|Sportsbook||Win AL East||Win AL Pennant||World Series|
|Over/Under Season Win Total: 90.5 (BetOnline)|
Innovation and aggression can level the playing field in any line of work or any sport. The Tampa Bay Rays have already had to be on the cutting edge because they can’t compete financially. They cannot carry the nine-figure payrolls of the Yankees or Red Sox. For a long time, the Rays were well behind the Blue Jays and Orioles in spending.
The thing about spending in baseball is that we can’t see a lot of it. We all know what the player salaries are and see the major free agent deals. What we don’t see is the investment in organizational infrastructure. In the minor league system. In the braintrust. In the scientific and physiological advancements. In the things that the Rays have always prioritized.
It is not a coincidence that the league’s front offices are full of smart minds from teams like the Rays and Indians. Teams that consistently have to walk a fine line because of budget constraints. Teams that have to be creative and innovative. Teams that have to display a different kind of aggression.
When it translates to wins, that is when people take notice. It took a long time last season for people to realize just how good the Tampa Bay Rays were. They won 96 games and beat the Oakland Athletics in the Wild Card Game. They took the eventual AL champion Houston Astros to the brink of elimination in the ALDS. Anything can happen in a five-game sample size, but imagine the Rays outhitting the Astros when having to go up against guys like Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander, and Zack Greinke. It was only five games. It was only a snippet of the total picture. In some ways, though, it illustrates just how good and how underappreciated Tampa Bay was as a whole last season.
For us in the betting community, it is an unfortunate realization. Much like stocks or the latest fads, you have to try to get in on the ground floor. You have to get in before other people realize what is happening. The 2020 Rays won’t sneak up on anybody. They’ll be priced like the upper-echelon team that they are. And we’ll just have to deal with that. After all, what we’ve most recently seen is all that we remember, right? The Rays were 44-27 in the second half of last season, 34-18 over the final two months, and went five games with the Astros.
They were consistently good, too, with just one losing month. They were 48-33 in front of the worst attendance in the AL at Tropicana Field and 48-33 on the road with a higher run differential than at home. They were innovative. They were aggressive. They were good. Really good.
And they look to be really good again.
Teams like Tampa Bay seem to do better with the ability to fly under the radar. Now all eyes are on them as the primary contender to take down the Yankees and to likely wind up in the Wild Card Game again. There is no flag to fly for being the BaseRuns AL East Champion or the 3rd Order Win% AL East Champion, but the Rays did have better records than the Yankees in both of those categories.
Will they live up to the hype? After tying the record for the second-most wins in franchise history, can they reach up and touch the new ceiling again? One win over their last two games would have tied the franchise record for wins and two victories would have set a new one. Is this the new normal for the Rays? That is the decision bettors have to make with a high win total number like this.
|BaseRuns Run Differential||+160 (4.90/3.91)|
|3rd Order Win% Record||99.2-62.8|
|Record in One-Run Games||23-16|
|Additions: Deck McGuire, Brooks Pounders, Aaron Loup, Sean Gilmartin, John Curtiss, Dylan Covey, Ryan LaMarre, Kevan Smith, Chris Herrmann, Yoshi Tsutsugo, Manuel Margot, Logan Driscoll, Peyton Battenfield, Cal Stevenson, Randy Arozarena, Jose Martinez, Hunter Renfroe, Xavier Edwards, Brian O’Grady, Curtis Mead|
|Losses: Guillermo Heredia, Matt Duffy, Avisail Garcia, Eric Sogard, Hoby Milner, Travis d’Arnaud, Johnny Davis, Emilio Pagan, Austin Pruitt, Matthew Liberatore, Edgardo Rodriguez, Jake Cronenworth, Tommy Pham, Cristopher Sanchez, Jose De Leon, Jesus Aguilar, Cole Sulser|
I would be reluctant to make any sort of trade with a team like the Rays. I would want to know what it is that I’m not seeing. That didn’t stop the Cardinals from sending Jose Martinez and Randy Arozarena to the Gulf Coast for Matthew Liberatore and Edgardo Rodriguez. Scouts are high on Liberatore, who has front of the rotation potential, but the Rays opted to cash in on the 20-year-old’s value to bolster the outfield and the bench.
The Rays also made a late-winter trade to acquire Manuel Margot from the Padres in exchange for reliever Emilio Pagan. The Rays traded from a position of strength to get an elite defensive outfielder in Margot. Maybe there is some offensive upside left, too.
