Tampa Bay Rays: 2017 Year in Review Part 1 the Off-Season

TORONTO, ON - AUGUST 15: Tampa Bay Rays catcher Wilson Ramos (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - AUGUST 15: Tampa Bay Rays catcher Wilson Ramos (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images) /

The Tampa Bay Rays pre-season goal of getting back to the post-season fell short, though they became buyers at the trade deadline with the Wild Card in reach. However, it was just a bit too late to overcome the inconsistencies of the early season bullpen struggles and the second-half offensive cave in.

The Tampa Bay Rays 2017 Year in Review will be in two parts. The first part covers all of the 2016-17 off-season from November 2016 thru the end of June 2017. The second part, to be posted next will include all of the Rays moves that transpired through the trade deadline and conclusion of the season.

Despite their 80 wins, which was a 12-game improvement from 2016 and finished the season in third place in the AL East, the Tampa Bay Rays could not overcome the anemic bullpen that haunted them during the opening months of the season, nor could they sustain a winning streak longer than four games.

Last off-season, the Rays made some significant moves trading Taylor Motter and Richie Shaffer to the Mariners, pitcher Drew Smyly to the Mariners and Mikie Mahtook to the Detroit Tigers. The biggest trade though was shipping fan and team favorite Logan Forsythe to the Dodgers for pitching prospect Jose De Leon.

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In looking back at this trade now, it was a washout for both clubs as Forsythe slash line was .224/.351/.327 with six home runs and 36 RBIs. He also spent time on the DL missing 30 games with a fractured toe.

De Leon would make one appearance for the Rays, pitching 2.2 innings in which he gave up three runs on four hits. However, due to three stints on the DL, De Leon made only 10 starts in the minors between Rookie, A and Triple-A.

In addition to the trades, the Rays signed free agent bargains in pitchers Shawn Tolleson, who would surrender his season to the DL during spring training. Tommy Hunter, the most reliable pitcher in the bullpen and Nathan Eovaldi out for the season rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. Then there was outfielder Colby Rasmus whose unique beard gained more headlines than when Rasmus called it quits after 37 games.

However, the big bang was the signing of free agent catcher Wilson Ramos to a two-year contract. Despite not being available until late May or June rehabbing from a torn ACL, the Rays took a risk that he could finally be the offensive catcher they have coveted for years. He did not disappoint hitting .260/.290/.447 with 11 home runs and 35 RBIs in 208 at-bats (64 Games).

The Rays also signed veteran utility man Rickie Weeks, for his effectiveness hitting left-handers. Unfortunately, Weeks was ineffective against lefties slashing .176/.333/.275 in 63 at-bats. Taking a gamble, first baseman Logan Morrison was re-signed and provided the Rays with a career year, which resulted in a ticket out of St. Petersburg.

Also making their way to the Rays were catchers Jesus Sucre from Seattle and Derek Norris from the Nationals. Sucre was traded to the Rays for a PTBNL and was a non-roster invitee to spring training. Sucre made the opening day roster, beating out incumbents Curt Casali and Luke Maile.

Norris joined the Rays days after his release from the Nationals and signed to a one-year deal with hopes that he would flash his Oakland and Padres stats – that never happened and Norris would play himself out of Tropicana Field and Florida in June when he was released. Norris was eventually suspended by MLB baseball in September 2017 for the remainder of season for violating MLB’s domestic violence policy.

Additionally those joining the Rays were pitcher Andrew Kittredge, acquired in the Motter/Shaffer trade along with two minor league players in pitcher Dylan Thompson and infielder Dalton Kelly. Kittredge would later become a key addition to the bullpen upon his September call up when he made 10 appearances (10.1-IP) with a 0.87 ERA with nine strikeouts and four walks.

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The January trade of Drew Smyly to the Mariners netted the Rays a speedster outfielder in Mallex Smith and two minor league players: infielder Carlos Vargas and pitcher Ryan Yarbrough.

The acquisition of Smith to an already logjam of outfielders was done primarily to create competition and add depth. Smith was projected to open the season in Durham, however, a rehabbing Colby Rasmus led to Smith making the opening day roster and the eventual injury to Kevin Kiermaier afforded Smith additional time in the majors.

In 81 games, Smith would slash .270/.329/.355 in 256 at-bats with two home runs, 12 RBIs and 16 stolen bases (5-CS). Additionally, Smith had a 12 game hitting streak (June 9-21) hitting .396/.442/.521 with six stolen bases and a 15 game on-base streak (June 9-25).

Ranked as the Mariners No. 13 prospect at the time of trade, Yarbrough this past season went 13-6 with a 3.43 ERA (26 starts) for the Durham Bulls with 159 strikeouts (led the International League) and 39 walks in 157.1 innings pitched.  Yarbrough was added to the 40-man roster and could compete for a spot in the rotation or out of the bullpen for the 2018 season.

There were some questionable signings as well, most notable being reliever Jumbo Diaz. Diaz claimed off waivers during spring training from the Reds, struggled from his first appearance until the day the Rays released him. In 33 appearances, covering 30-innings pitched, Diaz’s ERA was a bloated 5.70 with a 1-4 record and three blown saves.

With spring training underway, the Rays continued to add and subtract from the roster. They signed free agent pitchers Adam Kolarek and Jonny Venters, purchased outfielder Peter Bourjos from the White Sox and departed with utility man Nick Franklin and catcher Luke Maile, both claimed off waivers by the Brewers and Blue Jays respectfully.

Kolarek was an interesting signing as at 28-years old he would finally get his opportunity to play in the majors. After eight seasons in the Mets organization, playing for nine different teams among all levels, Kolarek would make his major league debut against the Pirates on June 29, throwing 1.1 innings, allowing one hit with one strike out on 14 pitches. Kolarek finished the season going 1-0 with a 6.48 ERA in 12 appearances (8.1-IP).

Throughout May and June, the Rays continued to work the waiver wire or make some minor trades in their attempt to tweak the roster. Acquired from Cleveland for cash or a PTBNL was infielder Michael Martinez, infielder Taylor Featherston was purchased from the Phillies, in a trade with Oakland, the Rays acquired infielder Trevor Plouffe along with cash for a PTBNL or cash in return. Adding pitching depth to the organization, the Rays signed free agent Mike Broadway, who pitched for Montgomery and Durham before being granted free agency in November.

Next: Tampa Bay Rays: The Longoria Era Ends in Tampa Bay

To conclude Part 1, in a prelude to the trading deadline in June, the Rays biggest acquisition heading into the trade deadline was acquiring Adeiny Hechavarria from the Miami Marlins for minor league pitcher Ethan Clark and outfielder Braxton Lee.