The Rays this week will reach the midpoint of their season and, all things considered, it hasn't been half bad. To have logged 40 wins in 77 games without a pitch being thrown by two guys expected to play key bullpen roles in Brad Boxberger and Shawn Tolleson, without an at-bat by starting SS Matt Duffy, and without much from Blake Snell due to inconsistency and CF Kevin Kiermaier, 2B Brad Miller and top LH reliever Xavier Cedeno due to injuries, they must be doing something right. Here are 10 decisions they made during the winter, spring and early season that helped get them where they are:
1 Re-signing Logan Morrison
The Rays had lots of other options among first base/DH types before deciding — seemingly stubbornly — in February to bring back Morrison, who had a miserable start and a premature injury-caused end to his 2016 season. After agreeing to a one-year, $2.5 million deal that, even with up to $1.25 million in incentives, was still a hefty pay cut, Morrison texted GM Erik Neander to thank him and tell him he'd made a good decision and had the best bargain in baseball. "If you don't believe it, it's not going to happen, right?" Morrison said. "Believe before you can achieve, I guess. Partly I was talking (trash), but I was letting him know." Whaddya know? Morrison, arguably, is exactly that, ranking second in the American League with 22 homers and third with 54 RBIs, anchoring a Rays lineup that has been one of the AL's most productive.
2 Keeping Tim Beckham/trading Taylor Motter
Both utility infielders did enough wrong last season that the Rays didn't issue the usual September callups, raising the question if either would be back. But with Matt Duffy coming off surgery and Logan Forsythe traded, they opted to keep one for depth and made the right call that Beckham had the higher upside. That became a big deal as Duffy is still sidelined and Beckham has been the starting shortstop, playing good enough defense on most (though not all) nights while adding power and production, hitting .278 with 10 homers, 31 RBIs and a .764 OPS. Motter, after a hot start with the Mariners, has declined to .207-7-23-.637.
3 Sticking with Alex Cobb
Some Rays folks had enough concerns in spring training about Cobb's chances to return to pre-Tommy John form they had him throw a minor-league game on the stadium field to run pitch diagnostics on him. Others got antsy when he got off to a 1-2, 4.66 start, was getting hit hard (.317 average, .858 OPS) and couldn't throw his changeup effectively. But, with other rotation issues popping up, they stuck with Cobb, he adjusted on the fly to feature the curveball and it paid off, as he has since gone 5-3, 3.78 with better ancillary numbers (.262, .739), even with that bad night in Seattle when he allowed 14 hits and nine runs.
4 Keeping Daniel Robertson over Nick Franklin
Franklin offered more experience and versatility since he also could play outfield and was a switch-hitter, but the Rays wisely made defense the driving force in this decision. That was key as Robertson has not only filled in very well at short, third and primarily second but seems to make a highlights-worthy play a night. And he has pitched in at the plate, hitting .216 with five homers, 16 RBIs and a .665 OPS. Franklin ended up with the Brewers and is hitting .198-2-10-.582.
5 Upgrading the place holder catchers
Knowing they had free-agent signee Wilson Ramos returning from knee surgery around midseason, the Rays easily could have stuck with returnees Curt Casali and Luke Maile behind the plate. But they made one move just before spring training in trading for Jesus Sucre (above) then, after a failed bid for Matt Wieters, another in signing Derek Norris. Both had flaws — with Norris DFA'd after Friday's game — and combined to hit just .209 but did team for 12 homers and 43 RBIs. Casali has been at Triple-A Durham all season (hitting .266); Maile ended up with the Jays and in 30 games is hitting .122 with a .358 OPS.
6 Trading for Mallex Smith
The wisdom of guaranteeing CF Kevin Kiermaier $53.5 million will be played out over the six years of his new contract. But the Rays were smart enough after last year's debacle to know they needed someone to fill in if Kiermaier got hurt again. Getting Smith — with two minor-leaguers from Seattle for LHP Drew Smyly — has already paid off with Kiermaier out for two-plus months, even if the Mallex Effect needs some fine-tuning.
