ST. PETERSBURG — Back in December, back when the Rays had cut loose of Charlie Morton and traded Blake Snell, I might have very gently suggested the team was possibly veering from a normally suggested path of success.
Or, I might have put it this way:
“Is it considered poor manners to wave a white flag on 2021 even before hanging the 2020 pennant at Tropicana Field?”
Now, you might have recently noticed the Rays are having a fine season in 2021. Arguably, the best regular season the franchise has ever had. In light of this new information, I hereby modify my previous objections to Tampa Bay’s offseason moves.
In other words, I’m waving my own white flag.
Clearly, Rays general manager Erik Neander knew what he was doing. The Rays trimmed $25.5 million from their projected 2021 payroll, they got out from underneath more than $40 million owed to Snell during the next three seasons, and in return they got Luis Patino, catcher Francisco Mejia and another promising 21-year-old pitching prospect from San Diego.
More importantly, they still had a plan to succeed in 2021.
At the time, that was my biggest objection to the trade. Even though Snell had been slipping in recent seasons and Morton was getting up in years, I just didn’t see enough quality starting pitching on the horizon to make it through a 162-game regular season.
But, as always, the Rays had a plan. Signing Chris Archer, Rich Hill and Michael Wacha to relatively cheap deals gave them options for the first half of the season while rookies Shane McClanahan and Patino got their feet underneath them.
The best part of the plan, however, was to not be encumbered by traditional pitching roles. The Rays have never been locked into a five-man rotation, nor a traditional set-up/closer-style bullpen. Instead, they simply want enough arms to cover 1,450 innings during a season.
Which explains why, going into the weekend, there were 93 pitchers in the majors with at least 100 innings pitched and only one belonged to the Rays. That may not be exactly the way the Rays envisioned it — they probably would have preferred Tyler Glasnow, Archer and Wacha all had 100 innings along with Ryan Yarbrough by now — but they had enough contingencies to pull it all off.
Now, in my defense, that December column mentioned two possible reasons the Snell trade made sense.
No. 1 was if the Rays reinvested the money they saved by bidding farewell to Snell and Morton. They’ve done that. Between the offseason signings of Archer, Hill, Wacha and Collin McHugh and the midseason trades for Nelson Cruz and Matt Wisler, the Rays recommitted almost $20 million of that $25.5 million they saved.
No. 2 was if the Rays were concerned that Snell’s slippage in 2019-20 was no fluke. They would never admit it back then and they still won’t now, but considering the way he has struggled in San Diego it’s not hard to imagine that the Rays were skeptical he would ever get back to being the 2018 version of Snell.
So what does it all mean now?
Despite oddsmakers, and maybe a certain columnist, doubting that the Rays could win the AL East again, they have been in first place for much of the past three months. Their offense is on pace to set a franchise record for scoring and they seem destined to make the playoffs for the third consecutive season.
At this point, it’s even worth wondering whether this is the best team the Rays have ever assembled even though they likely won’t have anyone finish in the top five of the Most Valuable Player award voting and their pitchers could get completely shut out of the Cy Young award voting. For crying out loud, Diego Castillo will end up leading the team in saves, and he’ll have spent the final two months of the season in Seattle.
And yet it all works because the Rays have enough versatility and depth, as well as a fearlessness when it comes to challenging accepted notions about what a team should look like. Which means they could go into the postseason with McClanahan and Patino, two rookies who currently have 30 combined starts in the majors, as the only traditional starters in the rotation.
Is that good enough to get them to the World Series again?
Probably not. I think they’ll still regret letting Morton go. But recent evidence suggests my doubts are probably a good omen for Rays fans.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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