There may not have been a more surprising MLB team in 2018 than the Tampa Bay Rays. Although the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees still dominated the American League East, the Rays won 90 games and watched guys like Blake Snell (who was named the AL Cy Young Award winner) and Tommy Pham (acquired at the deadline) thrive at the deadline.
Tampa Bay did not make the playoffs in 2018, but the expectations would be different in 2019, especially when the Rays jumped out to a 35-20 start through the first two months of the season.
Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows–whom the Rays received in last year’s deadline deal that sent Chris Archer to the Pirates–were thriving. Pham was continuing to rake, and Brandon Lowe looked like the leading candidate to be the AL Rookie of the Year. In the rotation, Charlie Morton was overwhelming opposing hitters, and Yonny Chirinos had become extremely dependable.
One pertinent concern, however, was the health of Snell. After a solid first month, Snell saw some regression in May in part due to a toe injury sustained at the end of April. In June, he imploded.
Snell posted a 9.64 ERA in six June starts, with opposing hitters slashing .330/.398/.510 against him for the month. The 26-year-old did not even get out of the first inning against the Yankees on June 19, and many wondered if something was going on behind the scenes. However, Snell managed to rebound, posting a 1.63 ERA and 12.7 K/9 in his last four starts, including six scoreless innings against the White Sox on July 21.
But on Thursday, the team revealed that Snell would undergo surgery to remove a loose body in his throwing elbow.
With under a week to go before the trade deadline, Tampa Bay had initially been intent on acquiring impact relievers. Snell’s injury might change this approach.
Pitching depth had been a strength of this Rays team early in the season. Even as of Thursday–despite ranking ninth in the American League in runs scored–the Rays boasted a +79 run differential.
Unfortunately for Tampa Bay, that depth has become increasingly limited in recent weeks. Glasnow was recently shut down once again and may not return until the end of August. And although he was not a starter, reliever Ryne Stanek was often used as an “opener” capable of pitching numerous innings for manager Kevin Cash.
Now that Snell is expected to be out for at least six weeks, what are the Rays going to do about their rotation?
Top prospect Brendan McKay was called up to make multiple starts, but he was sent down after the All-Star break. With this in mind, Morton and Chirinos are the two healthy “starters” on the pitching staff. Are the Rays really going to rely on two starting pitchers, and even if McKay comes up, can Tampa Bay trust that a rookie will eat innings and be effective in the heat of a playoff race?
There is certainly a chance that Cash could elect to extend Ryan Yarbrough or Jalen Beeks, but that seems like an equally risky play as the Rays prepare for a grueling final two months.
Tampa Bay has struggled just to play .500 baseball since June, and as of Thursday, they had fallen out of the second Wild Card spot. The Indians, Red Sox, Athletics and Twins are all going to battle right to the finish, and they also might be more well-rounded teams.
Even though the Rays had planned on adding to their bullpen, they may have to pivot towards adding an impact starting pitcher, especially in light of recent events. Fortunately, they may have the kind of assets necessary to go after a controllable starter in the market.
For starters–no pun intended–the Rays have no shortage of pitching prospects in their system. Between McKay, Matthew Liberatore and Brent Honeywell, Tampa Bay is loaded with pitching talent for the future.
However, if the Rays are trying to win right now, it may be worth it to offer up one of the three young arms in an effort to acquire one of the controllable arms that could be on the market.
The New York Mets have become insistent on trying to trade Noah Syndergaard, who is still just 26 years old and has two more years of arbitration before he can become a free agent. “Thor” might be the perfect fit in Tampa Bay.
Another option could be Texas Rangers ace Mike Minor, who is signed through next season and is cheaper, both financially (Tampa would probably owe Minor a little more than $11 million total) and in terms of what the Rangers may ask for in return.
Then there are guys like Marcus Stroman, Matthew Boyd and Robbie Ray, all of whom have at least one year of team control remaining.
Essentially, the Rays have plenty of potential trade partners to negotiate with if they are looking for a starter. They may have to dip into their farm system, but Tampa Bay can still look to acquire an impact starter while also chasing another arm to add to the bullpen.
With Snell and Glasnow out, the Rays may have no choice but to alter their strategy at the trade deadline if they are intent on competing in October this season.