Offseason In Review: Tampa Bay Rays


The Rays made some modest free-agent investments, cleaned up a 40-man roster crunch via the trade market and issued the largest contract in franchise history to solidify their burgeoning star shortstop as a bona fide franchise cornerstone.

Major League Signings

Option Decisions

Trades and Claims

Extensions

Notable Minor League Signings

Notable Losses

Entering the offseason, the Rays had a noted 40-man roster crunch. With a staggering 19 players eligible for arbitration and several prospects in need of protection from a Rule 5 Draft that never happened — though no one knew that would be the case at the time — a slate of trades appeared to be a foregone conclusion. Tampa Bay shipped out infielder Mike Brosseau, righties Brent Honeywell Jr. and Louis Head, and first baseman/outfielder Jordan Luplow in early, mostly minor swaps. Brosseau, Honeywell, Head and righty Tobias Myers were dealt before the Nov. 19 tender deadline. Luplow went a week later.

In terms of more notable dealings, the Rays again linked up with a frequent trading partner, sending Joey Wendle to Miami just days before the lockout. Wendle was a key role player whose arbitration price had perhaps climbed to the point where a Rays team deep in affordable infield/outfield options deemed it untenable. The Marlins, lacking such depth (at least on the position-player side of the coin) parted with outfield prospect Kameron Misner, whom they’d tabbed with the No. 35 overall pick in 2019. Misner isn’t necessarily regarded as a premium prospect, but he’s a toolsy 24-year-old with good speed and defense, a knack for drawing walks and decent power marks in the minors.

The Wendle trade — as with the Rays’ earlier swaps — was hardly an indication that Tampa Bay was looking to tear things down. Quite to the contrary, it was yet another data point in the team’s penchant for selling high on players they believe they can replace more affordably in-house, even if said player has multiple, generally affordable years of control remaining. The Rays, who won 100 games in 2021, entered the offseason firmly intent on contending for another AL East crown in 2022, and their November signings of veterans Corey Kluber and Brooks Raley speak to that reality.

Kluber’s 2021 season was a mixed bag, and that’s reflected in his fairly modest $8MM price tag. Three calendar years have elapsed since Kluber was last viewed as a Cy Young, Game 1-caliber starter. A broken forearm, an oblique strain, a teres major strain and last year’s shoulder strain have all dampened his productivity. Kluber was a solid but generally unspectacular mid-rotation piece with the Yankees in 2021, when healthy. That may sound like underselling a pitcher who tossed a no-hitter last May, but set aside that historic gem and one dominant, eight-inning victory over the Tigers a few weeks prior, and the bulk of Kluber’s starts were pedestrian. He tossed 17 scoreless frames in those two outings and otherwise allowed 37 runs in 63 frames. From the point of his activation from the injured list, Kluber worked to a 5.40 ERA in his final 26 2/3 innings.

None of that is intended as an indictment on Kluber. Rather, it’s to illustrate the reasons he was generally affordable and to point to the perhaps boom-or-bust nature he now brings to Tampa Bay. Kluber showed full well that he’s still capable of dominating at times last year, but he’s averaging five innings per start with the Rays and is sitting at 90.8 mph with a career-low strikeout rate through four outings. The Rays more than deserve the benefit of the doubt when it comes to maximizing a pitcher’s abilities, but Kluber isn’t the workhorse he once was and arguably doesn’t offer much more than a third or fourth starter’s upside over the duration of a full season’s workload.

As for Raley, he was the recipient of a perhaps unexpected two-year commitment. That it came from a data-driven club like Tampa Bay is hardly a surprise. Raley had the lowest opponents’ average exit velocity of any MLB pitcher in both 2020 and 2021, pairing that with elite spin rates on his heater and breaking pitch, as well as gaudy strikeout and swinging-strike totals. The fact that Raley cashed in on a multi-year deal despite a 4.83 ERA in that 2020-21 period is another reminder that most teams in 2022 care little about traditional baseball-card numbers.

While Kluber and Raley were the team’s two biggest free-agent pickups prior to the lockout (and, as it turned out, of the entire offseason), the most notable move they made before baseball’s shutdown was locking down explosive young shortstop Wander Franco for more than a decade. The 21-year-old wunderkind debuted last year and showed no signs of his youth and inexperience, hitting at a .288/.347/.463 pace and at one point reaching base in 43 consecutive games.

