2019 Tampa Bay Rays season preview


The Rays hope to see many more exciting moments, like this Willy Adames walk-off homerun, in 2019.

Bennett Carollo, Sports Editor

A year ago today there was little optimism surrounding the Tampa Bay Rays. They had just finished up an offseason filled with controversial trades and roster moves that had upset many fans. However, the Rays proved their own disgruntled fans and national critics wrong with an impressive season that saw them win 90 games in the vaunted AL East, the same division that houses the mighty Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, who are willing to throw money at anyone who can help their team win games, a luxury the small market Rays can’t afford. Nonetheless, the preseason doubts were far from unfounded, as the Rays team that would catch fire late in the year and nearly bring the team its first playoff berth since 2013  looked strikingly different than the squad that walked out on Opening Day, as veterans were traded for promising on-the-cusp prospects and the team’s incumbent young guns were brought up to the big league club. It’s this younger, more versatile group of players that have Rays fans feeling like the upcoming 2019 season, which kicks off at the Trop on March 28th against the Astros, could be something special.

Part of the Rays’ success in 2018 can be attributed to a bold new pitching strategy unveiled by manager Kevin Cash and his staff where a relief pitcher tosses the first one or two innings of a game before giving way to a bulk guy that covers the next five or six frames. The Opener, as it came to be called, originated out of necessity but soon proved to be very effective and Cash and Co. plan to implement it again in the upcoming season. Flamethrower Ryne Stanek is set to be the featured Opener, while the likes of Diego Castillo and Emilio Pagan could also appear in the role. The bulk guys Tampa Bay may use could include Ryan Yarbrough, Yonny Chirinos, and Wilmer Font. Additionally, while you won’t see any pundits listing the Rays’ starting pitching rotation as one of the best, nor should they as Tampa Bay plans to use only three starting pitchers as opposed to the traditional five, the reigning AL Cy Young winner does reside in St. Pete in Blake Snell. It can’t be stressed enough how much of the Rays’ potential success rides on Snell’s ability to at least come close to his stellar results in 2018, which included a 1.89 ERA and a 21-5 record. Snell will also be playing to show that the recent five-year, $50 million deal he signed with the club was worth it. If he falters, the outlook of the pitching staff looks much grimmer. Nonetheless, his counterparts in the rotation are no slouches either. Charlie Morton, signed in the offseason, will provide a veteran presence and steady results, while no one is questioning the talent of second year man Tyler Glasnow, even if he has struggled out of the gate in Spring Training. As is typical with successful Rays teams, pitching will likely be the strength of the 2019 club. However, the array of position players on the roster look better than they have in years.

Although not quite to the extent of last year, the Rays once again showed this past offseason that they aren’t afraid of a shake-up. Many were stunned when Jake Bauers was traded to the Indians for corner infielder Yandy Diaz. The jury is still out on this move, as the Rays clearly hope they can change some things mechanically in Diaz to increase his power output. Also traded away was outfielder Mallex Smith, who went to Seattle in exchange for catcher Mike Zunino and outfielder Guillermo Heredia. With Zunino, the headliner of the deal, the Rays will get plus defense and possibly above average offensive production. Also signed was outfielder/DH Avisail Garcia, who the Rays hope can return to his all-star caliber level from 2017. These new faces will add to a versatile and fun group that showed their mettle in the final months of 2018. In the outfield, Tommy Pham will be counted on to be a key cog in the middle of the order, Kevin Kiermaier will look to stay healthy and provide improved offense to go with his world-class defense, and Austin Meadows is a promising young player who had an impressive rookie season in 2018. In the infield, Joey Wendle is coming of a Rookie of the Year finalist season, Brandon Lowe is on fire in Spring Training and recently inked a long-term deal, Willy Adames has superstar potential at shortstop, and Ji-Man Choi, Daniel Robertson, and Matt Duffy round out impressive depth.

Aside from possibly Snell or Adames, Tampa Bay is unlikely to feature any superstars and the AL All-Star team likely won’t be filled with Rays. However, it is the team’s incredible versatility and depth that will be their strength. Make no mistake, it won’t be easy to come out of a stacked AL East and overall top-heavy American League to reach the Postseason, but this incarnation of the Rays has as good a chance as any in the team’s history. The players and fans alike are also no doubt in for a fun ride with this charismatic group of players, who will hopefully be able to bring stronger crowds out to the Trop for home games. There’s no telling what’s in store, but dreams of rekindling 2008 magic by toppling the Sox and Yanks, stunning the baseball world, and doing what that 2008 club failed to do, win the World Series, are no longer all that far fetched for Rays fans.