RBLR Rays: Life From A Deadline

Mercifully, the month of July has come to an end. After an abysmal stretch of 8-16 baseball over the past month, the Rays have managed to navigate their way through it and returned to their expected standards over the past week – taking two out of three from the Astros and Yankees on their current road trip. Things are starting to look up, but the team had some definite weaknesses that needed to be addressed in order to put their best foot forward in what is expected to be a heated battle for the American League East title with the Baltimore Orioles.

Luckily, the MLB trade deadline was upcoming. Erik Neander, Peter Bendix and the Rays’ front office had an opportunity to send for reinforcements and bring some quality players in the hunt for Troptober. How did they do? Is the team better than it was a week ago? Were the right moves made? Let’s take a look at what the Rays did at the deadline and examine what to expect from this year’s deals.

The Big Trade

The first trade of deadline season is what’s most likely to be the most impactful to the 2023 team:

Rays AcquireGuardians Acquire
RHP Aaron Civale1B Kyle Manzardo

The Rays have been in dire need of quality, major-league innings for some time. After both Drew Rasmussen and Jeffrey Springs suffered season-ending injuries early in the year, the team’s bulk pitching depth was tested. Now with ace Shane McClanahan gone for an extended period of time, this trade looks even more crucial. While Taj Bradley has shown spurts of brilliance, he still has some development ahead of him before he can be considered a reliable presence in the rotation. Zack Littell is being stretched out into becoming a starter similarly to Rasmussen and Springs before him, but again, time will tell if this proves to be a permanent fix.

To maintain consistency and avoid strain on an already taxed bullpen, the Rays needed an innings eater. Luckily for them, this year’s trade candidates were stuffed to the brim with veteran arms that ranged from future hall of famers to high-risk, high-reward gods of thunder.

Anyone familiar with how this front office operates knows that almost every option would have been seriously considered, but the player that was chosen was Aaron Civale of the Cleveland Guardians. Civale is a very interesting addition, and he would have to be for the Rays to surrender Kyle Manzardo, MLB.com’s #37 prospect and a highly-regarded hitter at every level of the minors he’s been in so far.

Civale, 28, was originally drafted by the Guardians in the third round of the 2016 draft. Since arriving to his parent club in 2019, he has proved to be an effective ‘pitch to contact’ guy that has been very good at limiting hard hit balls and keeping hitters off-balance enough to invoke groundballs and weak flyouts, without having to rely on swings and misses. This is just as well, as his stuff is definitely not considered overpowering.

This season, Civale has been nothing short of excellent for Cleveland. Through 77 innings, he has put up a 2.34 ERA and a 1.04 WHIP, which is among the league’s best pitchers who have pitched over 70 frames. He finds himself in the 88th percentile for opponent barrel percentage, proving how good he has been at limiting hard contact. He is averaging just under 6 innings per start, which includes a fabulous 8 inning outing against the Royals a couple of weeks ago, so he is also very capable of carrying the load for a team on any given night, which is exactly what the Rays need in their injury-stricken rotation.

In terms of his pitch mix, Civale is regarded as a bit of a ‘kitchen sink’ pitcher, as in he will throw a wide variety of pitches without relying too heavily on any particular offering. In 2023 thus far, he throws his cutter 38.7% of the time, the curve around 25%, a sinker at 17%, a four-seam fastball 12% of the time, a slider 4.6% and a splitter just under 2%. This is a very broad mix that isn’t usually employed by Rays pitchers under Kyle Snyder’s regime. He will likely look to narrow down Civale’s pitch mix into focussing on what pitches are most effective. In this case, that would be his cutter and curveball. Civale generates incredible amount of spin on these pitches, with the cutter in the 91st percentile among MLB pitchers this year and the curveball at an eye-popping 96th percentile.

The cutter currently holds a Statcast run value of +13, which means that his cutter has accumulated around 13 runs of value this season based on the advanced metric, this makes it a top 20 pitch in baseball this year by run value created. Which is of a similar value to Cy Young front runner: Blake Snell’s curveball or Framber Valdez’s sinker, who recently threw a no-hitter for Houston. The movement on his cutter is much more sharp than the major-league average, dropping and moving towards the pitcher’s glove side as it’s passing over the plate, meaning it rarely misses bats but is a perfect weapon for missing the barrel of the bat.

