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2020 MLB Team Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

Garion Thorne provides his thoughts on what the 60-game MLB season could look like for the Rays.

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July Update: In terms of notable players who have been effected by COVID-19, there might not be a team more impacted than Tampa Bay. The Rays saw both Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow return positive test results during the initial intake period and while the latter returned to camp this past week, Meadows’ status is up in the air with Kevin Cash going so far as to suggest “there is uncertainty” when it comes to the outfielder’s chances of being ready for Opening Day on July 24. Yonny Chirinos and Brendan McKay have also been away from Tampa Bay’s camp due to undisclosed reasons, which will test the organization’s pitching depth early on in 2020. At the very least, the season’s postponement did give ace Blake Snell an opportunity to get healthy, after he had to receive a cortisone injection in his left elbow back in February.

Tampa Bay might just be one of the strangest professional franchises in all of North American sports. Do the Rays ever spend any money? No, they do not. In fact, Tampa Bay’s payroll hasn’t crept above $80 million even once in the past two decades. Does anyone ever think to attend Rays games? It certainly doesn’t seem like it. I mean, I assume an organization doesn’t plot to maybe play half its home games in Quebec if tickets are consistently moving. Do the Rays ever do anything conventionally? Not really. Yes, the “opener” fad was due in part to injuries to Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow, but I truly get the impression that Tampa Bay prides itself in its ability to think outside the box.

Still, there are no questions about the Rays’ tendency to win. Tampa’s won an average of 93 contests across the last two years and, though they’ve accomplished this without many superstar position players, I definitely view the Rays’ front office as one of MLB’s most intelligent. How does that translate to fantasy? Let’s break it all down.

DraftKings Sportsbook odds

– Division Winner: +400

– League Winner: +900

– World Series: +2000

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Key Departures:

Tommy Pham, OF; Avisail Garcia, OF; Travis d’Arnaud, C; Emilio Pagan, RP

Key Acquisitions:

Hunter Renfroe, OF; Yoshi Tsutsugo, OF; Jose Martinez, 1B

2020 Fantasy MVP

Charlie Morton, SP

While Morton isn’t the even the first Tampa Bay pitcher going off of draft boards this spring, there’s definitely a case to be made that he should be. The 36-year-old’s current NFBC ADP has him as SP18, yet, in my opinion, there’s little, if any, separation between he and the ilk of starter being taken directly ahead of him; arms like Clayton Kershaw, Patrick Corbin and Aaron Nola. I mean, simply consider the advanced stats that Morton was able to post in 2019. The right-hander had baseball’s fourth-lowest FIP (2.81), its eighth-highest strikeout rate (30.4%) and its 14th-highest swinging-strike rate (12.9%). Morton also finished the season with a .340 expected opponent slugging percentage that was identical to his actual slugging percentage; while the only qualified five pitchers to post an expected wOBA better than his mark of .275 were Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander, Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg. Sure, there are some warranted concerns about Morton’s durability, as the veteran has never exceeded 200 innings of work in a single campaign, yet I’d be hesitant to call him inconsistent. Despite throwing just 508.1 frames going back to the beginning of 2017, Morton’s still managed the 11th-most strikeouts in the majors (604).

2020 Fantasy LVP

Yonny Chirinos, SP

Chirinos was somewhat of a deep-league darling heading into the 2019 All-Star Break. At the time, the now 26-year-old had thrown exactly 100 innings, a heavy workload that he had translated into a 3.15 ERA, a .213 opponent batting average and an impressive .273 opponent wOBA. For a guy who most were able to pick up for nothing off of the waiver wire, it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that Chirinos was drastically impacting the outcome of people’s fantasy teams. However, the writing was on the wall for regression in the second half and when it hit, it hit hard. An unstable .232 BABIP rose .052 points, a 79.0% strand rate plummeted all the way down to 60.4% and Chirinos started surrendering a ghastly 2.16 home runs per nine. It got ugly very, very quickly; but, despite the late-summer swoon, the right-hander’s final statistics still looked comical. To wit, among the 108 pitchers who faced off with at least 500 batters last season, Chirinos’ .035 point difference between his expected opponent batting average and his actual opponent batting average was the largest negative disparity of the group. That’s bad news when projecting Chirinos’ 2020 performance.

2020 Breakout Player

Yandy Diaz, 3B

Any way you slice it, sample size is always going to be an issue when building a statistical profile for Diaz. Still, the fact remains that we’ve got 646 major league plate appearances to use as data and that there’s a lot to like about what the 28-year-old has accomplished with a bat in his hand. Honestly, Diaz was sort of in the midst of a breakout campaign in 2019 before injuries derailed that dream. The right-handed hitter had managed a noteworthy 14 home runs in just 307 at-bats, a ratio that leaves an optimistic person imagining a scenario where the 30 home run plateau is well within reach. Plus, some of Diaz’s batted ball metrics strongly support this hypothetical. Diaz finished last year ranking in the 92nd percentile in exit velocity and the 82nd percentile in hard-hit rate; two traits slightly validated by similar findings in Diaz’s 120 PA sample from 2018. Could the third baseman stand to hit a few more fly balls and take better advantage of launch angle? Of course. However, Diaz’s current archetype isn’t without value, as he also sat in the 84th percentile in expected batting average this past season. Basically, if Diaz can keep hitting baseballs hard from the top-half of Tampa’s batting order, he’s a tantalizing fantasy asset.

Final Thoughts:

Though I’m forced to admit that I liked Tampa Bay’s odds to win the American League East slightly more when it appeared that New York would be forced to begin the season with several of its best players on the IL; four-to-one odds for a squad that mustered 96 wins in 2019 isn’t horrible. While there are some justifiable concerns with how the Rays will consistently score runs this coming season, it’s important to remember that Tampa Bay accomplished what it did last year with major injuries to both Snell and Glasnow. If all three of the Rays’ elite starters can remain healthy, it wouldn’t be crazy to project them coming out victorious in their division in what will likely be a truncated schedule.

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