Tampa Bay remodeled its pitching staff as the team prepares to defend its American League pennant.

Major League Signings

Trades & Claims

Notable Minor League Signings

Extensions

Notable Losses

The Rays began their offseason by, as usual, trimming payroll.  Declining club options on Charlie Morton and Mike Zunino removed $19.5MM in potential expenditures off the team’s books, though in Zunino’s case, the two sides only temporarily parted ways.  Zunino re-signed with the team for $3MM in guaranteed money, plus another $3MM more in total earnings if the Rays choose to exercise another club option on the catcher for 2022.

In short, the Zunino situation saved the team $1.5MM, and they ended up retaining a player they clearly value as a defender.  Zunino has yet to show much of anything at the plate as he enters his third season in Tampa, though as we’ll explore later, Zunino wasn’t the only move the Rays made to address their seemingly neverending quest for catching help.

Declining Morton’s option was a bigger call for the Rays, given how the veteran performed over his two seasons with the club.  Yet, as always, general manager Erik Neander and his front office looked to maximize the Rays’ value on what (little) they had available to spend.  Exercising Morton’s club option would have cost the Rays $15MM, whereas signing three starters and three relievers (Chris Archer, Rich Hill, Michael Wacha, Collin McHugh, Chaz Roe, Oliver Drake) ended up costing the team a combined $15.725MM.  Heading into a season where pitching depth may be more important than ever, the Rays managed to get six free agent arms for the price of one pitcher entering his age-37 season.

This is standard operating practice for the Rays, even when the team is reloading for what they hope will be a return trip to the World Series.  Not many pennant winners head into the next season having parted ways with two top-of-the-rotation starters, yet that’s exactly what Tampa Bay did in saying goodbye to Morton and in trading Blake Snell to the Padres.

The Snell trade was one of the offseason’s biggest moves for any team, and there was obviously a financial component.  Snell is owed $39MM over the 2021-23 seasons, so the Rays again cleared some money.  For moving a former Cy Young Award winner with three years of control, the Rays picked up a four-player package that they believe can help them in the coming years and as early as the 2021 season.

Luis Patino, one of the sport’s top pitching prospects, is expected to be called up at some point during the year to add yet another arm to the Rays’ rotation mix.  Francisco Mejia is serving as Zunino’s backup and, should Mejia start to show any of his past top-prospect potential, could end up supplanting Zunino in 2021 and onward as the Rays’ regular catcher.  Right-hander Cole Wilcox and catcher Blake Hunt are longer-term pieces that could prove useful down the road and give the Rays a pair of recent early draftees with high ceilings to bolster a perennially strong farm.

Time will tell if the Rays made the correct move in trading Snell when they did, and it could be that the deal only occurred because San Diego was the only team willing (or able, given the Padres’ deep farm system) to meet Tampa Bay’s big asking price.  It probably also didn’t hurt that the Rays already had a lot of familiarity with the Padres’ prospects given how the two teams have been frequent trade partners in recent years.

With Morton and Snell gone, Tyler Glasnow and Ryan Yarbrough are the provisional top two starters in the Tampa rotation, with Hill, Archer, and Wacha all signed to one-year contracts to round out the starting five.  That initial rotation has already hit a snag since Archer is on the injured list with right lateral forearm tightness, though Archer isn’t expected to miss much time.

Josh Fleming has stepped into the rotation in Archer’s place, providing the first glimpse of the second layer of the Rays’ pitching depth.  Fleming, swingman McHugh, Patino, Trevor Richards, Shane McClanahan, and Brent Honeywell Jr. could all end up getting regular starts as the season progresses, or at least handle bulk-pitcher duties behind an opener.

Pitching was very much at the forefront of the Rays’ winter plans, as the team reportedly had interest in such names as Martin Perez, Mike Foltynewicz, Julio Teheran, and Anibal Sanchez.  Tampa Bay also made strong bids to sign Corey Kluber and acquire Jameson Taillon from the Pirates, though both Kluber and Taillon ended up on the division-rival Yankees.

