The anticipation for the start of the 2019 Major League Baseball season is building in the Bay Area. Coming off a 90-win season, the Tampa Bay Rays are clearly a contender to make their first playoff appearance since 2013.
Pitchers and catchers report to Port Charlotte to begin spring training on Tuesday, February 12. The Spectrum Sports 360 staff broke out the crystal ball to predict which players would be most important to the team's success this season.
10. Tyler Glasnow, RHP The 6-foot-8, 25-year-old was acquired at the trade deadline along with Austin Meadows and a player to be named later (prospect Shane Baz) for former Rays' ace Chris Archer. After appearing in 34 games in relief with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Glasnow was used exclusively as a starter with the Rays. In 11 starts, Glasnow went 1-5 with a 4.20 ERA. The California native flashed impressive stuff and struck out 64 batters in 55.2 innings pitched. He's expected to be in the starting rotation when the team breaks camp.
9. Jose Alvarado, LHP It's difficult to predict whether the Rays will have a full-time closer or go with a closer-by-committee approach, but either way, the fireballing lefty from Venezuela will be a key component of the bullpen. His 31 holds last year were tied for the American League lead (with teammate Chaz Roe), and he had eight saves. Alvarado finished the season with a strikeout rate of 11.25 K/9, the best for any Rays pitcher with at least five innings pitched.
8. Mike Zunino, C The Rays acquired the former Florida Gator catcher from the Seattle Mariners in November in exchange for fan-favorite Mallex Smith. Zunino launched 20 home runs in 2018, tied for the fifth-best total amongst MLB catchers in 2018. However, his batting average has hovered around the Mendoza Line, with a career average of .207 (hit .201 last season). Where the Rays will likely see the most value from Zunino is defensively. MLB named the 27-year old from Cape Coral the Wilson Defensive Player of the Year at the catcher position in 2018. According to Fangraphs, Zunino led all major-league catchers with 12 defensive runs saved last season.
7. Matt Duffy, 3B Signed a one-year, $2.7 million contract with the Rays earlier this month to avoid arbitration. He's expected to be the starting third baseman. After missing the entire 2017 season with a foot injury, Duffy finished with a .294/.361/.366 line in 2018. The first 58 games of 2018, his .317 batting average was sixth-best in the American League. Duffy had an .884 OPS in June, but his numbers sagged in the second half of the season. He batted .257 in his final 52 games, without a home run. Daniel Robertson, Yandy Diaz and Joey Wendle could challenge Duffy for playing time in the Rays' infield.
6. Joey Wendle, 2B A minor offseason acquisition in December of 2017 paid big dividends for the Rays in 2018. Wendle was acquired from Oakland for the often-traded “Player to be Named Later” (which ended up being minor league catcher Jonah Heim), and had a breakout season in his first year in Tampa Bay. The 28-year old finished fourth in American League Rookie of the Year voting and led all AL rookies with a .300 batting average. He started at four different positions for the Rays last year and is expected to start at 2B in 2019, but could be challenged by rookie Brandon Lowe. Regardless, Wendle’s versatility will make him a valuable part of this year’s roster.
5. Tommy Pham, LF After finishing 11th in the National League MVP voting in 2017 with the Cardinals, Tommy Pham seemed like a lock to spend the next several years patrolling the outfield of Busch Stadium. But a subpar start to 2018 soured the St. Louis front office and the Rays took advantage, acquiring the 30-year old for a trio of minor leaguers. Pham broke out of the slump in a big way after switching leagues, slashing .343/.448/.622 in 39 games with Tampa Bay. MLB Network ranked Pham the fourth-best left fielder in baseball heading into the 2019 season.
4. Kevin Kiermaier, CF The former 31st-round pick is one of the real success stories of the Rays player development system. Kiermaier ranks 2nd in career WAR for all outfielders drafted in 2010, behind only Bryce Harper (Kiermaier – 24.0, Harper – 27.4, according to Baseball Reference). The 28-year old had already won two Gold Gloves by the age of 26 and is regarded as one of the best defensive outfielders in the game. His best season at the plate came in 2017, when he hit .276 with 15 HR and a .450 SLG%. Injuries limited Kiermaier to just 88 games last season, an ongoing issue for the center fielder, who has played in more than 108 games in just one season.
3. Willy Adames, SS The 23-year old could be the franchise shortstop that Tampa Bay has long awaited. Adames was acquired from the Detroit Tigers in 2014 in the David Price deal and was consistently ranked as one of the Top 100 prospects in baseball while he was in the Rays minor league system (highest ranking came from Baseball America - #10 prior to the 2017 season). It wasn’t a perfect debut season, as Adames hit just .200 in his first three months in the majors (115 at bats), but it’s the final two months of the season that has Rays supporters excited about his future. The native of the Dominican Republic hit .329 with 7 HR and 25 RBI in 173 at bats.
2. Charlie Morton, RHP The Rays signed the 35-year old right-handed pitcher to the biggest free agent contract in the last decade for the team. It was an early Christmas present for Tampa Bay fans when Morton’s 2-year, $30M deal was announced in mid-December. He’s coming off of his best season in the majors, earning his first career All-Star selection in 2018, and finished 15-3 with a 3.13 ERA and 201 strikeouts in 167 innings. Morton set career-bests in wins, ERA, strikeouts and games started (30), while his .833 winning percentage led the AL. The veteran provides the Rays with a true #2 starter behind reigning Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell.
1. Blake Snell, LHP The reigning Cy Young Award winner was the clear choice for the most important Ray entering the 2019 season. After an up-and-down start to his career in 2016 and 2017, Snell dominated in 2018, earning his first All-Star nod and finishing 9th in American League MVP voting. The lefty set franchise records and led the AL in wins (21) and ERA (1.89) last year, while limiting opposing batters to a batting average of .178. The Rays selected Snell with the 52nd overall pick in 2011 out of Shorewood HS in Shoreline, WA.