The Tampa Rays are under new leadership.
This is probably a bad thing.
The new leadership is the same leadership that was ushered out of Philadelphia in 2019.
This is definitely a bad thing.
With a team, and a franchise, that appears to be on the cusp of being relevant for the first time since 2019 (though not end a playoff drought that will extend to an eighth season), fans are right to openly wonder if this administration is the proper steward to usher in this new generation of Rays baseball.
This administration built through pitching and defense, which does strike a chord for this organization. Until a new ballpark is built (and good luck with that), the team will continue to play in the crumbling confines of Tropicana Field. The park is the worst in the league, in terms of everything. It’s one of only two ballparks left that uses artificial turf (Toronto is the other). It’s also the only dome-only park in the league.
It’s a good thing that this team has a bit of a bottleneck at the top, because free agents are not clamoring to get here. (A good move made by the new administration is to only offer one free agent, pitcher Blake Snell, and to invest their available money into scouting and development.) That is what this franchise has, after all: a bottleneck at the top. The franchise is packed with young players ready to show themselves at the parent level.
What does this squad look like, heading into the first season of the new regime? Why, let’s take a look.
Current Starter: Devin Mesoraco (.762 OPS, 110 OPS+)
Current Backup: Bob Heller (.701-93) /William Contreras (.537-64 in AAA)
Current Future: William Contreras (sigh)
Devin Mesoraco was a consistent All-Star level player from 2012-14, making it in 2013 with the Yankees. Since 2015, his average has tanked; in four seasons in Pittsburgh, he hit just .231. When he returned to Tampa (he was traded here 7/8/17, before signing a 7-year overpay with Pittsburgh that offseason, then traded back, exactly four years later, 7/8/21), he was actually in the middle of a slight resurgence (.262-12-35, 126 OPS+).
He followed that up with a .245/.329/.359 mark with the Rays. Now? He looks like the bridge to William Contreras, a 24-year-old who spent 28 games in Tampa last year. He hit .186 in 105 PA, and looks to be more of a defensive-minded signal-caller.
Mesoraco is still an excellent catcher defensively, with one of the best arms in the league. But he turns 34 in June, and surely won’t be behind the plate when (or if) this team starts winning games.
Bob Heller is Olive Garden breadsticks: filler and something that would have sufficed in an earlier era, but now is not something you go out of your way for.
This is Tampa’s biggest weakness as an organization, and it’s not even close.
Current Starter: Nick Pratto (.792-127 in AA)? William Gray?
Current Backup: ….the other?
Current Future: Evan Waxman
The team wafted their way through a combination of Gray (.700 OPS, 93 OPS+), Jorge Alvarado (.707, 95) and Will Macoy (.682, 88). Clearly, this was a position of weakness (and inexperience, sure).
So, enter Pratto, the team’s only Rule V selection this past month. (They lost Max Flora to the Chicago White Sox, who then decided to try and trade; this has not upset the Rays whatsoever.) Pratto has a lot of skills the Rays like, such as a plus hit and power rating, along with above-average running, and the potential for elite defense at first base.
With this year projected as being a growing pains season, the team seems more than prepared to let Pratto get the lion’s share of the at-bats. Backing him up would likely be the combination of Gray and Macoy, with Alvarado and Donald Taylor, who are both on the parent roster now, not factoring into the team’s plans moving forward.
The future here is likely Waxman, a 2nd round pick in 2020 for Cleveland; he was acquired by the Rays a year ago today (this is being written on 1.17.22), in a deal that saw Jeremy Eierman sent to the Guardians. Waxman has moved up to 25th on the MLBPro’s Top 100 ranking. He hit .859-144 in A-ball this year, and is a sure bet to start 2022 in AA, with an arrival in Tampa looking likely in 2024.
Alvarado and Taylor, meanwhile, are McDonald’s basic hamburgers. They’re cheap as all get out, and can do the job if you really have literally nothing else, nowhere else to go, and only $1.05 in your pocket (or whatever McD’s food costs these days). But you’re paying basically for some concoction of items you shouldn’t put in your body, and an unforgivable amount of yellow mustard. (Any amount of yellow mustard is an unforgivable amount, really.)
Current Starter: William Gray (.700-93)
Current Backup: Jean Segura (.611-70)
Current Future: Brady McConnell (.822-144 in AAA; .463-29 in AAA)
Gray checks a lot of boxes for the Rays; he’s a leader who runs really well, and plays good defense; he has incredible range, which helps cover for his poor arm. In his first full season in the bigs, Gray showed surprising pop, hitting 16 homers, which is the highest he’s hit in any professional season to date.
However, the new administration, who appears to want to shoot first and ask questions later, have turned their loving eyes towards McConnell, who very much had that “oh shit” look in his first run with the parent club last year. McConnell does have the appearance of a future Gold Glove winner at second, make no mistake about that. And his bat does have potential, as evidenced by his solid numbers at AAA Durham last year.
