The logical thinking when a team gets two wins from a Word Series victory is to chase those two wins. When the team that was two wins from a World Series victory is not facing a mass exodus due to free agency and has the number one farm system in baseball, the logical thinking is that team will push all it’s chips into the center of the table and try like hell to bring home those two more wins in 2021.

Whether or not the Rays have made all the right choices this off-season will be interesting to watch. Will Nate Lowe turn into the hitter many had envisioned as he crushed minor league pitching as he flew up the ladder of the Rays minor league system? Will Michael Wacha find his 2013-2018 form with the guidance of pitching coach Kyle Snyder? Will the catching tandem of Mike Zunino and Francisco Mejia (and maybe Kevan Smith) provide enough offense? Will Blake Snell find his 2018 form with the Padres in 2021 or more importantly, will the Rays starting staff find a suitable replacement to compete in 2021?

Two more wins….

The answers to these questions have very little to do with the present day reaction from Rays fans who don’t understand how a team two wins away from a World Series Championship can act completely against what logically should have happened.

The instant analysis, and it’s what I call the lazy armchair reaction, is to just say that owner Stu Sternberg want’s the payroll trimmed due to the loss of revenue sharing and other forms of revenue from the Covid impacted 2020 season.

Of course, the front office is given a budget to operate with and certainly the number is driving some of the moves. With that said, there are other variables and dynamics at play with Blake Snell that can be discussed at a later time. Most fans may not hear the logic and reasoning as we sit today which is understandable given the “two more wins” mentality.

Two more wins….

The Rays probably aren’t done this off-season in trading away players nor are they done acquiring players. Trying to predict the direction that the front office ultimately will take over the next several months is nearly impossible.

It’s almost certain that Kevin Kiermaier will be moved this off-season. There are more forces at work than just trimming payroll. When Kiermaier is traded the lazy reaction will be that it’s just another cost-cutting move by the stingy Sternberg, but that won’t be the only reason.

Two more wins….

It’s possible that the front office is playing a long game this off-season. Maybe they see the lackluster free agent market for starting pitching and center field as an opportunity to maximize the value for two of their assets.

Could the front office have soured on the overall ability of Snell? Does the Rays front office believe that the weight of the 2018 Cy Young season is being overvalued by other front offices? Do they have medical concerns about Snells elbow which has landed him on the injured list in 2019 and 2020? The Rays have been quite adept at knowing when to move on from a player, even those under longer term contracts (Matt Moore, Chris Archer, and Evan Longoria). While the return of the aforementioned players may be debatable, the moving the player at the right time can not be argued.

For Kiermaier, his defensive prowess may begin to deteriorate some as he enters his age 31 season. His bat doesn’t profile like other center fielders that could move to a corner and still remain productive. Not to suggest that Kiermaier is on the downward slope, but there is reason to believe the aging curve could be in his near future.

Two more wins…..

As the calendar turns to 2021 the Rays will most certainly have a few more tricks up their sleeve. The front office is strategically trying to make up the two wins they lacked in 2020. The path they are taking, like so many things the Rays organization has done over the years, is very unconventional.

Unconventional doesn’t mean it won’t work….but dammit, why do the fans have to go through the pain of watching their favorite players depart to other organizations.

The frustration of all signs pointing to cheap ownership….past success be damned. Emotions almost always overtake logic, in fandom it’s no different.

The destination for the Rays player also always seems like the grassier other side of the fence, although it seldom is.