Rays Offseason Plan 2022 (pt. 1)

The Rays may have the most offseason reshuffling ever for a team that won 100 games the previous season. The balance between fielding a competitive team and satisfying the budget constraints of ownership is a difficult one to manage. The harsh budget constraints faced by small-market teams like the Rays make the roster maintenance and construction process much more complicated. It is hard enough for teams with loose financial restrictions to stay competitive. Navigating the offseason for a team like the Rays is quite tricky and requires many tough decisions. In terms of position players, I plan to construct a roster full of athletic, versatile guys from the top down who have similar but varying skill sets. They should be able to fit many different situations and allow for each player’s strengths to be maximized. This provides the organization with the flexibility to put together a lineup that can combat both right and left-handed pitchers with different arsenals. In terms of pitching, I plan to build a staff that is extremely deep and features unique repertoires and strong pitch characteristics. The starting pitchers will be young and strong and the bullpen should provide many different looks from varying, but complementary arm angles/pitch arsenals. I will look to accomplish these roster goals while navigating the Rule 5 Draft / 40-man roster process, Arbitration, Free Agency, and the Trade Market from the Tampa Bay Rays’ perspective. Part 1 will focus on the current Rays roster, covering the 40-man roster, Arbitration, and a couple trade decisions.

40-Man Shuffling:

The first order of business for the Rays this offseason is managing their 40-man roster. The Rays have a lot of important minor league guys eligible for the Rule-5 Draft this offseason. While eligible, a player can be selected by another team if they aren’t added to their own team’s 40-man roster. If they are drafted, the player has to remain on their new team’s 26-man roster for the next season or must be placed on outright waivers in order to be removed. The Rays currently have an overflow on their 40-man, making it difficult to find room for some of their more coveted, MLB-ready prospects. Another thing worth noting is that the 60-Day IL is no longer in effect during the offseason. This means that injured players now warrant a 40-man spot until the IL is reinstated during Spring Training. This leaves the Rays with some difficult decisions as they need to make room for some of their “unprotected” prospects and their injured players. 

The 11/19 deadline has already passed to protect minor leaguers from the Rule 5 Draft. The Rays decided to select the contracts of René Pinto, Jonathan Aranda, Ford Proctor, Calvin Faucher, and Tommy Romero. Since the deadline passed while working on this project, I now plan to analyze their decisions, try and understand what their thought process may have been, and share my own reasoning to see how it compares to the decisions the Rays actually made.

René Pinto is a 25-year old catcher who had a strong 2021 season between the Double and Triple A levels. He had a combined .357 wOBA with a total of 20 HR and 20 doubles. Pinto is a good hitting catcher with a strong arm behind the plate. He appears to fit into the organization’s future plans, especially with this being the final year of team control on Mike Zunino.

Jonathan Aranda seemed to be a priority add for the Rays. Aranda wasn’t previously regarded as a top prospect in the system but has since exploded onto the scene. He really impressed with the bat in 2021 and hit all types of pitching. Between A+ and Double A, Aranda had a .426 wOBA, 166 wRC+ and earned himself Double-A South MVP honors. He has a stereotypical Rays’ fielding profile as he’s played every infield position in the minors. His extreme versatility combined with low strikeout rates and above-average speed and defensive ability provide the makings for a strong future contributor as early as 2022 and beyond.

Ford Proctor is a uniquely versatile catcher with a smooth left-handed swing and an above-average hit tool. Proctor was drafted as a middle infielder but added catching to his fielding repertoire in 2021. The catching is still a work in progress but he provides a unique mix of tools that should be valuable in many different ways. Proctor is a very well-rounded hitter as he produced a .362 wOBA, hit 12 HR, and worked a 16.2 BB% in 2021. He hits righties better than he does lefties, but the hit tool should play at the major league level and his fielding versatility adds even more to his value.

Calvin Faucher was recently acquired in the Nelson Cruz deal and was merely seen as a throw-in at the back end of this deal. However, Faucher had tremendous success after coming over, working a 2.48 FIP while dropping his walk rate from 7.04 to 3.10 per nine innings and maintaining a K% right at 33%. His pitch arsenal features a particularly high spin cutter, a good curveball, and 4-seam fastball that touches 99. The stuff is very good and the Rays were able to improve his command following the trade. He was used in both a starter and relief role and could contribute on both ends for the Rays in 2022.

