Offseason In Review: Tampa Bay Rays

Posted: March 26, 2017 in Uncategorized
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This is the latest entry in MLBTR’s Offseason In Review series. The full index of Offseason In Review posts can be found here.

The Rays struck an interesting balance between keeping their payroll in check and adding young talent, while also making some significant additions that point towards postseason hopes in 2017.

Major League Signings

Trades And Claims

Notable Minor League Signings

Extensions

Notable Losses

Needs Addressed

The Rays’ offseason began with a pair of notable front office promotions.  Erik Neander and Chaim Bloom were both made senior VPs of baseball operations, while Neander was also named general manager.  President of baseball ops Matt Silverman remained atop the decision-making pyramid, this time in more of a big-picture role while Neander and Bloom focused on day-to-day operations.

This “three-headed” front office structure is a little uncommon, yet it is perhaps fitting for a team that has to be able to move in several different directions at the same time.  The Rays entered the winter, in fact, prepared to be either buyers or sellers depending on how they dealt with all of the trade interest in their rotation.  If a rival club made an offer big enough to pry Chris Archer or Jake Odorizzi loose, Tampa Bay would look to rebuild after losing a cornerstone pitcher.  If a somewhat lesser arm like Drew Smyly or Alex Cobb was dealt, however,  the Rays would instead reload for another run back to contention in 2017.

After several weeks of rumors surrounding the four Rays starters, Smyly ended up being the odd man out, going to the Mariners for a three-player package headlined by Mallex Smith.  The 23-year-old Smith is still a work in progress at the plate, though he displayed outstanding speed and defense during his 2016 rookie season with the Braves.  Smith is also under team control for at least five years, whereas Smyly is a free agent after 2018 and was getting expensive ($6.85MM in 2017) in his arbitration years.

Wilson RamosIt should be noted that the Rays signed Wilson Ramos well before moving Smyly, though it could be that Ramos’ situation presented such a unique opportunity (and Tampa Bay’s long-standing need at catcher was so dire) that the team would’ve made the move whether it was rebuilding or not.  The Rays made catcher a priority this winter, looking into such names as Jason Castro and Welington Castillo before finally landing Ramos on a two-year, $12.5MM deal.

The idea of Ramos signing with the Rays would’ve been far-fetched six months ago, when the catcher was enjoying a big season with the Nationals and well on his way to a big payday in free agent.  Disaster struck, however, when Ramos tore his ACL and meniscus in the final week of the regular season.  The subsequent surgery will keep Ramos out of action until May or June, and this health uncertainty allowed Tampa Bay to get into the bidding.  Assuming Ramos is able to get back on the field and look like his old self, this could end up being a win-win for both sides — Ramos gets some security now and he’ll still be only 31 when he hits the open market again, while the Rays can potentially get an All-Star backstop at a bargain price.

Since Ramos will miss some action and require a good deal of DH time when he does return, Tampa was still active on the catcher front, landing Jesus Sucre in yet another trade with Seattle and also exploring such bigger-name options as Matt Wieters before Wieters signed with the Nationals.  That Wieters signing led to the Nats releasing Derek Norris, which in turn allowed the Rays to then land Norris on a one-year, $1.2MM deal.  Norris is an excellent pitch framer who brings more hitting upside than any of Sucre, Curt Casali, or Luke Maile, and the Rays could now shop one or more of that trio to other teams in need of help behind the plate.

Ramos’ eventual role as a part-time DH also added an interesting dynamic to the Rays’ search for help at first base, left field and designated hitter.  The rather slow market for free agent hitters allowed the Rays to at least explore several notable names (i.e. Jose Bautista, Mike Napoli, Wieters) that seemed far too expensive for Tampa Bay’s payroll limitations at the start of the winter.

As it turned out, the Rays stuck with inexpensive options and signed Colby Rasmus and familiar face Logan Morrison to one-year contracts.  Rasmus can provide cover at all three outfield positions, though his best position is in left, where he was quietly one of the game’s best defenders in 2016 with the Astros.  Morrison is at best a platoon option at first base, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Brad Miller shifted back to first from second base as the season goes on.  Veteran Rickie Weeks is in camp on hand as potential platoon partner for Morrison, with switch-hitting Nick Franklin in the mix (though Franklin is better against righty pitching) and intriguing rookie Jake Bauers lurking down at Triple-A.

Turning to the bullpen, the Rays signed former Rangers closer Shawn Tolleson to a one-year contract with Tolleson looking to bounce back after a very rough season.  Waiver claim Jumbo Diaz and minor league signing Tommy Hunter round out Tampa Bay’s most notable relief additions.  The pen will take an early hit since Brad Boxberger will begin the season on the DL with a lat injury, though the Rays look to have a pretty solid relief corps behind breakout closer Alex Colome (who drew quite a bit of trade buzz this winter).

The Rays also locked down center field for years to come by signing Kevin Kiermaier to a six-year, $53.5MM extension.  The two-time Gold Glove winner has been an above-average run creator in two of his three seasons and he made great strides with his plate patience in 2016.  If Kiermaier can augment his excellent baserunning and otherworldly defense with more consistent hitting, it isn’t a stretch to say that he’ll become one of the game’s most valuable assets — even without much batting production, Kiermaier still generated 13.1 fWAR over the last three seasons.

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