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En route to their second World Series appearance in franchise history last year, the Rays made a couple of low-key moves ahead of the trade deadline that ended up having outsized effects that even Nostradamus couldn’t have foreseen.
The first was linking up with the Royals to acquire Brett Phillips, whose inexplicable single in Game 4 of the World Series won the team’s 2020 game of the year. The second was trading José Martínez to the Cubs to make room on the 25-man roster for Randy Arozarena, who emerged as the face of the 2020 Rays while setting the MLB record for postseason home runs.
While those would end up qualifying as significant transactions in hindsight, they barely caused a blink on the radar of most observers. On Thursday, the Rays increased the pressure on their competitors and executed what probably qualifies as the most striking deadline deal in franchise history. By acquiring veteran slugger Nelson Cruz from the Minnesota Twins in the first blockbuster deal in July, Tampa Bay greatly increased his chances of returning to the Fall Classic with a move to match the urgency the moment calls for.
Tampa Bay, with its low payroll and analytical headquarters, has never been the kind of team to look for costly midseason upgrades.
In 2008, despite the Rays competing in a playoff race for the first time in the organization’s 11-year history, then-general manager Andrew Friedman chose to stick with the deadline. His team rewarded his confidence with the franchise’s first appearance in the World Series.
In 2009, however, the Rays couldn’t build on their pennant-winning team. With Tampa Bay (48-41) 3.5 games behind the Yankees in the wild-card race at the All-Star break, Friedman entered August again with nothing to show for the exchange market. The Rays finished in third place at 84-78, 11 playoff games. In fact, the only franchise deadline deal that paid direct and immediate dividends came in 2018, when Chris Archer’s departure to Pittsburgh brought back Tyler Glasnow, along with Austin Meadows and top prospect Shane Baz. Glasnow pitched well down the stretch in another failed playoff chase. But that deal, lopsided as it turned out, was more about selling Archer than buying parts to win on the spot.
Now, however, the Rays are gone and shown a true buyer attitude in July for the first time. The reasons are abundant: a desire for sustained success, San Diego informed interest in Cruz, drawing fans to avoid relocation“Yet it is still a remarkable turn of events.”
The Rays, who opened the season with MLB’s fifth-lowest payroll at $ 66.7 million, will receive about $ 5 million more in Cruz’s salary. They also lose a pair of talented starting-caliber arms in Joe Ryan and Drew Strotman, ranked by MLB.com as the No. 10 and No. 17 Tampa Bay prospects, respectively, before the trade. But this is a deal worth making for an organization with the highest ranked farm system in baseball.
Cruz immediately becomes his best hitter. He’ll probably be the best hitter traded before next Friday’s deadline. And its Tampa Bay setting, which has apparently become the go-to spot for 40-somethings seeking professional sports championships, could hardly be better.
The 41-year-old’s 279 home runs since 2014 are the most in the majors. This year, he’s hitting .294 / .370 / .537 with 19 home runs, which is tied for second among designated hitters this year. Meanwhile, the Rays’ designated hitters have ranked in the bottom five in home runs, batting average and OPS this season. Boomstick will also improve Tampa Bay’s ERA against left-handed pitchers after the Rays ranked 26th in the majors in OPS against left-handers so far. In an offense with a 26.5% strikeout rate, the highest in MLB, Cruz’s 18.2% strikeout rate (70th percentile) will add much-needed contact to the mix.
“We wait [Cruz] to become a much more formidable offensive group, ”said general manager Erik Neander said to Tampa bay timesMarc topkin. “It’s an impact bat that has been one of the best in baseball … A bat that’s as good as you’re going to find, as good as the one we’ve had here.”
It’s unclear how the Rays build the lineup around their new full-time designated hitter. Meadows, whose 47 designated hitter games were the majority of the seven different players who had started there, leads the Rays with 66 RBIs and is second on the team in plate appearances and OPS (.788). He could take one of the corner outfield spots full time and push Manuel Margot into a center field platoon with Kevin Kiermaier, whose .236 / .291 / .330 cutoff line is offsetting his Gold Glove-caliber defense . Or maybe Meadows, who has a .904 OPS against right-handers and a .580 OPS against left-handers, takes on a platoon role himself. Either way, the Rays are really improving offensive production in both the designated hitter and the outfield.
Every little detail will help Tampa avoid the wild card game. The Rays and Red Sox appear to be locked in a fierce battle for the AL East. Both clubs pulled out extra innings 5-4 wins Thursday night to hold Boston’s divisional lead in one game.
The two teams could also compete next week on the phone lines. Boston’s biggest weakness, its rotation, will soon be addressed by the return of Chris Sale, who started rehab at Double-A on Tuesday. But beyond Sale and Nathan Eovaldi, it’s hard to imagine Red Sox manager Alex Cora fully relying on any of his starters to avoid a blowout in a postseason game. With Glasnow’s injured status unclear, Tampa Bay’s two most trusted starters are Rich Hill, 41, and rookie Shane McClanahan. They too would benefit from another reliable starter, even if Glasnow returns in good health.
Could the Rays maintain this newfound aggressive attitude in an acquisition for a pending free agent like Rangers All-Star Kyle Gibson or Colorado’s Jon Gray? They certainly have the edge over their rivals in terms of what they can offer in return; Even if the head office can’t add more payroll, the leads available to Neander could convince business partners to still be responsible for the majority of any newcomer’s salary. heads to the Trop. It’s just a question of whether the defending American League champs are willing to act like the boldest buyers on the market. It would be a new aspect for an organization that can realize it needs to be more assertive to win its first World Series and further bolster Tampa’s credentials at Titletown.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.