ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays lead the American League wild card race and are on a pace to win 92 games. They just had three players selected for the All-Star Game and have legitimate Rookie of the Year and Cy Young Award candidates.
They are also a broken team.
That doesn’t mean the season is lost or they can’t be fixed. But heading into the second half of the season, the Rays cannot afford to continue wobbling the way they have been since mid-May.
Since, really, Tyler Glasnow walked off the mound with a sore arm.
On that Friday night, the Rays had a small lead in the AL East and were playing at a .639 clip. Since then, they have struggled to play .500 ball while falling 6.5 games behind the Yankees. Even more ominously, they are barely hanging on to the wild card lead.
The Rays have scored slightly fewer runs during that stretch (4.69 per game to 4.47) but that’s not the problem. The big issue is they are giving up a full run more (3.05 to 4.09) without Glasnow.
Now some of that is due to Blake Snell going into a deep funk in June. And some of it is, naturally, Jalen Beeks and Ryan Yarbrough replacing Glasnow’s innings. But some is also due to a bullpen collapse.
Between openers and relievers, the Rays are asking their bullpen to provide more than four innings per game. That’s a heavy load, particularly for an inexperienced group of relievers.
And that’s what needs to be fixed in the next 20 days before the trade deadline.
So will Tampa Bay pull the trigger? Will they give up prospects to shore up the bullpen for a stretch run? I’d be surprised if they didn’t. Owner Stu Sternberg said in the spring that one of the benefits of an MLB-low payroll was having the flexibility to add talent in July if a postseason run was at stake.
With that in mind, here’s a look at a dozen potential deadline targets.
The high-end market
Tampa Bay is typically looking to shed salary when making trades, but this could be a rare exception. Based on the team’s supposed interest in free agent Craig Kimbrel in early June, there seems to be a willingness to spend money for the right reliever.
So could Pittsburgh closer Felipe Vazquez be in the mix? He’s got 20 saves and is striking out 14.1 batters per 9 innings. He would also be a hefty investment. Vazquez has about $2 million remaining in salary this season, but is guaranteed $14.5 million over the next two years, including a $1 million buyout of a $10 million option in 2022. It’s not crazy money for a proven closer, but it’s more than the Rays have generally spent for a reliever.
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For that reason, Royals closer Ian Kennedy is probably out of the picture. A converted starter, Kennedy will make roughly $25 million for the next year and a half. Unless Kansas City pays a huge chunk of that, the Rays are not going to be interested.
Detroit’s Shane Greene is coming off an All-Star appearance but will come closing to doubling his $4 million salary in arbitration next year. Alex Colome has had a career revival with the White Sox but it’s hard to imagine Tampa Bay wanting to pay him more than $8 million next year when they dumped his $5.3 million salary a year ago.
That leaves San Francisco’s Will Smith and Toronto’s Ken Giles as interesting options on the expensive end. Smith would only cost $2 million for the rest of this year, and then heads to free agency. He would be the ultimate rent-a-reliever which means he may not command a lot in return.
Giles would be a bit more expensive (about $3 million for the second half) and will probably jump to more than $8 million in arbitration next year before hitting free agency in 2021. But that’s a pretty small commitment for a contending team to get a closer with more than 100 career saves and a strikeout rate of 15.4 per nine innings this year.
The moderately priced
If the Angels decide they are not true contenders — and they are 7 games behind the Rays in the wild card — their bullpen could be ripe for picking.
Hansel Robles was acquired on waivers from the Mets at this time last year, and has turned out to be a major bargain. He is 12-of-14 in save opportunities while making $1.4 million. Just as intriguing is teammate Ty Buttrey, a 26-year-old rookie, who would be under team control for another five years. Buttrey has a 1.5 WAR, which is better than anyone currently in the Rays bullpen.
The Giants, likewise, have a pair of lower-priced alternatives to Smith. Reyes Moronta has a high strikeout rate (12.3 per 9 innings) but a scary walk rate (4.3). Former Jesuit pitcher Sam Dyson, who was a closer with Texas in 2017, could be a safer alternative. Arbitration could bring his cost to more than $8 million for this year and next, but he’d add necessary experience.
Roenis Elias is 11-of-13 in save opportunities in Seattle and won’t be a free agent until 2022, and White Sox setup man Aaron Bummer has decent numbers but little experience in the ninth inning.
The point is the Rays have plenty of options, including a lot of pitchers I haven’t mentioned. Salary will be a factor, and so will the quality of prospects it will take to pull off a trade.
You just have to measure that price against the possibility of falling out of contention in the next two months.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.