The likely outcome, at least for this season, is that Gray gets the majority of reps, especially if Pratto sticks at first base, while McConnell either starts in AAA, or comes up and splits time at second and short.
Segura, meanwhile, is simply Texas Roadhouse peanuts. You aren’t sure why they’re there, especially when they have those amazing rolls and the Bloomin’ Onion (which is obviously Australian), and hell, a bunch of people might very well be allergic to his very presence. And, since it’s Texas Roadhouse, it’s greatly overpriced.
Current Starter: Oneil Cruz (.603-66)
Current Backup: Will Macoy (.692-88)
Current Future: Nathan Deremer (.658-95 in AA/AAA)/Bobby Witt, Jr. (.790-124 in AA)
Cruz is considered very intriguing; at just 23, he has hit with prodigious power (70 HR in his age 20-21 seasons). He moved three levels last year, hitting 24 homers overall, including 10 at the top level. He hit just .204, and possessed a 35.2% KRate at the big-league level (to go along with a 4.8% BBRate).
The hope is that he’ll grow and blossom in 2022. The suspicion is that he won’t see another at-bat in a Rays uniform.
The new administration has not been shy in expressing a desire in moving him…sorry, a desire to see what’s out there. Funny thing, semantics. It’s strange, because Cruz is one of the few players in the entire organization with actual power. That he combines that with surprising speed (especially for a player who is 6’6), and solid defense, makes is wonder if the new administration is simply throwing stuff at a wall.
However, if the team is to deal him, well…they’re in a tough spot, aren’t there? It’s like they have half of a lottery ticket scratched, and all of their numbers have come up so far. Do they hold onto the ticket, and see if he fully matures (at which point, how would you trade him?)…or do you move him now and try to sell high on the hope?
It needs explaining at this point that this administration found itself in a similar situation several years ago in Philadelphia, when they had a guy with tremendous offensive potential, but was a sieve in the field. With the National League employing no designated hitter, and this administration clearly valuing offense, they shipped him off to Minnesota for Felicio Roxa, Jimmy Bannytine, and Phil Hughes.
That player? Oh, that’s right. GARY F’N COPELAND.
We are not comparing Cruz to Copeland; hell, Copeland wasn’t even Copeland until he got into the Twins’ system. But there are parallels here; this administration is not very adept at identifying peak offensive talent; they prefer defense and speed, and players who can play multiple positions. And Cruz is a power stick, which this administration has never valued much. (Okay, they get points for identifying and nurturing Ryobe Kamida into a star.)
So, we don’t hold much hope for Cruz.
But what of Deremer? He’s viewed as having a potentially more consistent bat than Cruz, runs well, and is a better defender with a generational arm at third. He won’t turn 23 until September; however, there are scouts in the organization that think he should already be up in Tampa. Chances are, he’ll have to prove that consistency in AAA, but his work ethic leaves many in the organization to believe he’ll do that, and be up by June.
Witt also comes into the conversation here, which is strange, because he’s a shortstop. However, there are some who think Witt’s glove may play better at third base. Witt, rated 10th overall on the MLBPro Top 100 Prospects list, hit very well in AA last year, and is absolutely crushing the ball in the Winter Developmental League (.994-180, 6 HR, 13 RBI in 78 PA as of this writing; author note: Witt now seems to be set to win the WDL Triple Crown). It’s likely the 21-year-old (he turns 22 in June) will start the season in AAA, with an eye to the parent club by late season.
It’s just…we aren’t sure where that will be yet. Chances are, it’ll be at short. But it’s possible that he’ll end up at third base, too, with Deremer either DHing or moving to first. Right now, the hope, and expectation, is that Witt ends up at short, and the Rays have one of the best defensive left infields for over a decade.
Macoy is a rather intriguing player, and it’s possible that Cruz gets moved and Macoy gets the majority of at-bats this season. He runs extremely well (many scouts rate him as having 75 speed, and 80 baserunning), and his defense is considered above-average, with an arm that rivals Deremer’s. He’s also young, turning 23 back in December. He’s more of an average hitter, but his gap power and speed may play better in the hellhole that is the Trop.
So, we can say that Macoy is more like grocery store made chips; you might not think they’re going to be good; the packaging is simplistic, and the chips look like someone fell asleep while making them. But they have just the right amount of salt, and hit the senses just right.
Oneil Cruz, we hope you rented, and didn’t buy.
Current Starter: Miguel Leon (.753-105)
Current Backup: Jean Segura
Current Future: Bobby Witt, Jr. (.790-124 in AA)
Miguel Leon was rumored to have been traded at least twice this offseason, only to still be a Ray today (this is being written on 1.23.22). You could do a lot worse than Leon, who hit .265-16-48 across three teams last season.
What might be encouraging is that he hit nine homers in his 54 games in Tampa; he hit just one in his first 32 games in Chicago, leading many around the league to wonder if Leon’s power had gone out. Tropicana Field (the worst park in the league) is known as a hitter’s nightmare, so flashing some power there should put teams at ease.
