The Tampa Bay Rays are in a somewhat extraordinary position. Their Opening Day payroll in 2018 was about $76 million. Right now, their projected Opening Day payroll for 2019 is about $36 million. Never a big spender in free agency, the Rays actually have some money to play with this offseason. Rather than having to search for bargains, they’re now able to add an impact player.
They seem to be leaving no stone unturned in their search to improve, and are checking in on bigger names than they typically do. They had interest in acquiring Paul Goldschmidt from the Arizona Diamondbacks, but knowing they wouldn’t have been able to afford to extend him, ultimately weren’t willing to offer as much as the St. Louis Cardinals did. Meanwhile, they’ve reportedly spoken to the Cleveland Indians about Edwin Encarnacion, and they continue to be linked to free agent designated hitter Nelson Cruz. It’s clear the Rays want to add a powerful, (preferably) right-handed bat to the middle of their lineup. Letting go of C.J. Cron was essentially a gamble that they will be able to add someone they see as an upgrade over him.
What about adding a starting pitcher, though? The Rays finished last season with just two starters, Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow, while using openers the rest of the time. Though they plan on continuing to use openers, they’ve said that their preference for 2019 would be to have three starters. The Rays were one of the teams said to be interested in Noah Syndergaard early in the off-season when his name was appearing in rumors. It now seems highly unlikely that the New York Mets will trade him. Another player whose name was out there was Carlos Carrasco. However, he’s no longer on the market after signing an extension with the Indians.
There are still some potential big additions the Rays could make to their rotation, though. Let’s take a look at some of them.
Potential Tampa Bay Rays Starting Pitching Targets
2018: 33 starts, 215 innings, 20-7, 2.89 ERA, 3.12 FIP, 0.99 WHIP
Carrasco is sticking around, but Cleveland could reportedly still move either Corey Kluber or Trevor Bauer. Pairing either one with Snell at the top of their rotation would give the Rays one heck of a two-headed monster.
Let’s talk about Kluber first. Snell, of course, is the reigning American League Cy Young winner. Kluber won the award in 2014 and 2017, and was nominated again this past season. Kluber will make $17 million in 2019, then has team options for $17.5 million in 2020 and $18 million in 2021. Those are hefty salaries for a team like the Rays, but still a bargain for a player like Kluber, who has been one of baseball’s very best pitchers over the last five years.
The Indians would rightfully want a haul of valuable assets in exchange for Kluber, who will be 33-years-old next season. So as much as the Rays have to love the idea of pairing him with Snell at the top of their rotation, we will see if they are willing to both trade what it would take to get the Indians to move him, and take on his salary.
2018: 28 games (27 starts), 175.1 innings, 12-6, 2.21 ERA, 2.44 FIP, 1.09 WHIP
2018 was the year Bauer finally showed the potential that made him the third-overall pick of the 2011 draft. Bauer suffered a fractured leg on August 11th, and didn’t return until September 21st. He pitched just 9.1 more innings before the end of the season. Had he not suffered that injury, he would have had a strong case for the Cy Young in his own right. Bauer is projected to make $11.6 million through arbitration in 2019, then will get another raise in 2020 before becoming eligible for free agency.
Never lacking confidence or one to hold back his opinions, Bauer has already said that Cleveland won’t be able to afford to keep him once he hits free agency. As an even smaller-budget operation than the Indians, obviously the Rays wouldn’t be able to, either. Bauer is younger than Kluber, as he turns 28 in January, but has one fewer year of control remaining. Considering that, and that Bauer isn’t as celebrated of a player in Cleveland as Kluber is, he seems like the one who may be more likely to go, especially given those comments that he’s probably not sticking around after 2020. However, given his breakout performance in 2018, the Rays would still need to be prepared to give up a significant package if they want to have Bauer’s services for the next two seasons.
2018: 21 starts, 129.2 innings, 6-7, 3.26 ERA, 3.99 FIP, 1.24 WHIP
Madison Bumgarner is entering the final year of his contract, and the San Francisco Giants have lost 187 games over the last two seasons. If new general manager Farhan Zaidi doesn’t think contention is realistic in 2019, his first big move in San Francisco could be to move a franchise icon. For the second straight season, Bumgarner spent a significant amount of time on the disabled list. In 2017, Bumgarner was injured in a dirt biking accident. This year in spring training he was hit by a line drive, and broke his finger. The 29-year-old lefty returned in June and had a solid season. Although, of somewhat concern is that his strikeouts dipped for the second straight year. Bumgarner’s K/9 rate went from 9.97 in 2016 to 8.19 in 2017 to 7.57 in 2018.
Bumgarner should still be attractive to the Rays for a lot of reasons. For starters, his $12 million salary for 2019 is very affordable. Also, if he is in decline, the Rays are only making a one-year commitment to him. His injuries happened in freak accidents, and Bumgarner had been remarkably durable prior to that. He made at least 31 starts and threw more than 200 innings in every season from 2011 to 2016. He should have plenty of motivation as he plays out the final year of what turned out to be a very team-friendly contract and looks for his big pay day in free agency next year.
With one year left, Bumgarner also shouldn’t cost as much to trade for as Kluber or Bauer. Given that he’s still just 29, it’s also possible that Bumgarner could still get back to being his old, dominant self if he can stay healthy in 2019. Still, even if he’s no longer the true ace he once was, he’d look very nice as a number two behind Snell.
2018: 30 starts, 167 innings, 15-3, 3.13 ERA, 3.59 FIP, 1.16 WHIP
If the Rays are unwilling to pay in a trade, they could turn to the free-agent market. Sure enough, they reportedly have interest in Charlie Morton. The 35-year-old came into his own over the last two years with the Houston Astros. He proved his success in 2017 wasn’t a fluke with a strong 2018 season. Even though he’s pitching better than ever, Morton has openly talked about how he doesn’t plan on playing much longer. As a result, he should be available on a short-term contract, perhaps even a one-year deal.
Morton seems to check all the boxes the Rays would be looking for. Should he be able to perform at a high level in 2019? Check. Could he potentially be had on a one-year contract? Check. They wouldn’t have to give up anything to get him other than money, of which they have plenty to spend right now? Check. They wouldn’t even have to give up draft pick compensation, since the Astros didn’t extend Morton the $17.9 million qualifying offer.
2018: 31 starts, 177.2 innings, 17-6, 3.65 ERA, 3.98 FIP, 1.13 WHIP
Like Morton, Happ is a free agent. Also like Morton, the 36-year-old lefty has come into his own in the latter part of his career. The Toronto Blue Jays bought into Happ’s improved performance over the second half of the 2015 season with the Pittsburgh Pirates, signing him to a three-year, $36 million contract to bring him back for a second stint with the team. Happ proved his breakout was for real and certainly gave the Blue Jays their money’s worth. In 77 starts for Toronto from 2016-2018, Happ went 40-21 with a 3.41 ERA. He was also strong down the stretch following a trade to the New York Yankees. Happ went 7-0 with a 2.69 ERA in 11 starts in pinstripes.
Happ also posted the best strikeout rate of his career in 2018, striking out 9.78 batters per nine innings. It doesn’t hurt that he’s proven himself in the AL East, either. Happ may not appeal to the Rays as much as Morton. The lefty seems less likely to accept a one-year deal.