Rebuild? Despite trades, Rays eye being surprise contender instead
This story originally appeared on FoxSports.com.
News flash: The Rays are trying. Still trying, in fact.
The trade of second baseman Logan Forsythe to the Dodgers irritated franchise third baseman Evan Longoria, but the Rays actually have done more adding than subtracting this off-season, and they aren’t finished yet.
The Rays, not the Dodgers, had the high bid for free agent Sergio Romo, according to major league sources; the former Giants reliever, who grew up in a family of Dodgers fans in Brawley, Calif., took less to stay on the West Coast, according to major league sources. His deal with the Dodgers, which is pending a physical, is for one year and $3 million, per FanRag Sports.
The pursuit of Romo demonstrated that the Rays still want to add a late-inning reliever to a mix that already includes righthanded closer Alex Colome, righty Brad Boxberger and lefty Xavier Cedeno. The team also would like to acquire a righthanded hitter either through free agency or trade, sources said, with first baseman Byung-ho Park—recently designated for assignment by the Twins—among the possibilities.
Do not confuse the Rays with the Reds, Brewers or any other rebuilding club with zero designs on contention; Tampa Bay is putting together a team that, if everything goes right, could emerge as a surprise contender. FanGraphs currently projects the Rays to finish tied for third with the Yankees in the AL East at 82–80—and another addition or two could push that projection higher.
Why such confidence in a team that last season finished 68–94?
Well, the Rays’ rotation again looks deep and promising, even after the trade of lefthander Drew Smyly to the Mariners. The offensive sequencing, or clustering of hits, figures to improve. And injuries last season—most notably to centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier, who missed nearly two months with a fractured left hand—proved crushing.
Yet, it all could have been so different for the Rays this winter if they had received offers that they deemed suitable for Kiermaier and righthander Chris Archer. At that point, club officials would have launched a full-scale rebuild—one that still could occur at the non-waiver deadline or next offseason, if the team proves a disappointment.
Longoria, using stronger words than usual, told the Tampa Bay Times that he was “surprised and upset” when the Rays traded Forsythe on Jan. 23, just 12 days after parting with Smyly. But the Rays, operating at or near the bottom of baseball’s revenue food chain, consistently seek value for their more expensive players, regardless of their competitive position.
Smyly and Forsythe brought back a combined four prospects, including righthander Jose De Leon and centerfielder Mallex Smith, and cleared $12.6 million in 2017 salary. The trade of Forsythe also created greater flexibility, enabling the Rays to move Brad Miller from first to second, re-sign first baseman Logan Morrison and still pursue one more bat.
Remember, the Rays earlier added two other free-agent hitters, catcher Wilson Ramos and outfielder Colby Rasmus. Ramos, recovering from major surgery on his right knee, probably will not be ready at the start of the season. But shortstop Matt Duffy, who appeared in only 21 games due to injuries after arriving in a deadline trade from the Giants, amounts to yet another addition.
Catcher Matt Wieters is among the remaining free-agent options. Park, recently designated for assignment, would need to be a trade. The Twins do not plan to release Park, to whom they owe $9.25 million over the next three seasons. The expectation is that they simply would remove him from their 40-man roster and keep him in their organization.
Will the Rays be a threat to the Red Sox, even if everything clicks? Probably not. But the current FanGraphs forecasts have the Rays winning only two fewer games than the Blue Jays, who are projected to finish second.
This is not a full-blown rebuild. Not even close.
The Rays have ranked last in the majors in attendance five straight seasons. They still are not close to building a new ballpark. But one of their revenue streams could improve soon, through a new regional television contract.
The Rays’ deal with FOX Sports Sun, which pays them a reported $20 million annually, expires after the 2018 season, according to major-league sources. A new deal, even in a changing television landscape, would figure to pay the team considerably more.
While Rays ratings have dropped sharply in each of the past two years, according to Nielsen data compiled by RaysIndex.com, the team last season still ranked 13th out of the 29 teams that play in the U.S.
Ken Rosenthal is a senior writer for FoxSports.com and a field reporter for MLB on Fox.