Tampa may be best holding onto Leon and trying to trade him in May or June. However, it’s understandable that they want to try to move him now. The issue with that is…who would replace him? Segura?
Chances are, Leon sticks around until Witt is ready for his turn.. After that, there’s a litany of players–Cade Doughty, Ed Howard, Cristian Hernandez–who offer a lot of intrigue. Doughty has gotten interest from other organizations, and could be a trade candidate.
Current Starter: Nick Plummer (.714-98)
Current Backup: Chris Burnett (.651-82)
Current Future: Ryan Ward (.789-136 in AAA)
Plummer, a 2nd-rounder (36th overall) of the Cubs in 2015, came over to Tampa 12.29.20. It was the fourth time he had been traded. He hit a career-high 12 homers last year, his third in the bigs, to go along with a .259/.333/.381 line.
The 24-year-old possesses a hit tool that has .300+ potential, according to scouts. He has not shown that to this point, but the team is bullish on his abilities. He has average power, and an above-average eye. He combines that with excellent baserunning and above-average defense.
In short, the Rays may think they have a spot solidified for this season and beyond.
Of course, since the team is married to seemingly nobody in the organization right now, there’s no guarantee that Plummer will, in fact, be the team’s left fielder. (Conversely, the team has reportedly reached out to Minnesota about acquiring LF Nick Plummer, currently in AAA Rochester, so they could double-down on their Plummers.) The organization is intrigued by Ryan Ward, who turns 24 on February 23rd. Ward hit .302/.366/.423 in 296 PA in AAA. He looks like a solid OBP guy who won’t get much power.
Current Starter: Alex O’Connell (.734-102)
Current Backup: Chris Burnett (.651-82)
Current Future: Alek Thomas (.700-109 in 487 PA in AAA)
O’Connell is another player who the new administration has deemed expendable. Why? He posted a roughly average OPS+, along with 2.2 WAR, in just his first season in the bigs. He’s just 24, and he’s known as a high work ethic, high intelligence player. He’s considered a sparkplug in terms of personality. The team should absolutely let him grow into the role; we aren’t saying he has an All-Star ceiling right out…but there are going to be some players who break out on this team. He’s as good a candidate as any.
Burnett has bounced around, and has never really gotten much of a run anywhere. He is what he is: a solid backup…well, in the corners. The team needs to upgrade the backup situation in center.
Enter Alex Thomas. He is exactly the kind of player this administration coveted in Philadelphia: high contact, high strike zone awareness, great speed, low power. Admittedly, there is a scenario where the team brings him up, and moves O’Connell to left field to make room for Thomas. His game should play wonderfully in Tropicrapa Field.
We actually think Thomas could enter the season as a front runner to land the job in CF, regardless of whether or not the team keeps O’Connell. Plummer would be the loser in this situation, in all likelihood.
Current Starter: Jarred Kelenic (.664-83 in 306 AB)
Current Backup: Kyle Parker (.612-69, 83 AB)
Current Future: Kelenic, TBD (perhaps one of the SS contingent?)
Jarred Kelenic, a top-50 prospect a year ago, made the jump to Tampa last year…for some reason. The 22-year-old—he’ll turn 23 in July—hit just .239/.281/.340 in AAA, with four homers and 18 RBI, in 247 AB. He showed better pop in Tampa, oddly enough, posting 27 XBH, eleven of them homers. His K-rate was not pleasant, but it also was not terrible for someone so young. However, his swing is such that the strikeouts are going to be something the Rays need to be prepared to live with.
That said, scouts believe his hit and power tools to be plus-plus, and he is an excellent runner and defender. He’s also a leader with an excellent work ethic. The Rays have a player who could be a cornerstone in the lineup. A Kelenic/Witt combination in the lineup does have a lot of appeal.
Parker, meanwhile, is likely gone; he’s 32, and serves no real purpose for the Rays at this stage. It’s more likely that the team uses O’Connell in right on days Kelenic needs a rest, and use Plummer as a fourth outfielder for those situations.
All that said, the organization significantly lacks depth in the outfield. There are solid players either beginning to make the show or on the cusp of it. In the lower levels, though, there are issues. We expect the organization to look to either try to convert one of either Nick Gonzales, Ed Howard, or Cristian Hernandez, or trade them for some outfield depth.
It’s too far away from the start of the season, and the roster probably won’t be constructed as it is now. But, we’ll present two lineups…one with the current construct, and the other if guys who are discussed as potentially being moved are.
- Lineup 1
- RF Jarred Kelenic
- 2B William Gray
- LF Alex O’Connell
- 3B Oneil Cruz
- 1B Nick Pratto
- C Devin Mesoraco
- SS Miguel Leon
- DH Ryan Ward
- CF Alek Thomas
- Lineup 2
- RF Jarred Kelenic
- LF Alex O’Connell
- SS Bobby Witt Jr.
- 1B Nick Pratto
- C Devin Mesoraco
- 3B Nathan Deremer
- DH Ryan Ward
- CF Alek Thomas
- 2B William Gray