Franco’s contract is not only a record for the Rays but also the largest contract ever given to a player with under a year of service time — eclipsing Ronald Acuna Jr.’s eight-year, $100MM deal by a considerable margin. There’s obviously a fair bit of risk when committing a sum of this magnitude to a player who has appeared in all of 70 Major League games, but Franco has been heralded as a potential superstar since signing for a $4MM bonus as a 16-year-old amateur. Had the Rays waited even another year, they might’ve been priced out of the picture entirely. Fernando Tatis Jr., for instance, signed a $341MM extension with just two years of Major League service time. As teams have become increasingly confident in their long-term projections and shown a willingness to pay closer to market value on extensions of this nature, the ability to secure a legitimate superstar talent at a bargain-basement rate has largely eroded.

That’s not to characterize the Franco extension as an overpay, of course. If Franco performs as expected, the roughly $25.4MM annual value associated with what would have been his first five free-agent seasons would be an unmitigated bargain. That’s true even by today’s standards but figures to be even more emphatically true come the 2027-28 offseason — when Franco would’ve been scheduled to reach the market.

There’s some risk associated on both sides of the agreement. There’s a real chance that Franco will end up having “left money on the table,” just as there’s risk for the Rays that injuries derail Franco’s career or that, more unexpectedly, his development stalls out. But the Rays have to be thrilled to have him locked up, Franco himself has a chance to earn $200MM by the time he’s in his early 30s, and Rays fans can treat this as a watershed moment in their franchise’s history. Owners of other small-market clubs may not love to see the low-payroll Rays spending at this level — it bucks the narrative that said teams can’t afford to extend their own stars — but generally speaking the extension feels like a rare win for all parties. Even the MLBPA must be pleased to see Franco advance the record for players with less than a year of service by 82%; as recently as 2019, no player with under a year of service had even topped $26MM in guaranteed money.

With Franco extended, Kluber and Raley in the door, and a lot of 40-man maintenance performed on the trade market, the Rays headed into the lockout having already completed a good chunk of their offseason business. Given the team’s payroll, there was still some thought that a few trades could come together following the lockout. Perennial trade candidate Kevin Kiermaier, earning $12MM in the final guaranteed year of his contract, acknowledged that he felt he might be destined for a change of scenery. Tyler Glasnow, out for most if not all of the 2022 season but earning a $5.1MM salary, also conceded he’d thought about whether Tampa Bay would move him.

Reports throughout the winter had suggested that left fielder/designated hitter Austin Meadows could also be on the move, and in the end, it was Meadows alone who proved to be the only post-lockout subtraction of note on the trade market. The Tigers, having incurred multiple outfield injuries, shipped infielder Isaac Paredes and a Competitive Balance (Round B) draft selection to the Rays shortly before Opening Day, securing three years of control over Meadows in the process.

Paredes, 23, isn’t far removed from being a well-regarded prospect within the Tigers and Cubs systems, but he’s struggled at the plate through 57 big league games thus far in his still-young career. The Tigers undoubtedly were happy to secure three years of control over a potential 30-homer bat, defensive limitations notwithstanding. The Rays, meanwhile, have a strong developmental track record and typically place a premium on players with Paredes’ type of versatility. He’s already played second base, shortstop and third base in the big leagues, and while he came to the team with 1.009 years of service, he’s already spent enough time in the minors that he can’t get to two full years in 2022. In other words, he’ll be controlled until at least the 2027-28 offseason. Adding a pick in the mid-70s, and the draft pool money associated with it, is an additional bonus that’ll help the Rays maintain their always deep farm system.

Some fans may consider the return light for the Rays, but Tampa Bay has regularly moved on from first base/corner outfield bats as their arbitration prices climb. In offseasons past, the Rays designated both C.J. Cron and Jesus Aguilar for assignment — Cron on the heels of a 30-homer season — rather than pay either a raise in arbitration. Corey Dickerson was traded to the Pirates for a minimal return on the heels of an All-Star season with Tampa Bay in 2017. To the Rays’ credit, they’re usually able to find affordable replacements for those corner bats they’ve deemed expendable — one of the myriad reasons they remain in contention on a perennial basis.