Yoshi Tsutsugo was another big move for the Rays, who grabbed the Japanese infielder/outfielder for two years and $12 million. Over a 10-year sample size in the Nippon Baseball League, Tsutsugo hit .285/.382/.528 with over 200 homers, including 139 over the last four seasons. Interestingly, Tsutsugo was said to have higher offers, but went with the Rays because of his comfort level with the organization following their pursuit of him for several years. Eno Sarris profiled Tsutsugo for The Athletic ($) and compared him to Brandon Belt and Ji-Man Choi.
The Rays also grabbed Hunter Renfroe in a fairly shocking deal that included Tommy Pham. The Rays seemed to have acquired Renfroe at low point coming off of a 98 wRC+ season, but I have to give them the benefit of the doubt at all times.
To a degree, my concerns about the Rays offense were justified. The team went down four points in batting average, eight points in OBP, and dropped 11 points in BABIP from 2018 to 2019. The difference is that Tampa Bay, like just about everybody else, hit for more power to nearly match last season’s wOBA. The Rays were on an interesting trend of hitting a lot of ground balls. They were looking to take advantage of defensive shifts and also utilize the exit velocity skills of their hard hitters by hitting it where fielders had less time to react.
Tampa Bay still hit the ball on the ground a lot, but slightly less often than they had in 2018. They also happened to post a HR/FB% that was over 4% higher from 2018 to 2019. Had it not been for the juiced ball and the league-wide power surge, I’m not sure what would have become of the Rays offense.
I’ve discussed this a lot, but what makes good teams really good is that they aren’t running out bad players at multiple spots. The Rays don’t have any stars as far as position players go, though a repeat of the .291/.364/.558 slash and .380 wOBA from Austin Meadows could turn him into one. The Rays ditched their second-highest player in fWAR in Tommy Pham, so we’ll see if that move ends up working out, but nine players hit at least 14 home runs. Ten players posted a wRC+ of at least 103. The guys that didn’t really hit made up for it by playing quality defense, like Mike Zunino and Kevin Kiermaier. Manuel Margot will likely be part of that list for 2020.
The Rays have to develop from within because there are no water wings for the free agent pool. Though the Rays signed Tsutsugo, who may very well be the team’s DH, they needed guys like Willy Adames, Brandon Lowe, and Nate Lowe to all develop last season and they did. Brandon was actually second in wOBA in his 327 PA. Nate only had 169 PA, but posted a solid .328 wOBA and 107 wRC+. Adames struck out a little too much to post a league average wRC+, but hit 20 homers and posted a .339 wOBA with a 115 wRC+ in the second half.
With this group, the Rays have versatility. They have average or better production at just about every position. They have very few weaknesses. There are some questions as they head into 2020 with some guys that have little or no track record at the MLB level, but they are well-equipped to have balance up and down the lineup and they will be a really tough team to match up with in the late innings with the new three-batter rule. The Rays and their lineup, which, admittedly, was middle of the pack last season, is a testament that you don’t need “great”. You just need “good”.
Don’t let the full-season numbers fool you. Tropicana Field is a graveyard for offense. Rays games at The Trop averaged 8.3 runs per game, with 4.52 of those coming from the home team. On the road, the Rays scored nearly five runs per game. You can see by their wRC+ mark that the home ballpark did have a big impact on their relatively mediocre finishes in BA, OBP, and SLG.
This is unquestionably the strength of the Rays team. The lineup is very solid, but the pitching staff is exceptional. Unlike the position player side, where there are some shakeups and new faces, the pitching staff from last season is basically still in tact. The only addition is a full season of Nick Anderson, the fireballing reliever that was acquired from the Miami Marlins around the Trade Deadline. Otherwise, all the same faces are back from a pitching staff that was simply dominant last season.
Furthermore, it was a dominant pitching staff that only got 107 innings from reigning Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell and breakout candidate Tyler Glasnow only threw 60.2 innings due to injuries. Glasnow had a 1.78 ERA with a 2.26 FIP and a 2.94 xFIP over his 12 starts. He was worth 2.3 fWAR in just 60.2 innings.
There are concerns going into 2020. Snell was mostly bothered by weird and freak things, but his fastball velocity was down a little bit after working 180.2 innings in his Cy Young season. It seems unlikely that 36-year-old Charlie Morton can follow up his career year, particularly after working a career-high 194.2 innings in the regular season. Morton had a career-best 2.81 FIP to go along with a strong 3.05 ERA and 3.28 xFIP. Morton is already planning retirement after his current contract. I’m not sure if I should read into that for 2020, but this may be his swan song, even with a vesting option for 2021.
