Around this time last year, the general consensus was that the Rays were a good-not-great team. With the Yankees having the makings of a super-team and the Red Sox coming off a World Series title and 108-win season, it wasn’t an #UnpopularOpinion to peg Tampa for a third-place finish in the AL East.
On Opening Day of 2019, FanGraphs gave the Rays a 28.2 percent chance to make the playoffs. PECOTA’s median projections had the Rays winning 86 games and winning the second Wild Card by default. PECOTA wasn’t exactly impressed with the Rays, it was just disgusted with the rest of the American League.
The Rays, of course, wound up winning 96 games and came extremely close to knocking off the Astros and making it to the ALCS. The Rays will enter 2020 with mostly the same roster with some notable changes in the outfield. Did Tampa’s excellent 2019 make believers of PECOTA?
Maybe a little?
The 2020 Rays project for 87 wins and a 50 percent chance at the playoffs. Again, their playoff spot is mostly the result of a lack of competition, and less the result of anything the Rays did this winter. The best move of the offseason for the Tampa Rays was the Red Sox trading away Mookie Betts. Replacing Betts with Alex Verdugo roughly makes Boston three to four wins worse, and PECOTA’s median projections puts the Rays around three to four wins better than the Sox. If the Red Sox had a coin flip’s chance to make the playoffs, they effectively gifted it to the Rays.
While the Rays are benefiting from a division rival trading away their best position player, the Rays did the same thing. Tommy Pham, who had a 121 wRC+ and was worth 3.3 fWAR and who Steamer projects for a repeat season, was shipped to the Padres for Hunter Renfroe and Xavier Edwards. Avoiding paying Pham’s whopping $7.9 million contract was certainly the main motivator for that move, but acquiring Renfroe’s defense was a nice bonus. It also perhaps indicates that the Rays place more value on outfield defense.
With an outfield that includes Renfroe, Manuel Margot, and Kevin Kiermaier, the Rays have the 22nd, 7th, and 2nd best outfielders by Statcast’s Outs Above Average. Margot, who was acquired by the Padres in a separate trade for reliever Emilio Pagán, has never had an above average year at the plate. Margot’s best season came in 2017 when he had a .309 wOBA and 90 wRC+. His presence, however, means that Kevin Kiermaier can take a day off without the Rays tugging at their collars nervously. He also provides a nice late-inning defensive replacement for José Martínez, known clank-mitt.
Austin Meadows is one of two constants in the outfield. It might be a tall ask for him to repeat his 142 wRC+ in 2019, but Meadows still projects to be the best position player on the post-Pham Rays. They’ll rely on him to lead the offense. Meadows is one of just five Rays coming off a season with above-average production (min. 200 plate appearances). The four others are Brendon Lowe, Ji-Man Choi, José Martínez, and Yandy Díaz. International free agent Yoshi Tsutsugo could also be included, but Martínez just barely skated by last season, and Díaz struggled to stay healthy. With Pham, Avisail Garcia, and Travis d’Arnaud, the Rays ranked ninth on offense with a 102 wRC+, but they’ve gotten worse at the plate, at least on paper.
If the Rays are going to win 90+ games again, they’ll have to do it with pitching and defense. Fortunately, that’s something they’re equipped to do. In 2019, Rays pitchers led the majors in FIP and fWAR. It’s tough to find a better top three than Charlie Morton, Blake Snell, and Tyler Glasnow. Yonny Chirinos is a serviceable fourth starter, and Trevor Richards can spot start though his changeup has played better out of the bullpen.
Losing Emilio Pagán makes the bullpen a little worse, but it’s a loss the Rays can likely endure with the addition of Nick Anderson who the Rays acquired from the Marlins at the trade deadline. Anderson struck out 41 batters in 21 1/3 innings with Tampa last season, and he quietly struck out 69 batters in 43 2/3 with the Marlins. Colin Poche, Oliver Drake, Jalen Beeks, and Diego Castillo are all coming off of solid seasons. Chaz Roe has the slider to take a major step forward; he just needs to cut down on his 13.5 percent walk rate.
With a bullpen like that and with a few better than expected seasons from their hitters, it’s not hard to see the Rays blowing past their projections like they did in 2019. They don’t have to do that to win a Wild Card spot. With Betts out of the division and few serious contenders for the Wild Card, it’s the Rays’ berth to lose.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.