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American League East Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

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Can they maintain the success they had towards the end of 2018?

MLB: Spring Training-Tampa Bay Rays at Philadelphia Phillies Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

With only a little more than a week left until Opening Day for most teams (and only a couple days away from Opening Day for the Mariners and A’s) it’s time to really start looking forward to the coming season. With that in mind, we’ll spend this week looking at the rest of the competition in the division, going in reverse order of last year’s standings. Then, on Friday we’ll take a broader look at the rest of the American League. Today, we discuss the Rays.

Projections

Fangraphs: 84-78

Baseball Prospectus: 85-77

The Lineup

Looking at how the Rays offense projects to shape up in 2019, they have one of the most fascinating groups in the league. They aren’t anywhere close to as loaded as some of the other top teams around baseball, but they have some under-the-radar names all over the diamond. They are also set up to mix and match based on matchups pretty much every day, which will certainly help Kevin Cash get the most production possible out of each player.

The biggest issue with Tampa’s lineup is they don’t really have that core guy in the middle who can make everything go even when the team is slumping. Instead, they rely on depth and hope to get production from every spot in the lineup. Joey Wendle had an extremely underrated rookie campaign in 2018 and will likely be in the middle of their lineup. Tommy Pham is solid and entering his first full season with the team and Mike Zunino is a new addition with huge power behind the plate. Tampa also has high-upside former top prospects in Austin Meadows and Willy Adames, both of whom could be big breakouts this coming year. Add in a platoon bat like Ji-Man Choi who showed great power last year and new addition Yandy Diaz who should play against most lefties, and there is a potential for a tremendously balanced attack.

Last season, the Rays were in the middle of the pack in runs scored but just outside the top five in wRC+. They certainly have a realistic shot at being somewhere in that area in 2019, though I’d guess they’ll move down a bit. Tampa got something close to the best-case scenario for a lot of the guys discussed above last year, and it’s hard to expect that twice in a row. It’s entirely possible I’m just underrating the true-talent level of these players, but I see the overall group as simply good instead of pushing the top five in the league.

MLB: Spring Training-Toronto Blue Jays at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Rotation

The 2018 Rays are going to be remembered for a long time, not because they surprisingly won 90 games but instead because they were the first team to consistently use openers in game action. That was a move made out of necessity (and a lack of interest in acquiring actual starting pitchers) after two top prospects, Jose De Leon and Brent Honeywell, suffered season-ending injuries. Looking ahead to 2019, it probably won’t be used as much. They are headed by the reigning Cy Young winner Blake Snell, who almost certainly has some regression coming his way. The good news for Tampa and the bad news for the rest of the league is there is a lot of room for him to regress and still be a handful for the American League.

After Snell it drops off, but there’s still talent. Charlie Morton signed with the Rays this offseason and has been well above-average for two years in a row now. Tyler Glasnow has some strides to reach his full potential, but the upside is there. Those are the three clear regular starters for them, with Yonny Chirinos, Ryan Yarbrough and Jalen Beeks likely contributing as the long men in opener games. The aforementioned De Leon and Honeywell should also be up and starting games at some point this year.

This is going to be the strength for the Rays in 2019, and if they are going to compete for a wildcard spot like many expect them to it will be because the rotation pitches up to its potential. If Snell has another season close to 2018 and proves he’s one of the best pitchers in the game, they will be well on their way to that. If, instead, he pitches more like a second or third tier pitcher, they can still be good but their upside is cut dramatically.

The Bullpen

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the team who popularized the opener isn’t keen on using traditional bullpen roles. The closest thing they have to a closer is Jose Alvarado, who somewhat quietly had a big breakout year in 2018. If the lefty can continue to keep his walk rate down — something he has done in the majors but didn’t do in the minors — he is going to be a stud for a long time. After him, there is a mess of guys like Ryne Stanek, Chaz Roe, Diego Castillo and Emilio Pagan who are good but not quite elite. Alvarado will probably determine just how good this unit can be, but all in all I think this is a group that is better than the name value for most of the relievers would suggest.

Overall

The way the Rays played in the second half last year has a lot of people excited for 2019, and their roster is certainly good enough to be a legitimate wildcard contender. Their pitching in particular is scary, and Kevin Cash will manage it well. That being said, I worry about a limited ceiling for their offense and some regression coming on the pitching side. I expect them to be in the race again, but right now I wouldn’t pick them to be one of the playoff teams in the AL.