Yesterday’s game was the first time that we saw the full potential of the Tampa Bay Rays bullpen. Erasmo Ramirez gave the team five solid innings before Xavier Cedeno and Brandon Gomes combined to pitch the sixth. That got the ball to Kevin Jepsen, Jake McGee, and Brad Boxberger, who allowed just two baserunners combined in the last three innings while recording four strikeouts on their way to slamming the door. Jepsen continues to work through his control issues, but if he can put them in the past, this relief corps could be outstanding.
Maybe it is good enough that it could make do without one late-inning reliever to make a different part of the Rays better. Ken Rosenthal presents that idea in a piece for Fox Sports, saying that the Rays should trade Jake McGee because they need help elsewhere, he is growing expensive, and they would be dealing from a team strength. Is there enough reason for the Rays to put a McGee deal together?
The Rays are currently tied for first place in the AL East at 22-18, but it is abundantly clear that they have flaws. One problem spot is catcher, but given how difficult it is to find a good backstop without giving up crazy amounts of prospects, sticking with Rene Rivera and their internal options is likely their best bet. One place where they could conceivably improve, however, is starting pitcher, where they currently have the unimpressive trio of Nate Karns, Alex Colome, and Erasmo Ramirez slotting behind Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi.
The argument for the Rays not acquiring a starter is that Matt Moore will return in June and they have enough depth to be fine with the pitchers they have. There will certainly be bumps in the road for pitchers like Karns, Colome, and Ramirez–Colome is going through one of them right now–but between them, Matt Andriese, Andrew Bellatti, Enny Romero, and maybe even Dylan Floro later in the year, we have to think that the Rays can find two good starters.
That being said, even if the Rays could survive with the guys they have, they do have the opportunity to improve. We have to question whether the Rays would give up real prospects to make this year’s team better, but if they can make a trade happen using unnecessary players from their big league roster, that may be another story. There is no question that McGee is expensive–he is making $3.55 million this year and is set to make $5 million or more next season. Can the Rays really afford to pay that much money to a setup man?
The biggest question in all of this is whether the Rays bullpen is good enough without McGee. Brad Boxberger has been an outstanding closer, but everyone other than McGee comes with major questions. Jepsen has dealt with control issues, Ernesto Frieri has struggled mightily and may not last with the team, Steve Geltz has a limited track record of success, Brandon Gomes is terrible against lefty batters, and Xavier Cedeno is nothing more than a lefty specialist. That group doesn’t sound like the strength that Rosenthal makes it out to be.
On the other hand, our perception of the Rays’ relief corps is subject to change. If Jepsen dominates again for an extended period, that group will look a lot stronger. Frieri could be cut, but Jose Dominguez is a high-upside option to take his place. Though Kirby Yates and C.J. Riefenhauser are both currently injured, if they can get healthy and get on track at Durham, the Rays will have a lot more bullpen depth. The biggest wild card of all, however, might be Enny Romero.
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The Rays would be much more comfortable trading McGee if they had another electric lefty arm to take his place. Romero could be that guy. He only just got back from a back injury at Durham, but he has pitched well since returning and has long been considered a late-inning relief candidate. With a fastball that has touched the upper 90’s even in a starting role and two decent secondary pitches in his changeup and slider, Romero could dominate if the Rays finally give up on him as a potential starter. If the Rays did want to replace Frieri, Romero could be a better candidate than Dominguez to take over his spot.
The other factor in all of this is that if the Rays were to trade McGee for a starter, it would push someone to relief. If Moore returns and another starter is acquired, then the Rays could end up with a bullpen of Boxberger, Jepsen, Geltz, Gomes, Cedeno, Colome, and Ramirez. While Ramirez would probably fit best as a long man, Colome is a pitcher with the stuff to turn into a high-leverage option in short order. Add in pitchers like Romero, Dominguez, and Yates to the mix, and the Rays could have an excellent bullpen even without McGee.
There are scenarios where it makes sense for the Tampa Bay Rays to deal Jake McGee. Before that happens, however, we need to see Jepsen rebound–the Rays won’t go with Boxberger as their only established late-inning option–and a pitcher like Dominguez and Romero to impress in a big league stint. Even if both of those things happen, though, a trade could be nixed if the starting options succeed or, more likely, if McGee isn’t desirable enough on the trade market.
Trading McGee could be a creative way for the Rays to improve their starting rotation, but the biggest question of all is whether McGee and a mid-level prospect would be enough to net a starting pitcher that would be better than the Rays’ current options. After all, in what world would a rebuilding team trade an impressive starter for a relief arm they don’t need (because they are losing) rather than a top prospect? The argument makes a lot of sense until it falls apart right there. With that in mind, if the Rays want to deal McGee, this coming offseason would be a better time.