So will Rays jump in on Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel sweepstakes?

Speculation is starting to build that Tampa Bay might have interest in the former Astros starter Keuchel, but a reliever such as Kimbrel seems the more likely choice.
Free agent starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel, shown here at Tropicana Field while with the Astros in 2016, is an inviting target for contending teams, but is he the right fit for the Rays? [WILL VRAGOVIC   |   Times]
Free agent starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel, shown here at Tropicana Field while with the Astros in 2016, is an inviting target for contending teams, but is he the right fit for the Rays? [WILL VRAGOVIC | Times]
Published May 26

Help is on the way for the Rays. Or at least it should be.

Having reached Memorial Day solidly in contention in the American League East, the Rays have the motivation, the payroll flexibility and the need to add bodies in the next two months.

Now, normally, this is a conversation for a little bit later in the summer as the July trade deadline draws near, but there are a couple of factors that could hasten the process this season.

No. 1, there are two big-name free agents still sitting on the sidelines who are about to become a lot more attractive on June 2 when teams no longer will be penalized a draft pick for signing either Dallas Keuchel or Craig Kimbrel.

No. 2, the Rays are one week into a stretch of 47 games in 48 days with nearly a quarter of their expected 25-man roster on the injured list. There is at least a small concern that the Rays could fall too far behind the Yankees before the July 31 deadline arrives.

Which leaves this question:

What, exactly, should they do?

Do they go after a starting pitcher, such as Keuchel? Do they prefer a reliever, such as Kimbrel? Or do they boost the offense with a designated hitter or first baseman?

Let’s consider the case for each.

Starting pitching

Acclaimed baseball writer Ken Rosenthal recently reported that the Rays, along with the Yankees, are staying in touch with Keuchel. There’s no reason to believe that’s not true, but it’s also hard to imagine Tampa Bay being a serious player in the Keuchel sweepstakes.

There is no indication Keuchel, 31, will be interested in a one-year contract, and the Rays do not typically do multiyear deals with players in their 30s. With Charlie Morton, 35, already under contract for $15 million in 2020, it seems unlikely Tampa Bay would take on another similar deal.

Plus, no matter how much Keuchel is throwing on his own, it would still take weeks to get him ready to face big-league hitters. If he signs on June 2, the Rays would almost be ready to welcome back Tyler Glasnow by the time Keuchel is available.

And while the Rays would prefer to use openers in only two of their five rotation spots, Yonny Chirinos, Jalen Beeks and Ryan Yarbrough are 4-0 with a 2.90 ERA since Glasnow was hurt. Chirinos and Yarbrough also have shown the ability to pitch as traditional starters.

Relief pitching

The Rays came into the weekend third in the majors in bullpen ERA, but that is a little misleading. It does not include openers, who throw 1-2 innings, but it does include bulk guys, who are throwing 3-5 innings.

The reality is the Rays are not doing as well in the later innings as they are early in games. Tampa Bay’s ERA through the first five innings of games is 2.52. From the sixth inning on, the ERA goes up to 3.52.

Would Kimbrel be an upgrade? That seems a strong possibility. But would he be worth a fat contract? That’s more debatable. Kimbrel, who turns 31 on Tuesday, had his struggles down the stretch for the Red Sox last season. And, like Keuchel, he would need time to get ready to face big-league hitters.

Hitting

Safe to say, offense is the weakest part of the Rays’ game. They are the best in baseball when it comes to run prevention but are slightly below average when it comes to scoring runs.

The issue is who is available in trade, and how much difference would they make. Edwin Encarnacion would probably have a slight impact. Anthony Rendon likely would have a bigger impact.

But this team is not designed to win with offense. It is built more for games with a 4-3 score than a 6-5 score. The best argument for chasing a hitter might be for the postseason, when a few extra hits could go a long way in a short series.

Conclusion

Barring an unforeseeable collapse, the Rays will almost assuredly make a move before the deadline. The payroll was built with a cushion that allows them to add contracts in July. And this team looks too good not to take advantage of an opportunity to reach the postseason.

The Rays have been slightly above average when holding on to a late lead, and their 80 percent conversion rate on saves is in the top 10. But the bullpen has been shaky in tie games, which explains how Diego Castillo and Jose Alvarado have a combined 0-7 record.

Look for the Rays to pick up a dependable, experienced reliever or two.

And don’t be surprised if they do it sooner rather than later.

Contact John Romano at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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