The 2018 season of the Tampa Bay Rays has already been recapped. Now with the World Series over, all 30 teams are looking ahead to the winter. Coming off of their best season since 2013, expectations for the Rays will be higher in 2019 than they have been in a long time. That means an interesting and important off-season is coming up for general manager Erik Neander and Tampa Bay’s front office.
With that in mind, here is a look at some of the decisions they’ll have to make over the next few months.
Tampa Bay Rays 2018-19 Off-season Preview
The Rays had several important players eligible for free agency last off-season, including one of their top hitters (Logan Morrison) and one of their top pitchers (Alex Cobb) from 2017. The good news for the Rays is that they do not have any terribly important free agents this year. Most of the pending free agents they had were traded during the season. The only ones left are Carlos Gomez and Sergio Romo, both of whom the Rays can probably bring back fairly cheap if desired (Romo is much more likely to be wanted back than Gomez).
OF Carlos Gomez
Gomez may have become a big part of the Rays’ clubhouse this year, but the 32-year-old had a tough season on the field. He hit just .208/.298/.336 in 118 games, with nine home runs and 32 RBI over 408 plate appearances. Gomez’s performance was worth an 80 wRC+ and negative 0.5 fWAR. He also did not play a whole lot later in the season, especially after the Rays acquired Tommy Pham. Their primary outfield became Pham, Kevin Kiermaier, and Mallex Smith. To Gomez’s credit, he didn’t sulk about losing playing time and by all accounts continued to be a good teammate. This is probably part of how he managed to remain on the roster for the entire season. However, as well-liked as he may be in the clubhouse, it’s very difficult to envision the Rays re-signing him.
RHP Sergio Romo
Romo had an interesting season. Overall, he posted a 4.14 ERA, 4.05 FIP, and 1.26 WHIP. He led the Rays in appearances (73) and saves (25). The 35-year-old does not have much velocity anymore, though that was never his calling card. Despite that, he can still strike guys out, racking up 75 strikeouts over 67.1 innings, good for a mark of 10.02 strikeouts per nine innings.
What made Romo’s season interesting is that he had a tough start to the year, posting a 5.59 ERA in April and a 6.94 ERA in May. He also had a tough finish, with an ERA of 10.00 in September. In between that, he was pretty fantastic, posting a 1.38 ERA in June and July and a 1.64 ERA in August.
Despite Romo’s status as a pending free agent, the Rays didn’t trade him at the deadline, even though one would think some contenders probably had interest. That would lead one to believe the Rays have some interest in keeping Romo around, though perhaps they are less keen on re-signing him after his rough finish to the season. Still, it will not be surprising if they try to bring Romo back on another one-year deal, likely at a similar salary to the $2.5 million he made this year. Romo also became a big part of the Rays’ clubhouse and served as a veteran leader for a young pitching staff, but he has more to offer on the field than Gomez does at this point.
Much of Tampa Bay’s roster looked crowded going into the off-season. For example, after being acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates in the Chris Archer deal, Austin Meadows went to the Triple-A Durham Bulls and showed that he doesn’t have any business left in the minors, slashing .344/.396/.771 with 10 home runs in 27 games. Right now, though, the Rays don’t have an obvious path to giving him consistent playing time in their outfield next year with Pham, Kiermaier, and Smith all still on the team.
The infield is crowded as well. Willy Adames looks to be the primary shortstop in 2019, but after that, Joey Wendle, Matt Duffy, Daniel Robertson, and Brandon Lowe would all have to fight for playing time at second and third base if they are all still with the team next year. There’s even a bit of a logjam at first base and designated hitter with Jake Bauers, Ji-Man Choi, and C.J. Cron.
If the Rays are going to move anybody to clear space, the obvious candidates would seem to be Duffy and Cron simply due to service time. They each have just two seasons of team control left and will be eligible for free agency after the 2020 season. Meanwhile, Wendle, Robertson, and Choi each have five years of team control left. Adames, Bauers, and Lowe have six.
Duffy and Cron will also be the most expensive players of that group. MLB Trade Rumors projects Cron to earn $5.2 million next season through arbitration with Duffy expected to make $2.6 million. Though those are certainly affordable salaries if the Rays decide they want one or both of them back next year, the rest of that group is not yet eligible for arbitration and will all be far cheaper.
Of those two, Duffy is the one who seems more expendable. Cron, who hit 30 home runs this season, provides the Rays with a right-handed hitting option at 1B/DH. He was also by far the most reliable source of power on a team that lacked it in 2018. If you do not count Wilson Ramos, who hit 14 home runs for the Rays before being traded to the Philadelphia Phillies on July 31, Tampa Bay’s next most home runs were the 11 hit by Bauers.
Who will catch?
Probably the biggest question the Rays have to answer this off-season is who will be their primary catcher in 2019. After trading Ramos, the Rays planned to give Michael Perez the rest of the season as their starting catcher to audition for the role next year. Perez fared relatively well, hitting .284/.302/.392 with one home run, five doubles and 11 RBI in 24 games. That gave him an 84 wRC+ and 0.2 fWAR. However, he did not play after August 28 due to a hamstring injury.
With Perez sidelined, the Rays called up 2013 first-round pick Nick Ciuffo. He hit just .189/.262/.297 with one home run and five RBI in 16 games. That graded out to just a 56 wRC+ and negative 0.1 fWAR. Meanwhile, Jesus Sucre had the kind of season that gave Rays fans unfortunate flashbacks to the days of Jose Molina. In 73 games Sucre hit .209/.247/.253, with one home run and 17 RBI, good for a 35 wRC+ and negative 0.8 fWAR.
Ramos is the top catcher available in free agency this off-season. However, if the Rays felt they had much of a chance to re-sign him, they likely would not have traded him to the Phillies for nothing. Free agency’s other top catcher is Yasmani Grandal, but it would also be somewhat surprising if the Rays could afford him.
It’s possible that the rebuilding Miami Marlins could make J.T. Realmuto available in trade talks, as he has just two seasons of team control left. The first-time All-Star was baseball’s best backstop this year, leading qualified catchers with a 126 wRC+ and 4.8 fWAR. The Marlins do not have to trade him yet, so their asking price would be understandably steep.
Perhaps the price will be steeper than the Rays would be willing to pay for just two years of Realmuto’s services. However, filling their hole at catcher with arguably the best catcher in the game right now would seem to solidify the Rays’ status as a strong contender for a postseason spot in 2019. If Tampa Bay isn’t able to land any of those big fish, other catchers available in free agency include Jonathan Lucroy, Devin Mesoraco, Kurt Suzuki, Matt Wieters, Martin Maldonado, Rene Rivera, and Nick Hundley.
The Rays should actually have some money to spend this off-season. The only player they have under contract for next season right now is Kiermaier, who will make just a little over $8.1 million. If you fill out the rest of the roster with their pre-arbitration players and the projected salaries for their players who are eligible for arbitration, that still brings the payroll to around $32 million. Tampa Bay’s Opening Day payroll this year was about $70 million.
In fact, the Rays pretty much have to spend some money this off-season as going into a year with postseason expectations with such a low payroll would be a terrible look for the franchise. No, they will not be in the Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, or potential Clayton Kershaw sweepstakes, but perhaps they could acquire a bigger name than they do. All that adds up to a fun and intriguing off-season in Tampa Bay.
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