7 Calling up Jose Alvarado to add a lefty
Losing Xavier Cedeno to injury exposed a major flaw in their bullpen building, with no other experienced lefty. So after stubbornly going 10 days without, relying on RHP Danny Farquhar to trick lefty hitters, they made a very un-Rays like move, calling up 21-year-old Jose Alvarado (above) straight from Double A. He has had a few bad moments, but for the most part his talents and velocity have played well.
8 Reconfiguring the rotation
One big step was finally acknowledging in mid May that Blake Snell wasn't good enough, was taxing the pen and needed to be sent down. The other, with Taylor Guerrieri and Jose De Leon hurt, was giving a shot to Jake Faria, who doesn't have dazzling stuff but has stepped in and pitched like a pro, going deep and winning three of his first four starts.
9 Adding veteran depth
While Jose Alvarado and Jake Faria got their shots, the Rays passed on promoting prospects to fill other holes when injuries mounted and acquired veterans, adding OF Peter Bourjos (left) and relievers Jumbo Diaz and Tommy Hunter in the spring then INFs Michael Martinez, Taylor Featherston and Trevor Plouffe in season. While there are some benefits to not calling up the kids (developmental, roster manipulation, future financial costs), these for the most part seemed like win-now moves.
10 Not blowing it up over the winter
Coming off 94 losses, facing the usual massive AL East payroll deficit and holding valuable trade chips such as RHP Chris Archer, RHP Alex Colome, CF Kevin Kiermaier and 3B Evan Longoria, they had good reason for a massive winter clearance. But Rays execs were adamant the team was better than it showed and confident that, with the right additions, it could be competitive this year. So far, so good.
And five that haven't worked out
1 Moving Brad Miller to second base
For 30 homers you could overlook the sloppy defense, not so much with two.
2 Trading Logan Forsythe for Jose De Leon
Maybe De Leon will be a high-end starter but thus far, he has been of little help.
3 Counting on Matt Duffy at shortstop
Obviously a fail so far, but it's not his or their fault if what docs said wasn't right.
4 Signing RHP Shawn Tolleson
Knowing bullpen needed much help, he was too much of an injury risk to count on.
5 Trading LHP Enny Romero
With no depth, his power arm was worth taking another look at; works for Nationals.
Kevin Cash was 17th on SI.com contributor Joe Sheehan's newsletter ranking of "top tactical and strategic" managers, but MLB Network's Brian Kenny insisted that was "way too low." Tops were Terry Francona (Indians), Buck Showalter (Orioles), Joe Girardi (Yankees). … Ditching C Derek Norris (and keeping Jesus Sucre) was the right move for several reasons, some more apparent than others. … Top pick 1B/LHP Brendan McKay's Louisville team and second pick RHP Drew Rasmussen's Oregon State team are out of the College World Series, but it makes sense for the Rays to first sign Rasmussen. Also, McKay is from near Pittsburgh, where the Rays play Tuesday-Thursday. Hmm. … Even if he doesn't make the AL All-Star team, 1B Logan Morrison — a former Marlin — is willing to take part in the home run derby in Miami if asked, as Aaron Judge was. … The Rays are working hard pushing Corey Dickerson's All-Star candidacy — including Chris Archer's handmade sign on MLB Network — with voting ending Thursday night and the teams announced next Sunday. … Morrison's complaints about SS Tim Beckham not being on the All-Star fan ballot are misplaced; teams provide MLB the names in April, when the Rays still expected Matt Duffy to be healthy. Morrison's valid reply: It's online voting so it should be changeable. Beckham was on the player ballot, voted in early June. … Looks like a March 29, 2018 season opener at the Trop vs. Boston. … Ex-Rays C Stephen Vogt, DFA'd by the A's after a run as a fan fave and All-Star, will be a big addition to an organization when he's done playing.