Over the next few days, as we continue to get ready for the start of the regular season (the crowd goes wild), we are going to take a look at the rest of the American League East. We’ll look at what’s changed with each team, what’s stayed the same, and some best- and worst-case scenarios. We’ll be going in reverse order of last year’s standings, and today we’re looking at the Tampa Bay Rays.
The Rays are never a team to make big splashes in the winter, at least in terms of acquiring major, impact talent. They just never have that kind of budget, for reasons that vary depending on how much credit you’d like to give to their owners. This was a particularly busy winter for Tampa, though, mostly by the players they lost. The biggest change on the roster is the fact that Evan Longoria is no longer in Tampa, as the longtime face of the franchise was traded to the Giants in exchange for Denard Span and Christian Arroyo. It will be strange watching a Rays team without Longoria in the middle of the lineup. They also traded away arguably their best player from the 2017, Steven Souza. The outfielder was sent to Arizona in a three-team deal that also involved the Yankees. They also made another deal, this one looking like a salary dump, in which they sent Jake Odorizzi to the Twins for a middling prospect. In free agency, they lost 2017 breakout Logan Morrison and longtime midrotation arm Alex Cobb.
While Tampa Bay lost some iconic players for their franchise — or at least one icon and a few other good contributors from recent years — they also brought in a little bit middling talent. The aforementioned Span is going to be starting in the outfield, along with free agent signing Carlos Gomez. The team also traded for a new first baseman in C.J. Cron, who honestly may be the most boring first baseman in baseball in terms of overall performance. In the three-way deal they acquired starting pitching prospect Anthony Banda, who could come up at some point this season. Other than that, the Rays are going with the players already on the roster.
One other change comes in the form of strategy, not roster-building. Tampa Bay is bucking traditional norms with their rotation, carrying just four starting pitchers and planning on a bullpen day every fifth day. It’s a really bold strategy considering their rotation is questionable beyond the ace, which we’ll get to in a second. I have a feeling they’ll change course by the middle of May, but who knows. It’s not as if the Rays don’t have a smart front office.
What’s stayed the same
The pitching staff, at least in terms of names, is largely the same. Chris Archer was involved in trade rumors all winter, but the Rays opted to hold on to their ace for the time being. They’ll be hoping he can go deep into just about every game this season. This winter was also filled with trade rumors around Rays closer Alex Colomé, but they also held on to the 2017 saves leader. There’s a good chance he’ll be traded in July. Joining Archer in the rotation will be Blake Snell (a young pitcher with big upside and breakout potential but also fairly significant command issues), Nate Eovaldi (a former Yankee with big velocity but command issues of his own. Eovaldi also missed all of 2017 after undergoing Tommy John surgery), and Jacob Faria (a 24-year-old with only a half-season in the majors under his belt). That’s a lot of risk in the rotation for a team that will be relying on a few relievers to go multiple innings every five days.
The Rays lineup is going to have some new faces in it, but there is some familiarity as well. The team still has Kevin Kiermaier, who is probably the best defensive outfielder in baseball. He’s a solid hitter, too, but there’s a chance he could be their best hitter in 2018, which does not bode well for that lineup. They also have Brad Miller, who will be looking for a bounce back this year.
Chris Archer takes another step into the elite superstar tier of pitchers, Blake Snell polishes his command to give them a solid number two, their bullpen is lights out and they get just enough offense to get them into the mid-80s for wins and push for a wildcard berth.
Snell and Eovaldi can’t find the strike zone, the bullpen is completely worn out within six weeks, the offense can’t muster any production whatsoever and the Rays strip their team even more, trading Archer, Colomé and Kiermaier at the deadline.
Even though Tampa Bay added some current-year pieces to their team, it seems pretty clear that their eyes are on the future. There are a few scenarios that could lead to a winning year for this club, but I really can’t see it. Their lineup doesn’t look very intimidating at all and I don’t see them having enough pitching after Archer and Colomé to make up for it. This is, in my opinion, the clear choice to finish last in the division this year.