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The Rays have shaped up well as buyers

The surprise AL East contenders may be able to fill all their holes cheaply and make a run. It’s a new direction for the notably cheap Rays.

Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The Rays have kicked off their trade season by filling a few needs in advance of the deadline. The “small-market” club finds themselves in the thick of things in the playoff race. Now, as buyers, the Rays have capitalized on a trade market that is heavily focused on the top names by making smaller, subtler additions.

Going into this season, most people presumed the Rays would be selling at this point in the season. That was with good reason, too; the Rays have finished either fourth or fifth in the AL East over each of the past three seasons. Though they carried star pitcher Chris Archer and franchise third baseman Evan Longoria into the season, it didn’t seem like they had enough talent to surround them to make a push for the postseason. On top of that, Tampa Bay didn’t really make any notable offseason additions to spark a change in anyone’s mind.

But the conventional wisdom has been wrong: the Rays sit within striking distance of both the division (4.5 games back) and the wild card (2.5 games back of the second slot). Chris Archer, who is not getting traded to your team, is pitching in typical ace like fashion with a DRA of 2.67 and a strikeout rate near 30 percent. Logan Morrison, Steven Souza Jr., and Corey Dickerson have emerged as a high-powered trio in the middle of the lineup: all three have a wOBA above .364 and a wRC+ above 132. Mallex Smith has proven himself to be a particularly valuable fourth outfielder and occasional starter, enabling the mixing and matching that the Rays are known for.

That means they’ve been successful despite not getting the typical production from Evan Longoria and Kevin Kiermaier, their best position players coming into the season. The surehanded centerfielder was hurt early on in the season and hasn’t quite produced the dazzling defense he’s known for. Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay mainstay at third base just doesn’t quite have the power this season, with an ISO 63 points below what he put up last season.

Because of their quick rise, the Rays certainly had holes to fill. But being a thrifty team makes it kind of tough for them to fill them;. Combine that with a recent history of questionable drafting leaving their minor league system barren and the Rays find themselves in a bit of a pickle.

Pieces like Sonny Gray, Giancarlo Stanton, and Yu Darvish would certainly make the Rays better, but won’t be headed to Tampa anytime soon, thanks either to the prospect cost their current teams would demand or the contract cost the player is owed. Fortunately for the Rays, most of the attention (of the media and the other contending teams) has been focused on those high-profile pieces, allowing them to swoop in and fill holes at a reasonable cost with solid role-players instead.

The biggest shoe to drop for the Rays was Lucas Duda. The former Mets first baseman adds another thumper to the middle of the Rays lineup. The trio of Dickerson, Morrison, and Duda now have to do a bit of positional musical chairs between left field, first base, and DH. But Duda packs the kind of punch at the plate that makes such contortions worthwhile. His .368 wOBA and 129 wRC+ place well on a team that sits in the middle of the pack offensively.

In order to acquire Duda, they sent Drew Smith to the Mets. Smith was acquired from the Tigers as the player to be named later in the Mikie Mahtook deal. He solidified himself quickly in the organization as a strong relief pitching prospect. His swing-and-miss profile from the ;pen plays well going forward. Smith is a significant add for the Mets, but certainly worth the price for two months of Lucas Duda on a contending squad.

The Rays also solidified their bullpen with the acquisition of Dan Jennings and Steve Cishek in separate deals. In return for Jennings and Cishek, the Rays sent stumbling first base prospect, Casey Gillaspie, to the White Sox and Erasmo Ramirez, who is perennially out of a logical roster spot, to the Mariners.

Cishek, after returning from hip surgery, has slowly improved his performance since June 18th, as pointed out by Noah Grand of Baseball Prospectus.

Steve Cishek Before and After Role Change

Timeframe IP ERA FIP K% BB% Avg Sinker Velo
Timeframe IP ERA FIP K% BB% Avg Sinker Velo
Before 6/18 9 5.00 5.71 16.2% 5.4% 89.85
After 6/18 11.2 2.31 4.35 21.3% 12.8% 91.09

He’s seen a massive improvement in his ERA and K rates that conveniently comes with a spike in sinker velocity. Though the FIP and walk rate aren’t entirely comforting, the velocity spike makes me believe that they’ll improve as the sample increases.

Meanwhile, Jennings is much more of a marginal piece. The lefthanded reliever generates outs on the ground as his fly ball rate is quite low, but he does also produce a lot of walks. Still, he has a knack for outproducing his peripheral stats (that may or may not be a real skill) and for being a strong, results-based reliever in the middle of a bullpen. He’s certainly an improvement on the likes of Sergio Romo and Jumbo Diaz.

The Rays have done a good job of filling holes cheaply and in a savvy manner. With the additions of Duda, Jennings, and Cishek, the Rays are positioning themselves in a strong spot to contend in the AL, without sending away valuable prospects or taking on tons of money. Still, the Rays could use another catcher with Derek Norris Wilson Ramos and Jesus Sucre underperforming as a trio, and there’s still a few hours to go until the deadline, so they may not even be done.

Anthony Rescan is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score and a Stats Intern at Baseball Prospectus. You can follow him on Twitter at @AnthonyRescan.