As exciting as Glasnow’s impending stardom looked to be last season, injuries again sidelined the once top prospect. To this point, Glasnow has worked 150 innings in a season once and that came in 2017 when he made 28 starts across Triple-A and the Major Leagues. It goes without saying that the Rays have excellent depth, which is how they got through last season with Snell and Glasnow limited, but another year of that would put a lot of pressure on the team.
Of course, the flip side is that better health for Glasnow and Snell would potentially give the Rays the best pitching staff in baseball. Hell, they were top-five with less than 170 innings from those guys.
Ryne Stanek made 27 starts before he was sent to Miami in the Nick Anderson deal. Outside of that, the Rays didn’t use the opener all that much, even though Snell and Glasnow missed ample time. Yonny Chirinos actually hung a 3.85 ERA with a 4.44 FIP and a 4.10 xFIP primarily as a starter and Ryan Yarbrough posted a 4.13/3.55/4.24 pitcher slash in 14 starts and 14 relief outings. He actually made nine straight starts to end the regular season.
The thing about the Rays is that they may have the best Triple-A rotation in baseball. Both Chirinos and Yarbrough have options, so Trevor Richards could very well break camp with the team. Two-way player Brendan McKay showed some flashes with 56 strikeouts in his 49 MLB innings. Brent Honeywell and Anthony Banda are both back from major arm injuries. The Rays essentially run nine deep with starters and that doesn’t even include bulk reliever Jalen Beeks, who came up through the Red Sox system as a starter.
Manager Kevin Cash has an embarrassment of riches in the bullpen. Everybody throws hard and everybody misses bats. Only the Astros, Padres, and Twins had a higher K%-BB% than the Rays. The Rays pen ranked third in SIERA, second in FIP, and fifth in BB%. All Anderson did in his 23 appearances was strike out 41 in and walk in 21.1 innings of work. Emilio Pagan struck out 96 in 70 innings, but he was traded for Margot and the bullpen still won’t miss a beat. Now Anderson will be the frontrunner to close and the Rays will survey their options for adding another arm to the relief corps.
Chaz Roe has one of the game’s filthiest sliders. Colin Poche and Diego Castillo miss a lot of bats. Oliver Drake wound up being very reliable and allowed just a .247 wOBA against with 44 K in 35.1 innings in the second half. This bullpen projects to be one of the best in baseball yet again and they just keep finding dudes. Journeymen. Prospects. Underappreciated minor leaguers. It doesn’t matter. It’s insane what this org does year in and year out.
Positives & Negatives
The Rays have one of baseball’s best managers in Kevin Cash. The quantifiable impact of a manager has been up for debate for a long time, but I can’t help but think that Cash adds at least 3-5 wins to the Rays just by being so adept at putting his players in the best possible position to succeed. There is a level of harmony from front office to the personnel on the field that really seems to elevate the Rays year in and year out. Cash is the bridge between the front office and the players and it just works. We saw how much a toxic environment can hurt a team with the Pirates and we’ll see if it does the same with the Rockies and an unhappy Nolan Arenado. Baseball is hard enough without adding more to it.
The Rays really have a big advantage at home. I mentioned this last year with regards to their ground ball and opposite field approach. When they don’t have to play Home Run Derby, they do a lot of things really well to position themselves to win games. Last season, they even hit for more power. But, they are well-equipped to win low-scoring, close games at home. Remember, their home games averaged 8.3 runs per game, so we’re talking a lot of bullpen involvement and they’re going to have the better bullpen more often than not. On the road, they were just as successful with an identical 48-33 record. The Rays were 22nd in home runs at home with 99. They were 12th in road homers with 118. This team is like a chameleon and those types of teams have really high ceilings. They can win a shootout on the road and can win more 50/50 games at home.
Pick: Over 90.5
As far as the AL East goes, this is my favorite season win total and one that would indeed classify as a bet. This team is really good. I think there is an inherent hesitance in accepting how good the Rays are because of how hard it seems to be to maintain a winning record with a low payroll. Nobody is more adept at it than the Rays. They find so much surplus value from within by having one of the smartest analytics departments in the world.
Imagine being first, second, or third in most key pitching stats as a team with less than 170 innings from Snell and Glasnow. Imagine a team that keeps finding ways to push the envelope on offense and find something new that other teams aren’t doing in order to level the playing field.
As I mentioned, Kevin Cash is one of my favorite managers in baseball. It all works for the Rays. They were the BaseRuns and 3rd Order Win% AL East champions last season and won 96 games. There is no way you can tell me that this season’s team is worse than last year’s. Nothing about the alternate standings metrics suggests regression. Nothing about the roster suggests regression. If anything, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Rays win as many or more games than they did last season.
This is a case where the ceiling is high enough for me to go over with a team that has an extremely high floor.