The curveball is Civale’s biggest weapon for swings and misses. It has an insane amount of vertical movement, almost six inches more than the major league average offering. He has a 27.8% swing and miss percentage on the pitch and can dazzle hitters with the ways it falls at tremendous speed. Both of these pitches are essential for Civale, and it is likely he will be asked to throw them more with the Rays.

He will likely be asked to throw less of his sinker, which has proved ineffective at the major league level. While pitchers that profile like Civale prefer to have as many options as possible, to stop hitters becoming too locked in on a particular pitch, they would be more likely to ask him to rely more heavily on his cutting and four-seam fastball offerings due to the velocity difference and whiff% on those pitches.

For a quick player comparison, he is very similar to fellow Ray, Zach Eflin – a strike thrower with underwhelming velocity and strikeout numbers, but with excellent spin rates and some outstanding movement and a wipeout curveball. To temper expectations slightly, his results have been a bit better than the quality of his contact would expect, and he is not likely to be a 2.40 ERA guy through the rest of the season. I would expect a mid to high threes ERA for the Rays for the remainder of 2023, which is still extremely valuable considering he is also under team control until the 2026 season.

The Smaller Trades

Alongside the headline trade for Civale, the Rays made a couple of smaller, under-the-radar trades on deadline day to help bolster some pitching and catching depth for the stretch run.

Rays AcquireCubs Acquire
RHP Manuel Rodriguez RHP Ardian Sampson International Bonus Pool MoneyRHP Josh Roberson

Having already released Sampson, the trade here is focused on right-handed reliever Manuel Rodriguez. Rodriguez has yet to pitch at the major league level in 2023, but has appeared in 34 games for Chicago over the past two seasons. While his result stats aren’t particularly impressive. He has a high-octane fastball that is complimented by a tumbling slider that drops downward sharply to make up for his relative lack of lateral movement. The stuff is definitely there for him to become a medium-to-high leverage arm for the Rays at some point this season once the Rays pitching staff get their hands on him. He primarily throws a sinker that is, on the whole, a below-average offering in terms of movement. I would expect the Rays to have him transition to a traditional fastball/slider mix. He is also developing a changeup that has some good drop too, so he is definitely an option to keep an eye on, but I wouldn’t expect to depend on him this year.

Rays AcquireBrewers Acquire
C Alex JacksonRHP Evan McKendry

With the injury to Francisco Mejia sidelining the backstop for the next few weeks, the Rays are having to roll with a battery of Christian Bethancourt and the recently recalled Rene Pinto. While they are a completely serviceable pair between them, any further injuries would leave the team without any comfortable options behind the plate which could prove a big problem considering the importance of having competent catching while pitching. This is where Alex Jackson comes in.

Jackson, 27, is a former first-round pick that has spent negligible amounts of major league time with the Braves, Marlins and Brewers since 2019. He has demonstrated some above-average pop time and average arm strength in terms of limiting stolen bases. He has some tremendous power and has been known to crush pitching in the minor leagues. He is, however, plagued with consistency of contact issues that mean that he has never been able to stick around in the big leagues.

He seems likely to see at least a couple of games with the Rays this season, and if he can figure out how to avoid strikeouts and be more disciplined in his approach, he can be a more than solid backup backstop for Tampa Bay.  

Rays AcquireWhite Sox Acquire
CashRHP Luis Patino

This is a sad trade in many respects. Needing a roster spot, the Rays finally cut ties with Luis Patino – the main attraction of the Blake Snell trade. Patino had some awesome looking stuff and youth on his side. But, as both a starter and a reliever, was never able to put together consistent quality and avoid hard contact for long enough with the Rays over the past two seasons and change. Patino is still only 23 and will have plenty of opportunities to turn things around with a retooling White Sox team. El Electrico has left behind a confusing legacy of being a high-upside pitcher with fantastic stuff that couldn’t be harnessed by the Rays coaching staff – a rare case indeed.

Overall, the Rays have not had the most flashy or headline-worthy trade deadline, but they addressed all of their needs and loaded up on depth options to be ready for the remaining games of the season. It is now a question of workload management and maintaining health for Kevin Cash and his players to ensure their best possible chance to capture the American League East title and make a deep run into the playoffs.

There is no question, the talent is all there. The objective now is simple in premise, but hard to achieve in practice. Finish the job. The window is open, do what needs to be done in August and September to maximise your chances in October and perhaps, finally, the Rays can get their hands on their first World Series championship.