Tommy Romero was the final player added from the minor league pool. Romero is a strong, right-handed pitcher who works mostly in the low-mid 90s but has a flat VAA and good vertical break profile. He works primarily with the fastball but has a good four-pitch mix and commands all of his pitches well. In 110.1 innings pitched in 2021, he had a combined 2.73 FIP and produced a 145/31 strikeout to walk ratio between Double and Triple A. He’s proven himself at every level and should be up with the big league club at some point in 2022.

Blake Hunt, Tobias Myers, Ruben Cardenas, and Tanner Dodson were also likely in high consideration for a 40-man spot.

Blake Hunt is a catcher who came over as a part of the Blake Snell deal. He is only 22 but is very strong defensively and has shown the ability to be a future everyday regular. Hunt struggled a bit offensively this year but he possess plus hit tools which could round out an overall well-balanced catcher profile.

Tobias Myers is another right-handed pitcher with a similar profile and track record to Tommy Romero. He also throws low-mid 90s fastball with a flat VAA and good vertical break profile.

Ruben Cardenas and Tanner Dodson also could have been “priority-adds” for many other organizations, so leaving them off just attributes to the incredible depth the Rays have built and maintained throughout their entire organization.

Personally, I found it difficult for the Rays to make room for more than five minor leaguers while also adding six players formerly on the 60-Day IL. I think the Rays had a similar mindset and ultimately decided on the five guys that made the most sense for the next few years.

René Pinto seems more “MLB ready” than Blake Hunt and should serve as catching depth behind Mike Zunino in 2022. Hunt is seen to have more upside and is a hitting adjustment away from being an everyday catcher in the next few years. I think this was a big risk to take, especially since the Rays’ organizational catching depth isn’t particularly strong. The Rays might have thought that a team is unlikely to permanently keep a guy like Blake Hunt on their 26-man roster, especially if he isn’t fully ready to handle MLB pitching. However, I think a rebuilding team with a catching need would and should take that chance on a guy like Hunt heading into next season. This move also may be a testament to how much they value Mike Zunino even beyond 2022. Nonetheless, the Rays are at great risk of losing Blake Hunt to the Rule 5 Draft and I think he should have been added to the 40-man.

On the bright side, the development of Ford Proctor on the catching end could lighten the burden of losing Blake Hunt. He is also probably closer to MLB contribution, but his catching progression is still no guarantee. I personally had Proctor involved in a trade later on in this three-part series and added Hunt to the 40-man. Though, I do see the positives to keeping the more immediate impact of Pinto and versatility of Proctor instead of Hunt who is more of a project.

Jonathan Aranda seemed like an obvious add after his emergence this past year. He could easily be called up in 2022 and provide a solid bat and versatile defender. Tommy Romero also has a strong chance to contribute in 2022. I think Tobias Myers was viewed similarly to Romero and Calvin Faucher. I had Faucher as the odd man out of the three, but him and Myers could have been interchangeable in that final spot. I think the Rays valued the stuff and improvements on Faucher’s end and felt some redundancy in the profiles of Romero and Myers.

Cardenas and Dodson were also the odd men out here and have a strong chance to be stolen in the draft. With risk of losing them for nothing, I felt the Rays could explore trades involving these guys and other Rule-5 eligible prospects which I’ll touch on later. 

IL:

The Rays have already reinstated pitchers Jalen Beeks, Yonny Chirinos, Tyler Glasnow, Colin Poche, Jeffrey Springs and Ryan Thompson to their full 40-man roster. Chirinos is expected to miss the first half of the 2022 season and Glasnow will miss all of next season. The other four are expected to be ready for the start of Spring Training. With the addition of five minor leaguers and six IL members, that leaves only 29 spots left to fill with way more than 29 players eligible and worthy of a roster spot. This is where the real fun begins…

Current Free Agents:

Seven players on the 2021 roster reaching free agency helps this process a little bit. These names include Chris Archer, Nelson Cruz, Collin McHugh, David Robertson, Michael Wacha, Chaz Roe, and Tommy Hunter. The Chris Archer experiment didn’t work out as well as they hoped so I don’t think its in their best interest to bring him back. Collin McHugh was a huge part of the Rays and their bullpen success, but his impressive season should warrant a substantial AAV upgrade. Roe and Hunter were plagued with injuries in 2021 and likely won’t be retained. Wacha and Robertson are interesting options with great postseason and high-leverage experience. I think there are options to explore instead of Wacha, but Robertson is a potential option to bring back on another minor-league contract after the 60-Day IL is reinstated and roster space opens up. Nelson Cruz seems like the most likely option to be retained this offseason. Cruz regressed a bit after joining the Rays and is entering his age 42 season. Re-signing him would come with a price tag upwards of $12-15 million. I will leave this option open at the moment but will discuss the rest of the roster first and see how he could potentially fit in both structurally and financially.

