The Rays are in Some Trouble

Yesterday, news came out of Tampa Bay that Blake Snell will undergo arthroscopic surgery to remove loose bodies in his arm. While that isn’t the worst-case scenario when it comes to pitcher injuries, he’s expected to miss at least a month. If this injury had occurred in April or May, we probably wouldn’t be too worried about it; missing 15%-20% of the season isn’t a huge deal. But when the injury occurs in late-July, losing a team’s best starting pitcher and best player for half of the season’s remaining games is a big deal. It’s especially important for the Rays, who are sitting just outside of a Wild Card spot.

Snell isn’t the only injury problem Tampa has had of late.

  • Brandon Lowe, still second on the Rays in WAR with 2.5 wins, has been out with a shin injury since the beginning of the month.
  • Kevin Kiermaier, the club’s standout center fielder, went on the injured list on Sunday with a left thumb sprain.
  • Yandy Diaz, the team’s starting third baseman who has put up 118 wRC+, went on the IL on Tuesday with a foot injury.

Those three position players rank second, fifth, and fourth respectively on the Rays in WAR this season. They have put up 5.7 WAR this year, which is 38% of the team’s total from the position player side. Similarly, Snell and the previously injured Tyler Glasnow represent a quarter of the Rays’ 2019 pitching WAR. That’s roughly one-third of the Rays’ production on the injured list right now. While the injuries are relatively minor, for a team fighting for a playoff spot, every game matters. After a great start to the season, Tampa has seen its playoff odds go from near-sure-thing to a coin flip:

Some of the team’s drop in playoff odds is through no fault of their own. Cleveland and Oakland have played very well over the last couple of months, and have made what could have been an uninteresting race a compelling one. On the other side of the coin, the Rays have gone 23-28 over their last 51 games; that record has kept them from staying in striking distance of the Yankees for the division and allowed Cleveland and Oakland to pass them by.

As for what Tampa Bay can do, Guillermo Heredia has been starting in center field. That’s not what a contending team wants, but it might be passable if Kiermaier comes back soon. If not, the team needs to go out and get another center fielder or play Tommy Pham or Avisail Garcia out of position. At third base, Matt Duffy just came off the injured list; if he can play like he did last season, when he put up a 106 wRC+, then he can adequately replace Diaz. As for Snell, there’s a pretty easy in-house replacement in Brendan McKay.

McKay, currently the 11th-best prospect in all of baseball, might not replace Snell, but he can get closer than any other pitcher currently available. The difference between McKay’s 4.01 projected FIP and 3.86 ERA and Snell’s 3.35 FIP and 3.21 ERA is only about two runs over the 30-plus innings Snell is expected to miss. Last month, I made the case that the Rays needed to call up McKay given the need in their rotation and McKay’s immense talent. In four starts since then, McKay has not disappointed. He’s pitched 19.1 innings, and struck out 18 against just a single walk with a stellar 2.86 FIP and a solid 3.72 ERA.

The problem for the Rays is that the team already needed McKay before Snell went out. McKay’s innings were already baked into the team’s projections and expectations. McKay isn’t really replacing Snell because McKay was already expected to handle a decent number of innings the rest of the way. The Rays still need another starting pitcher. Earlier this week, I took a stab at predicting the trade deadline moves and looked at the Rays’ needs:

With the division moving out of reach, the Rays are in a tough fight for the Wild Card. A 40-man roster crunch, which will require some consolidation at the end of the season, also looms. The Rays might not score a big name, but they should land multiple players as the deadline approaches. The Orioles’ Mychal Givens is one player who might be of interest. Roenis Elias and Domingo Santana from Seattle could fit the bill as well. Among the prospects outside of their very best, Ronaldo HernandezLucius FoxMoises GomezMatt Krook, and Curtis Taylor are all eligible for the Rule 5 draft and could find themselves on the move.

Despite the recent rough spell and the injuries to key players, the Rays still believe in their ability to compete the rest of the way. Rays GM Erik Neander indicated as much after the injury in a piece by Marc Topkin, saying,

“The belief we have in this group extends well beyond Blake,’’ Neander said. “As long as they’re able to take care of their business and play to their potential between now and the end of the month, I think we want to do everything we can not to take this season for granted and see if there is a way to help this team in a responsible fashion.’’

There are some qualifications in that quote, but it does look like the team will be looking for upgrades over the course of the next week. The Rays could still use more relievers and another bat–though perhaps McKay could help out some at designated hitter–but it’s probably safe to add starter to the team’s list of needs. They still have a ton of depth in the farm system to get someone, but the available starting pitching doesn’t mirror that depth. Tampa Bay’s farm system is the very best in baseball and puts any starting pitcher in play, but the club isn’t likely to part with their best prospects or take on large salary commitments. A pending free agent like Zack Wheeler would make sense. Robbie Ray is a potentially available target who might be had with prospects outside of the game’s top 50, like Shane Baz, Ronaldo Hernandez, and Matthew Liberatore. Perhaps the Rockies would be open to moving Jon Gray. Otherwise, Tanner Roark, Ivan Nova, and Jason Vargas are among the players who could provide the Rays with some much needed innings over the next month.

The Rays’ season isn’t over; they still have a good chance to make the playoffs, but those chances have taken a hit from injuries over the last month and none is bigger than losing their ace. The Rays can roll the dice and see if the current group can get them to October, but in a race where one game might make a difference, making moves at the deadline to improve at the margins could be the difference.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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3 years ago

One would assume De Leon gets a decent look as a bulk reliever at some point, yes?

3 years ago
Reply to  themayorkoch

A name from the distant past emerges from the fog and mist.