While there was risk involved in all of those pitchers on the Rays’ target list, they also ended up rolling the dice on the pitchers they did acquire.  Archer missed all of 2020 due to thoracic outlet syndrome surgery and hasn’t pitched well essentially since the moment Tampa dealt the right-hander to Pittsburgh at the July 2018 trade deadline.  As fun as it would be (well, for everyone besides Pirates fans) to see Archer reignite his career with his former team, it is still very unclear if the righty can be a notable contributor.

The same can be said of Wacha, as injuries and an increasingly large home run rate have drastically worsened the right-hander’s results in the years since his All-Star peak with the Cardinals.  Thanks to his increased velocity and strong swinging-strike numbers, however, Wacha did draw some interest from around the league despite some pretty miserable bottom-line numbers (6.62 ERA) over 34 innings with the Mets in 2020.

Hill is a different story, as the southpaw has continued to pitch effectively even as he enters his age-41 season.  Since the start of the 2017 campaign, Hill and Morton have very similar numbers — except Hill has only tossed 375 2/3 innings to Morton’s 563 1/3 innings.  Since Hill has proven he can deliver front-of-the-rotation production when healthy, the Rays will be particularly careful with his usage to keep him fresh for what they hope will be some important innings come October.

The bullpen also saw quite a bit of turnover, as McHugh and minor league signing Hunter Strickland were added in free agency, and the duo of Chris Mazza and Jeffrey Springs were acquired in an inter-division trade with the Red Sox.  Drake, Roe, and Andrew Kittredge were re-signed to new contracts, while Jose Alvarado, Aaron Loup, Aaron Slegers, and John Curtiss were all shuffled out of the relief corps.

Bullpen reorganization is a Rays staple, and the team will need as much depth as it can find from the farm system due to a number of early injuries.  Roe (shoulder strain) and Nick Anderson (partial elbow ligament tear) will be out until at least July, while Drake was re-signed with the knowledge that he’d also be out until around midseason due to a forearm problem.  Right-hander Pete Fairbanks is also sidelined until May due to a rotator cuff strain.

Given all these injuries, it isn’t surprising that the Rays are at or near the bottom of several team bullpen categories, but this is a problem that needs to be quickly solved considering how quality relief pitching has been a cornerstone of the Rays’ success.  If the bullpen is struggling, it puts even more pressure on the starters to not just post quality innings, but to eat innings altogether, which is doesn’t fit the Rays’ usual pitching strategy.

With so much offseason focus on the rotation and bullpen, Tampa Bay did very little with its group of position players.  Besides re-signing Zunino and adding Mejia, the Rays are more or less running it back with the 2020 group intact.  This isn’t to say that the team didn’t at least check into some notable acquisitions, as the Rays were linked to Kolten Wong, Yoenis Cespedes, and even Marcell Ozuna at different points in the offseason (though according to reports, Ozuna would have only been a realistic addition if he had been willing to accept a one-year contract).

Hunter Renfroe was let go in free agency, and the only other notable subtraction from the position player mix was Nate Lowe, who was traded to the Rangers as part of a six-player deal.  Since the Rays also picked up a couple of other first base prospects in Evan Edwards and Dillon Paulson over the winter, Tampa Bay might have felt it had the depth to part with Lowe, especially since the first base picture on the big league roster was also pretty crowded.

Two weeks into the season, however, Lowe is off to a pretty solid start — .245/.327/.510 with four home runs in 55 plate appearances.  Not earth-shattering numbers, though they do stand out considering that Ji-Man Choi is injured and Yoshi Tsutsugo and Mike Brosseau are both in season-opening slumps.  Lowe was even an above-average hitter (106 wRC+, 109 OPS+) over 245 PA with Tampa in 2019-20, but the Rays never seemed particularly enamored with the idea of giving him an extended look at first base.

While the Rays haven’t gotten off to a good start as a whole in 2021, it’s obviously way too early to write off a team that has made a habit of overachieving.  The Rays’ habit of finding hidden gems in trades or low-level waiver pickups also makes it somewhat difficult to evaluate their moves in the moment.  Who would’ve thought that postseason hero Randy Arozarena would end up as the headline acquisition of the 2019-20 offseason, for instance?  More pivots and roster alterations are certainly likely to occur over the course of the season, as Tampa Bay is perpetually looking to both build and rebuild even while vying for a playoff berth.

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