The Rays Have a Road Map, Require Urgency

On Tuesday night, the Yankees made a considerable pre-deadline splash in acquiring Todd Frazier, David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle.

While the Yankees hope a slumping Frazier returns to form and upgrades their corner-infield situation, the real impetus of this trade appears to be the attempt to create an uber bullpen that stacks up against any unit in the game, one that could give the club a competitive edge should it advance to the postseason.

Despite their scuffles and despite a third-place standing in the AL East, the Yankees have bet on themselves likely due, in part, to a run differential that suggests they’re better than their middling record suggests — that they are, in fact, one of the best teams in the AL.

It’s the team just above the Yankees in the AL East, the Tampa Bay Rays, who ought to also think about dramatically strengthening their bullpen. It’s the Rays who, as others in the media have noted, possess a greater need. And it’s the Rays, perhaps, whom the Yankees were as interested thwarting with Tuesday night’s deal as the Red Sox.

Tampa Bay has quietly put together a team that stands just three games back of the Red Sox and holds the top AL Wild Card spot.

The Rays have once again found value in unlikely places. While the decision to sign Logan Morrison was widely unpopular in and out of the Tampa Bay area, Morrison leads the club with 3.4 WAR, 26 homers, and a 147 wRC+ — and is a big reason why the Rays rank fourth in baseball in first-base production.

Corey Dickerson, Steven Souza Jr., Kevin Kiermaier, and Mallex Smith have combined to give Tampa Bay one of the most productive outfields in the game, ranking third in the game with nine combined outfield wins. Tim Beckham and Evan Longoria have held down the left side of the infield. Chris Archer has returned to ace form, and Alex Cobb — himself a potential trade chip if the Rays start to slip — continues to look more like himself, helping the Rays to field a serviceable rotation.

Even after a 94-loss season, FanGraphs’ projections — and this author’s prognostications — suggested this collection of parts would have the Rays in the Wild Card picture.

But to remain in that picture, the Rays have to address areas of need.

They rank worse than 15th in WAR in the majors in only three positions — including second base (-0.3 WAR, 28th in MLB), where Plan A, Brad Miller, has seen his power evaporate while dealing with a nagging groin injury for much of the season. The Rays have a collective .198/.311/.326 slash line at the position. Top position prospect Willy Adames could help in the middle infield, though he hasn’t played a game at a position other than shortstop this year in Triple-A and is slashing a modest .263/.351/.408 in Durham.

The Rays rank 17th in catching WAR (0.9), where the club’s collective backstops are slashing 223/.265/.402. Wilson Ramos, however, has accounted for only 50 of those plate appearances in his return from ACL reconstruction. He was a 3.5-win force last season for the Nationals and is already intimating people at the position.

So with Ramos back and shaking off rust and Miller perhaps holding second-half upside, with Cobb having been better since a rocky April and potential impact prospects in Adames and Future Game MVP Brent Honeywell lurking in the background, the Rays have some internal potential for improvement at a number of their weakest areas.

It’s the bullpen, however, where there’s less reason for optimism regarding an obvious internal fix.

The Rays rank 18th in bullpen WAR (1.6), 27th in xFIP (4.55), and 28th in K-BB% (11.0) among relievers.

At a time when the game is trending toward power in lineup and bullpens, the Rays are hitting with sufficient authority to take advantage of the mysterious forces launching balls out of ballparks. Consider: the Rays rank fifth in the majors in homers (140) and rank second to the Brewers (19.0%) in home runs per fly ball (16.6%). What they don’t have, though, is end-game dominators comparable to this year’s best teams, nor the teams that advanced deep into October last season.

It makes sense that the Rays have been connected to about every reliever on the market, particularly since the price of impact starting pitching is so considerable.

Whether it’s Brad Hand, Pat Neshek, or Justin Wilson — or another dominant reliever on a club looking to sell — the Rays ought to push hard to make a deal happen for the remaining impact relievers available. Even if the club were to use the aforementioned Honeywell — a distinct possibility — that likely wouldn’t represent a complete solution to the problem.

The Yankees in part turned to the bullpen, which already ranked second in baseball in WAR and had a number of 30%-plus-strikeout pitchers, because of the cost of starting pitching. The Rays have an even greater need and would do well to follow the Yankees’ model. While the Rays lead the Yankees in the standings, they trail the Yankees in FanGraphs projected playoff forecast at 40.0% to 50.0%.

The Rays are at a place along the win curve where such additions could be crucial. And with a number of contenders adding and some sellers having cashed in considerable chips, the Rays might do well to act now rather than to wait.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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OddBall Herrera
OddBall Herrera

Adames *did* get the start at 2B last night. This should be noted, as one of the reliable rules of callup speculating is “watch for guys in the high minors who suddenly switch to a position of need”


It was Adames third start of the year at 2B. About a month ago the Durham manager said they were going to get Adames a start at 2B about 1 in 10 games. He is however getting the start in back to back games tonight at 2B for the first time.

OddBall Herrera
OddBall Herrera

Yep, a spot start could’ve been just keeping their options open, two in a row starts to look like a plan.