By Matthew Vandenburgh
The Tampa Bay Rays begin Spring training soon, pitchers and catchers reporting on Wednesday, Feb. 13 and position players on Monday, Feb. 18. This is an important season upcoming for the Rays, can they improve upon their surprising 90-72 record last year, or will they return to their losing ways?
Much of that hinges on the offseason moves the Rays made. The biggest one so far has been the trade that sent young first baseman Jake Bauers to the Cleveland Indians in return for Yandy Diaz, and acquiring catcher Mike Zunino and outfielder Guillermo Heredia from the Seattle Mariners in a trade for Mallex Smith. These players, along with Avisail Garcia, are expected to add a boost to the offense, especially Zunino at catcher, a position the Rays were fairly thin in after dealing away All-Star Wilson Ramos last season. There were rumors the Rays were trying hard to land J.T Realmuto from the Marlins thanks to the extraordinary farm system depth Tampa Bay has, but, he was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies on Feb. 7 instead.
The pitching staff of the Rays should be improved as well. The Rays landed All-Star pitcher Charlie Morton, who signed a two-year, $30 million deal with a third-year option. Getting Morton as a free agent is a bit of a coup, as All-Star players do not usually come to Tampa Bay. Morton, however, seemed comfortable with the idea, as he lives in Bradenton during the offseason and was excited to play close to home.
“The thought of being able to play close to home and with such a talented group, a young group, and exciting group, seemed something too good to be true,” Morton told mlb.com. “I guess I was looking for a really good situation overall more than a dollar amount, more than a year amount. The quality of the character in the clubhouse, those things are really important to me.”
With the addition of Morton, the Rays have the potential to have a scary three-headed monster headlining their pitching rotation. Adding him to promising young flamethrower Tyler Glasnow, whose fastball can reach 97 miles per hour, and reigning Cy Young award winner Blake Snell, the team should be dangerous and tough to score on this season.
A lot still depends on some big-name free agents still available. Neither Manny Machado nor Bryce Harper has signed a contract with an MLB team yet, and either player would make any lineup in baseball one to watch. To be realistic here, there is no way the Rays could sign either player, as their asking prices are fathoms away from what Tampa Bay can afford. They can sign for division rivals though, which would make the season that much harder. Imagine if the New York Yankees land Harper, adding another monster player to an already insanely dangerous outfield.
More realism is that the Rays most likely do not have a shot at the Eastern Division title. If the team wants playoff baseball, a wild-card berth is the best option. The Yankees and the defending World Series Champion Boston Red Sox will again have a stranglehold on the top two spots in the East, and not much short of catastrophic injuries will do much to change that.
What the Rays can do though is dominate the other two teams in their division, and improve upon their interleague play from last year, where they were dreadful. Playoff baseball is a distinct reality for Tampa Bay in 2019, but it will take some luck and a lot of good play.