The remainder of the Rays’ post-lockout dealings were modest in nature — although that’s not for lack of effort. The Rays emerged as a surprise, legitimate suitor for Freddie Freeman. Tampa Bay offered Freeman a guaranteed $150MM, per Jon Heyman of the New York Post (Twitter link) — a fairly shocking sum from them but one made possible by the team’s generally clean long-term payroll outlook. The Rays were also linked to Seiya Suzuki, reportedly offering nearly as much as the $85MM put forth by the Cubs. Either would’ve been the largest free-agent commitment ever made by Tampa Bay, trouncing the former franchise record, which is incredibly still just the two-year, $30MM deal given to Charlie Morton a few years back. (Franco, Evan Longoria and others have signed larger deals, but those were extensions rather than open-market expenditures.)

Ultimately, the majority of the Rays’ post-lockout moves were depth-oriented. Luke Raley — no relation to the aforementioned Brooks Raley — will help to replace some of the corner depth lost in the Meadows deal. That’s also true of the out-of-options Harold Ramirez, who’s had a hot start in a limited role and figures to continue holding a bench spot so long as he’s reasonably productive, as he can’t be sent to Triple-A without first clearing waivers.

Moving on from Meadows also paved a clearer path to the big leagues for touted prospect Josh Lowe, and while he was just optioned out after a tough start to the season, he’s viewed as a key long-term piece in St. Petersburg. With Lowe, Brett Phillips, Randy Arozarena and especially Kiermaier and Manuel Margot, the Rays have a premium defensive contingent for the outfield.

This may be the final year that Kiermaier counts himself among the group — the Rays hold a $13MM club option for 2023 ($2.5MM buyout) that they may deem too expensive — but the front office’s final notable move of the winter ensured that Margot will continue to provide them with stellar glovework for the foreseeable future. Margot inked a two-year, $19MM contract just prior to Opening Day. It’s yet another example of the Rays valuing skill sets they find harder to acquire than the prototypical bat-first, corner sluggers they’ve repeatedly been willing to cast off.

Margot is one of the game’s great defensive outfielders, and while he’s been at best an average hitter, it’s often more difficult to find an elite defender with passable offense than it is to find an above-average hitter with sub-par defensive skills. Margot would’ve been a free agent at season’s end, and a young one at that (28), but with any kind of offensive slip, his free-agent stock would’ve been severely hindered. He opted to lock in an eight-figure guarantee now, and while it’s a risk-averse approach for him, he also knows he can still hit the market at age 30.

Beyond Kluber, the Rays didn’t bring in any high-profile names, but they also didn’t really need to. Locking Franco up for the long haul was a franchise-defining move, and the majority of the talent by which he’s surrounded is already controlled affordably for years to come. If there’s one area the Rays could’ve perhaps been more proactive, it was in further acquiring rotation depth. Tampa Bay patched things together in 2021, looking ahead to an enviable core of Shane McClanahan, Shane Baz and Luis Patino atop the rotation mix. Even after they knew Glasnow would miss most of 2022, they still had Drew Rasmussen coming off a potential breakout, Brendan McKay and Yonny Chirinos on the mend, plus Ryan Yarbrough as an innings-eating option. But there are a lot of health concerns mixed into that group, and the Rays are again leaning on openers with Baz, McKay, Chirinos, Patino and Glasnow on the injured list. Luring veterans on minor league deals was probably difficult because of that deep reserve of pitching talent, but it’d be nice to have some extra hands to consider with so many injuries having arisen.

That minor critique aside, the Rays are yet again poised to compete for a division title even after yet again trading away some recognizable names. And on the position-player side of things, there’s effectively a top-100 prospect waiting in the wings should anyone other than Mike Zunino go down with an injury. Vidal Brujan can play the middle infield and the outfield. Josh Lowe is a plus defender in center. Curtis Mead is adept at either corner. The pipeline of young talent is seemingly endless at Tropicana Field, and that’ll serve the Rays well both in terms of roster depth and trade possibilities when they’re looking to improve this summer.





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