Since my last article, the mood around the Rays has shifted dramatically. The month of July has been nothing short of a disaster for the former American League leaders. With an abysmal 3-13 record this month so far, the Rays have surrendered a 6.5 game lead in the AL East to now trailing the red-hot Orioles by two games at the time of writing. The team has lost a staggering 32% in their division-winning odds and while the playoffs still seem likely, a wild card series seems considerably more probable.
A potential three-game series with the season on the line is a scary prospect for any team, with Tampa Bay especially having a tendency to run out of energy come October, and those three extra games could prove detrimental.
That’s the bad news. The wheels are falling off with the exact same team that was easily the best team in all of baseball for the first three months of the year without any significant changes to the lineup or rotation through injury. The good news? It’s trade deadline time. This is a chance for Kevin Cash to bolster his roster with extra reinforcements that can add a jolt of energy to an anemic lineup, or some valuable innings to a taxed rotation that is feeling the pressure of injuries to the likes of Shane Baz, Drew Rasmussen and Jeffrey Springs. Sometimes, all it takes is one quality player to alter the feel of a team and change the trajectory of a season – right now, the Rays could definitely do with some good vibes.
Two things: What’s going wrong this month? Is there an obvious leak in the ship that’s causing the rapid descent? If so, is there a player that can come in to fix it? Let’s take a look and see who the Rays should target over the next week to get back into the fight in the historically difficult American League East.
Before a team can start making acquisitions, they need to know where they can improve the team. At the end of April, the answer seemed to be: nowhere. Things have soured a bit since then. For the most part, the general consensus about what the Rays need more than anything is starting pitching. While a front three of Shane McClanahan, Zach Eflin and Tyler Glasnow seems great, the team has found it hard to replicate the quality of Rasmussen and Springs at the back end of the rotation, losing them both to elbow surgery for the rest of 2023. Taj Bradley has shown signs of promise with excellent stuff and the ability to generate a lot of swings and misses, he is still just a rookie and has yet to demonstrate much consistency at the major-league level. Yonny Chirinos was occupying the number five spot in the rotation, but he struggled enough for Erik Neander to decide to move on from the right-hander, DFA’ing him. Cooper Criswell is taking the ‘bulk’ on what is currently deemed bullpen days every fifth day, but it is certain that Kevin Cash would like to avoid taxing his high-leverage arms when it can be avoided. This indicates that while the ‘playoff starters’ of McLanahan, Eflin and Glasnow are all locked in, a mid-to-back of the rotation arm that can provide quality innings would be of great value to the team right now to avoid pitchers getting tired before the postseason.
In May, there was a feeling that the Rays could do with some significant additions to the bullpen, but since the beginning of June, Tampa Bay’s relievers have been nothing short of excellent, posting a 3.03 ERA since June 1st, which is the best in the American League. The additions of Robert Stephenson and Jake Diekman, as well as a healthy Pete Fairbanks have all contributed to that. With Andrew Kittredge and highly-regarded relief prospect Colby White expected to return from long-term injury in the next couple of weeks, it would be logical to assume that the front office won’t be prioritising relievers come August 1st unless they find a valuable piece that will develop into an elite bullpen presence for 2024 and beyond, similarly to when the Rays acquired Nick Anderson.
Position players and the offense are the most curious conundrums on this team heading into the deadline. Through the first third of 2023, people would say you were crazy if you suggested the Rays needed to change anything about the lineup at all. They were leading the Major Leagues in every notable offensive category, mashing the ball to all fields and putting up home runs at a historic rate, but things have significantly cooled down. Since the first of July, the Rays are averaging 3.3 runs per game, the lowest in baseball. They have a cringe-inducing 82 wRC+ over that span, putting them second worst in the AL above only the cellar-dwelling Royals. What happened?
The Rays’ offense this month gets more confusing the more you look into it. Under the hood, all signs point to the Rays having a great month with the stick. Their average exit velocity is 90.2mph, the highest of any month this season. The average launch angle is 12.1°, again the highest it has been. Their expected batting average and slugging percentage are second only to May’s results. The team’s quality of contact has been nothing short of excellent, but yet no positive results. You can firstly point to a bit of what should be unsustainable bad luck, as the Rays have a .259 BABIP (Batting average on balls in play) in the month of July. For context, when ranking every team’s BABIP over every month of the season so far (30 Teams multiplied by four months to measure, equalling 120 months) the Rays July BABIP ranks at 115th. Simply put, the team has not been having their balls in play land for hits as often as they should considering the quality of contact – which indicates some bad luck.