Arbitration:

Arbitration is one of the more difficult things for the Rays to maneuver this offseason and presents one of their greater challenges moving forward. The Rays have 19 guys eligible for arbitration this winter, many of which are key contributors expected to demand large salary increases. These players include Tyler Glasnow, Manuel Margot, Austin Meadows, Ryan Yarbrough, Joey Wendle, Ji-Man Choi, and Yandy Diaz. All seven players have been core contributors for the past few postseason runs and rightfully deserve the raises they expect this offseason. This is where the Rays have been forced to make extremely tough decisions involving the players who have been largely responsible for success. This offseason is no different. 

Here are the 19 arbitration-eligible players and their projected arbitration salaries.

Over the past six seasons, the Rays have operated anywhere from $60 million to $75 million. For average’s sake, I’ll set my limit for their 2022 payroll to be right around that $70 million mark. For the purpose of projecting Arbitration salaries, I will use the MLB Trade Rumors website’s projections as a base. I think the Rays can explore trade opportunities that extract value at a substantially cheaper rate that should produce similar, if not equal, value to their incumbent contributors.

To Trade or Not to Trade:

Mike Zunino and Tyler Glasnow are names that will come up a lot in trade discussions this offseason.  I think these are trade options the Rays should explore, but ultimately shouldn’t pursue unless absolutely blown away (similar thought process by GM Erik Neander with Blake Snell deal). Zunino is one of the more valuable catchers in all of baseball. His ability to manage a pitching staff, frame pitches at an above-average rate, keep runners in check on the bases, and hit lefties at an elite level is way too valuable to give up. I thought about a potential alternative to Zunino which would have involved pairing a trade for Max Stassi and the free agent signing of Yan Gomes. Stassi has hit righties well and isn’t a huge downgrade defensively. Yan Gomes has also crushed lefties throughout his career and provides a strong veteran presence. Some form of this platoon would be cheaper than Zunino, provide similar defensive value, and cover the ability to hit both righty and lefty pitchers. This seemed to be a valid alternative to Zunino next season, but I think the Rays can find other areas on the roster to cut payroll. Despite his $7 million salary in 2022, Zunino should continue to provide tremendous value for the Rays and at the very least will serve as a stop-gap for the young, up-and-coming catchers added to the 40-man. 

The argument for trading Tyler Glasnow lies in the fact that he is due at least $5-6 million for each of the next two years in arbitration raises, but is slated to miss all of next season. The Rays would essentially be paying $12 million at the very least over the next two seasons for only one year of production. This may not work for a team like the Rays being faced with their budget constraints. Glasnow is an elite starting pitcher, but his value is likely at its lowest due to injury. He would still have strong trade value, but the return wouldn’t entirely match the production he provides when healthy. There are other avenues to pursue that should allow the Rays to keep Glasnow on their payroll without his salary carrying too much deadweight in 2022.

Ryan Yarbrough is another name warranting trade consideration. Yarbrough is a crafty lefty who has been an extremely consistent arm for the Rays over the past four seasons. He has a career 4.05 FIP, does not walk very many batters, and has been one of the best in the game at limiting hard contact (career 84.8 avg EV). He’s a lock to throw at least 140 innings every year and pitch as both a starter and a bulk reliever. These are becoming increasingly valuable traits in a pitcher and his role is essential to the Rays pitching staff moving forward. They would be hard-pressed to find a pitcher who executes his role better.

Overall, I think it should be in the Rays’ best interest to keep Mike Zunino, Tyler Glasnow, and Ryan Yarbrough heading into 2022.

In Part 2 of this series, I will recommend some trades the Rays could explore to manage their budget and maintain competitiveness in 2022.

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