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Previewing the AL East: Tampa Bay Rays

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The Rays rotation consists of two All Stars and some “openers.” Will it be enough?

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Rays face the same obstacle that plagues the Orioles year after year. They’re in the same division as the Red Sox and Yankees, but cannot spend like either of their divisional foes. Unlike Baltimore, the Rays have applied out-of-the-box strategies to stay relevant over the years.

In an AL East that held multiple 100-game winners, Tampa Bay still managed to win 90 games last year. The Rays finished the year 11-8 against the Orioles, but failed to reach the postseason. Again, when multiple teams in one division win 100 games, it’s going to be difficult to claim a wild card. Tampa should have the upper hand over Baltimore again this season, and it should be in the mix for a wild card spot.

Additions and Subtractions

If I told you a team’s biggest free agent signing was a two-year contract for a 35-year-old pitcher, you probably wouldn’t think much of the deal. It seems more like an addition the rebuilding Orioles would make to gobble up some innings, as opposed to a high profile signing by a competitor. But the Rays have high hopes for Charlie Morton, and he’s worth quite a lot to them.

Tampa signed Morton to a two-year, $30 million deal to slide in as its number two starter. The former Pirate recaptured some magic over the last two years with the Houston Astros. Last year, he pitched to a 15-3 record with a 3.13 and earned his first All Star selection at age 34. Morton slides right in to replace Chris Archer after he was dealt to the Pirates last July.

The Rays bullpen will be without Sergio Romo. The reliever saved 25 games for Tampa last year and even started five games (more on that later). The Rays added third baseman/outfielder Yandy Diaz.

Starting Rotation

Morton may be the new “kid” on the block, but every conversation about the Rays starting rotation has to start with Blake Snell. Snell dominated any and all competition last season while posting a 21-5 record with an outrageously low 1.89 ERA. Snell, in only his third season, was named an American League All Star before eventually capturing the AL Cy Young award. The 26-year-old lefty enters the season as the staff ace and one of the best pitchers in baseball right now.

While Snell and Morton both look to replicate strong performances, Tyler Glasnow hopes this will be his breakout season. Glasnow, who came from Pittsburgh in the Archer deal, flashed greatness in the minors, but has yet to put it all together at the major league level. Many were surprised Pittsburgh threw in the towel on the 25-year-old, but the price is always high for top pitching talent at the trade deadline.

The back end of the Rays rotation is a bit unclear due to their use of an “opener.” The Rays made headlines throughout 2018 after they began using relievers to open games instead of a traditional starting pitcher. Opposing lineups often struggled when they only faced a pitcher one time, but the grand experiment will be under a microscope once again this season. Other teams, including the Orioles, may look to implement the strategy at some point this year.

The Bullpen

The use of an “opener” also blurs the line when examining the Rays bullpen. Romo is gone, but the club won’t miss his 4.14 ERA. José Alvarado enters the season as the de facto closer, but not everyone wants to see the 23-year-old power arm shutting down games in the ninth.

Earlier this month, Snell made headlines campaigning for the stingy Rays to sign free agent closer Craig Kimbrel. Kimbrel remains on the open market with just over a week before opening day. It’s difficult to see the Rays ponying up the cash, and Kimbrel may be asking for a lot, but he could be a true difference maker for the Rays.

The Lineup

Even if the Rays saw a drastic increase in attendance, there won’t be a power surge at the Trop this year. The Rays tallied only 150 long balls last year, good for 27th in baseball. If the guy at the plate isn’t touching them all, a team has to find a way to manufacture runs. The Rays ranked third in on-base percentage at .333 a season ago. The club fell in the middle of the pack in runs scored, and they’ll likely end up somewhere around there again.

The Rays elected not to tender C.J. Cron a contract after he led the team with 30 home runs last year. With Cron in Minnesota, there’s even less power in the lineup. Austin Meadows, like Glasnow, will strive for the consistency that eluded him in Pittsburgh. Matt Duffy and Joey Wendle should get on base, and Avisail Garcia could provide some pop, but it will be a team effort to manufacture runs.

The Defense

Strong defensive play has been a staple for Tampa Bay as they outperform their payroll year after year. However, the Rays might not live up to their own standards this season.

John Romano wrote in the Tampa Bay Times that the Rays “are willingly exchanging defense at first base for more offense and versatility.” In the article, Romano points out that neither Ji-Man Choi or Yandy Diaz play great defense at first base, but the Rays are willing to make the sacrifice. However, if they’re prioritizing offense at first base, I’m not sure why they chose not to tender Cron and his 30 bombs from last year.

The Projections

PECOTA: 85-77

FanGraphs: 84-78

Bovada: O/U wins: 84.5, World Series Champion: +3500, AL East Champ: +950, To make the playoffs: +250.

The sharps like the Rays to finish just above .500 and to be in the mix of the second Wild Card spot. Playing in the AL East won’t help the overall record, but the Rays should be able to ride their pitching to a lot of victories. However, if Snell and Morton regress, Tampa could be on the outside looking in come October.