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Scouting the AL East: 2020 Tampa Bay Rays’ ZiPS projections

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The Rays project to be something of a threat in 2020, but it’s hard to envision them toppling the Yankees.

Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

It’s still projection season, as we don’t yet have real baseball, and have to sate ourselves by imagining what the 2020 campaign has in store for us. By now, Baseball Prospectus has unveiled its full state of PECOTA projections, and FanGraphs has put out ZiPS projections for every team, giving us a fair idea of what to expect in the coming year.

Today, I thought I’d dig deeper on the Rays’ ZiPS projections. You can find our other looks at AL East ZiPS projections here. Here’s what Tampa Bay’s projected depth chart looks like, courtesy of Dan Szymborski:

While none of these WAR figures jump off the page, this roster clearly represents the toughest divisional challenge the Yankees will face in 2020, with Boston now Mookie Betts-less and the Blue Jays still a season away.

The strength of this Rays squad comes on the mound, if ZiPS is to be believed. The team would likely be thrilled if 2018 AL Cy Young winner Blake Snell could hit that WAR forecast, on the heels of a season that saw him deal with injuries and an inflated ERA. ZiPS pegs him to strike out nearly 12 batters per nine and run a 129 ERA+.

That would pair nicely with Charlie Morton’s continued excellence, which ZiPS confidently projects. Morton was a dark-horse Cy Young contender in 2019, and ZiPS figures a repeat year is on the way, projecting 159 innings of a 128 ERA+. Morton, Snell, and Tyler Glasnow, who projects for 12 strikeouts per nine and a 121 ERA+, albeit in just 119.2 innings, form a scary trio. Should those three get to October, they could tear through a playoff bracket the way Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Patrick Corbin just did.

Not to be outdone, Tampa’s bullpen looks nearly as scary. While the Yankees’ bullpen remains the standard in terms of established, flame-throwing relief aces, the Rays have assembled a relief corps that could challenge New York’s supremacy if things brake right.

Nick Anderson projects to strike out over 14 batters per nine, while Colin Poche projects for 13 strikeouts per nine. Oliver Drake and Jose Alvarado each project for over 11 strikeouts per nine. All four are forecast for ERA+ figures of at least 120. This is before we get to Diego Castillo (117 ERA+), or depth arms like Anthony Banda, Jalen Beeks, Brent Honeywell, and more, all of whom could provide valuable contributions as swingmen, openers, followers, or some combination of the above.

This depth and variety of talent is what makes Tampa Bay’s staff as a whole a bit worrisome from a Yankees’ perspective. Just last year, the Rays saw only one hurler qualify for the ERA title, but they still mixed and matched their way to the best fWAR mark in baseball. They have the arms on hand to match that feat. It’s hard to figure what exact shape the Rays’ pitching production will come in, but it more than likely will add up to something impressive.

The team’s position player group strikes a similar dynamic. What they lack in starpower, they make up for in versatility, coming together to form a lineup whose whole just might be more than the sum of its parts.

Austin Meadows could be the only hitter here with true star potential. Coming off an injury-plagued but productive season, Meadows projects for over 3 WAR and a 122 OPS+. The only other hitter with a projected OPS+ figure even above 115 is Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, who came over from Japan this winter and will likely make appearances in a corner outfield slot.

The Rays probably will try to cobble together an above-average offense through the use of platoons across the diamond. Kevin Kiermaier and Manuel Margot could split time in center. Tsutsugo and Hunter Renfroe should handle right. Ji-man Choi, Nate Lowe, Daniel Robertson and Yandy Diaz will combine in some way to handle corner-infield duties. Brandon Lowe and Willy Adames slot in up the middle.

None of these names strike terror into opponents’ hearts, but every single one of them outside of Robertson projects for an OPS+ mark within 12 points of average. Most of them project for positive defensive marks. In all likelihood, the Rays will play matchups when deciding how fill out their lineup on any given day. The end result will typically be a respectable offense, and a defense that consistently catches the ball well.

Of course, it’s hard to scan through these projections, which, when tossed together, suggest a very good team, and not wonder if the Rays will ever make things just a bit easier on themselves. As of now, Baseball Reference estimates Tampa has about $70 million committed to player payroll. Sure, the Rays have proven they can piece together solid production at nearly every position using undervalued hitters and no-name relievers. How much better could they be if they ran a respectable payroll, and shelled out for straightforward, excellent players on the free agent market?

That refusal to make that extra investment, to the roster of a team Forbes most recently valued at over $1 billion, is arguably what will keep the Rays from truly challenging the Yankees this year. The Rays are good, balanced and well-managed, but will more likely win 90-something games than 100. Until they do something to push themselves into the upper echelon, the Yankees should take the AL East.