Can the rebuilt Rays be as good as last year?

by Gary Shelton on January 11, 2020

in general

Willie Adames relaxes by the dugout./CHUCK MULLER

Saturday, 4 a.m.

The annual rebuilding of a team comes with new hope. It comes with disappointing losses. It comes with farewells and hellos and questions about the chemistry involved.

And, for the lower-priced teams on the market, it comes with a simple question.

Will this team be as good as last year's team was?

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For the Tampa Bay Rays, that's the only question that matters. Can this be a 90-plus win team again (as it has been for the last two seasons)? Can it make a legitimate playoff run? Can it hold your interest through a long season?

All it all, you'd have to say that the Rays had a decent off-season. Avoiding hefty payroll increases? Check. Adding power? Check. Reloading the farm system? Check. Add in injured players who have healed, and the Rays should be legit again. Shouldn't they?

Look, we will all miss Tommy Pham, the outfielder in the perpetually bad mood. Pham wasn't a great player -- his misadventures on the base paths could fill a blooper film -- but he added some serious intensity to the team's soup. He was a serious man who played baseball in a serious manner, and that will be missed. But Pham was due to make about $8.5 million this year. That's too rich for a left-fielder.

Personally, I'll miss Travis d'Arnaud, the catcher. He had a run of big hits for the Rays last year, and he made himself a rich man because of it. Again, his game merited more money than the Rays were going to pay. I liked Avi Garcia, but instead of nickels, he'll make quarters.

This is the bane of the Rays. They always have to operate with an eye on the balance sheet. Some teams don't. Do you think the Red Sox would worry about an outfielder making $8.5 million a season? The Yankees? The Dodgers?

When the rest of us look at a Rays' trade, then, we always have to be aware of the underlying factor of payroll. It isn't enough to wonder if Hunter Renfroe and his power was worth Pham. You have to wonder if Renfroe and his check are preferable to Pham and his?

Personally, I liked the Rays latest trade of minor leaguer Matt Liberatore (and change) for the Cardinals' Jose Martinez (and change). Why not? I've never seen Liberatore, and while you like the team collecting nice prospects in the minors, all of them aren't going to pan out. Martinez has been a hitter in his career. He should go a long way toward replacing Pham.

But the measure of a team is greater than the sum of its parts. Last year's team exceeded expectations because of its record in close games, because of its walk offs, because of its resiliency in the face of injuries. Will this team? At this point, no one knows.

So bottom line: Is this team better because of its off-season? Maybe slightly. I don't think it wins 100. But it should win more than 90. Agreed?

Position by position, the Rays

First base: The temptation for some will be to put Martinez here. But his defense (or lack of it) may make him a designated hitter. After all, Ji-Man Choi had a good year at first. Both should ensure that Nate Lowe spends more time in the minors.

Second base: The Rays may have overpaid for Brandon Lowe, but when he's healthy, Lowe has surprising pop. He had 17 home runs and hit .260 last season. He'll share time with Joey Wendle, a nice little player.

Shortstop: Willy Adames may take over as the star of this team. He had a 20-homer season in 2019, and he plays a very good shortstop.

Third base: Matt Duffy isn't healthy often enough, but when he is, he's a good player. When he's not, Yandy Diaz can always fill in. No one knows where Japanese star Yoshitomo Tsutsugo will end up, but his power suggests it'll be somewhere in the lineup. He's had six straight 20 home run seasons.

Left field: The Rays often treat players like a stock. They like players coming off of bad seasons. Enter Hunter Renfroe, who hit only .216 despite his 33 homers. He should add pop to the lineup if not enough average.

Center field: Kevin Kiermaier remains one of the best defensive center fielders in the game. But he hit only .228 last year. Could he be moved? Only if the Rays are off to a bad start this season.

Right field: Austin Meadows hit 33 home runs last year and had a .293 average. He'll be pushed to equal that, but he's still a solid player. If the Rays are to pick up another player still, a right fielder makes sense.

Catcher; Mike Zunino hit .165 last season, a criminally low average. He has to be better or the Rays have to pick a player up.

Pitching: The Rays, for once, didn't go into the off-season searching for arms. Maybe that's because they have the big three of Charlie Morton, Blake Snell (bad last year) and Tyler Glasnow. They also have Brandon McKay, Yonny Chirinos and Brent Honeywell. The bullpen should be in decent shape, unlike last season when it was rebuilt during the season.

Prospects: The Rays added to their up and coming players with former Padres' prospect Xavier Edwards and former Cardinals' outfielder Randy Arozarena. Both should contribute soon.

Bottom line: The Rays had one of those magical seasons last year despite their injuries. To have another, they'll have to be a little more dangerous at the plate and their pitching has to hold up. Snell in particular has to be a very good pitcher even if he's not Cy Young worthy.

Yes, it should be an interesting year.

Interesting enough?

Stay tuned.

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