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The Rays’ future is bright, but it could be brighter

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The Rays were the best team in the AL. They could have been the best team in the majors with just a little bit of money.

Division Series - Tampa Bay Rays v Boston Red Sox - Game Four Photo by Winslow Townson/Getty Images

A division series loss shouldn’t be used as a referendum on the Rays Way. Anyone that says a 100-win team is bad actually is either trolling or being incredibly obtuse. The Rays were the best team in the American League, and great teams still lose three games out of four sometimes. Still, it’s hard to watch the Rays come up short three years in a row and think that nothing needs to change.

The Blake Snell trade drew the most attention and ire last offseason, but with Snell’s struggles in San Diego, two other decisions loomed larger in the series with Boston. Those were cutting ties with Hunter Renfroe and Charlie Morton.

The Rays designated Hunter Renfroe, whom they acquired for Tommy Pham and Jake Cronenworth, for assignment. That trade was a rare miss for the Rays’ front office given Cronenworth’s breakout and Pham’s bounceback. Renfroe was awful in the truncated 2020 season, but he had a track record of success and only stood to earn around $4 million in his first year of arbitration. Every team can easily afford a two-win player for that salary, but the Rays decided they could do without him.

Renfroe, of course, signed with the Red Sox, and it would have been a little on the nose if Renfroe delivered the killing blow. He just contributed to the Rays’ demise by hip-checking a would-be RBI triple over the wall and going 5-for-17 with two walks and two runs scored. In the regular season, Renfroe totaled 2.4 rWAR with enigmatic defense, and though the Rays outfield was among the most productive in baseball, letting a player like that go for $4 million is a tough look. Especially when he was acquired to save money in the first place.

Even less defensible is the declining Charlie Morton’s option for 2021. In Erik Neander’s own words, “[Morton] was a leading force in the most successful two-year stretch this franchise has ever had,” but he wasn’t worth $15 million, a paltry amount when it comes to ace starters. Morton eventually signed with Atlanta for exactly $15 million, and he led his new team to the brink of the LCS.

Meanwhile, the Rays still had one of the best pitching staffs in all of baseball, but the lack of starting pitch depth hurt them in the end. While Morton was getting ready for his Game 4 start against Milwaukee, the Rays were sending out Shane McClanahan on short rest. Worse than that, the Rays’ only remaining free-agent starter, Michael Wacha, got torched for six runs in his lone postseason appearance and had an ERA+ of 78 in the regular season. It’s impossible to say whether Morton and Renfroe would have altered Tampa Bays’ fate in the ALDS, but probably they would have.

With their season at an end, it’s time to look forward. Before any moves are made, the Rays still look like the favorites in the AL East. Wander Franco is already a top-25 hitter in baseball, and that’s being a little conservative. Brandon Lowe’s bat keeps getting better. Randy Arozarena continues to be an impact player. Shane McClanahan and Shane Baz more than lessen the sting of losing Tyler Glasnow to Tommy John.

The Rays’ future is bright. It could be brighter.

With the Rays, the offseason is less a matter of who will enter the organization and more of who will exit. MLB Trade Rumors released their arbitration estimates on Monday, and (surprise!) the Rays don't have any arb-eligible players who stand to make all that much. The most obvious candidate for non-tendering is Manuel Margot who stands to make $5 million as a great defender and subpar hitter.

It’s hard to tell who’s too expensive for the Rays, though. Are Ji-man Choi and his 13 percent walk rate too much for $3.5 million? Should Joey Wendle get $4 million for defensive versatility and a decent bat? What about paying Austin Meadows $4.5 million because he might hit 30 homers again? The free-agent catcher market is pretty slim, but Mike Zunino will make $7 million, and is he really going to defy a 35 percent strikeout rate again?

Bringing all of the above back should be a no-brainer, but recent history suggests the Rays replace at least one of them with someone cheaper and only a smidge less talented. And the Rays can still win their division without going after Max Scherzer or Carlos Correa, which is a testament to the talents of the front office. Without them, the Rays might just be another A’s or even another Pirates, teams that are just as cheap but not nearly as successful.

But with Stu Sternberg writing the checks, the Rays are never going to be the Dodgers, a team that’s just as smart but has the financial might to keep players into their second and third years of arbitration. Obviously, the Dodgers play in a much bigger market, and they have generations of fans all over the country. But pretty soon, if Sternberg gets his wish, the Rays are going to play in two markets in two different countries. We’ll see if anything changes then.

Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score.