More importantly, the team has become unglued over the past three weeks, veering away from their usually disciplined approach and cutting their walk rate down dramatically. When once again ranking every team’s month individually, the Rays were in the top 50 months in terms of walks and on-base percentage in their March/April, May and June. But they are 119th in OBP in July, trailing only the June Yankees. This approach has cost them dearly, as this denied the team valuable baserunners, leading to fewer chances to score. Their hit sequencing has been all out of whack too. They have really struggled to get hits when runners are on base. Out of the 21 home runs they have hit this month, only 5 of them have been with runners on base. They also rank dead last by a large margin in Fangraphs clutch factor, which is determined by a team’s production with runners on and/or in scoring position.
This is a fixable issue – a terrible combination of bad luck, unfortunate hit sequencing and a loss of plate discipline are all things that likely conform to positive regression in the near future. The lineup is likely pressing out of frustration due to the lack of productivity which, in turn, is leading to an uptick in strikeouts and downtick in walks. Kevin Cash and Chad Mottola need to continue to instill confidence into their position players, they have all demonstrated that they are extremely capable hitters and if they go back to taking one good at-bat at a time things will start to go their way again.
Apart from the catching position and perhaps DH, there is no clear position where you would want improvement. A lefty bat that can perform well against right-handed pitchers could be useful, but finding one without reducing playing time from the current core would be difficult.
Assuming that the offence will see some improvement sooner rather than later, starting pitching is the most pressing need for this team right now. Someone that can take the inning pressure off the front three starters and add some stability to a battered and bruised staff. Let’s take a look at what might be a good fit for the Rays in that department.
Let’s start with the ideal candidate, someone who has proven to not only be a good starting pitcher and an elite left-handed bat – Shohei Ohtani. A dream scenario, to be sure, the Rays have been linked with the Japanese superstar by several reporters and there is a non-zero chance they could pick up the two-way sensation for a three-month rental. He leads the league in home runs and has an ERA in the threes – he’s everything and he’s perfect. The cost, however, would be huge. It has already been reported that it would take multiple top-100 prospects and at least one major-league-ready player to get the job done, which is a LOT for a rental player, but when talking about potentially the best player the game has ever seen, it might just be worth it. A potential package for Ohtani would probably look something like this:
- Cutis Mead (3B – AAA)
- Carson Williams (SS – A)
- Taj Bradley (SP – MLB)
- Mason Montgomery (SP – AA)
- Shane Baz* (SP – MLB)
*Injured until 2024
Steep, right? But perhaps worth it if he is the missing piece to bring Tampa Bay its first World Series.
The best traditional starting pitcher that seems up for grabs this trade deadline is Marcus Stroman of the Cubs. Stroman has been excellent in Chicago this season and is in the running for the NL Cy Young award. Despite not having blow-away stuff, Stroman is a master of the sinker and avoiding hard contact and flyballs. He is no stranger to providing length in his starts, he threw a complete game shutout against the Rays earlier this year, after all. He is a more stretched-out, more experienced Drew Rasmussen in many respects, thriving off pitch efficiency and ground balls – which would favour the Rays’ superb infield defence. He won’t be cheap either despite also being a rental, but would be far easier to acquire than Ohtani.
Another name linked to the Rays is from the other side of Chicago, Lance Lynn. It has been a struggle for the veteran right-hander on the South Side, but he has managed to generate a lot of swing-and-miss with his stuff – it’s just that when he does surrender contact, it’s hit hard. If the Rays can see an avenue for improvement in barrel rate, Lance Lynn would be a good choice to eat innings and provide a veteran leadership presence to a core of young pitching down the stretch, and due to both his and the White Sox’s struggles, could come for relatively cheap.
The final names that the Rays have been formally linked to are Cardinals hurlers Jordan Montgomery and Jack Flaherty. Both players are free agents at the end of the season and have been some of the better performers in an underwhelming St Louis team. The former seems like an excellent fit considering his excellent command of the strike zone and ability to limit walks, something the Rays front office highly values. The latter has better stuff but has seen struggles with command – which could be a riskier gamble. Both should be affordable as the Cards have already signalled their intentions to sell off players this week.
Of course, this is the Rays, so expect the unexpected. This team often will take the less-traveled route to find options no one else had thought of, finding diamonds in the rough and developing fixer-upper projects quickly. Keep an open mind this week, Rays fans. Things will get better, and the excitement of this season is only just getting started.