As the 6 p.m. Aug. 1 MLB trade deadline clock ticked down, the Tampa Bay Rays had made a handful of solid, under-the-radar moves. As the Rays continued to slip further from the top of the AL East standings following a stranglehold on the division in the early onset of the season, there were three crucial areas the team needed to address: starting pitcher, bullpen and catching.
Starting pitching is the biggest strength of the three for the Rays, whose 3.72 starter ERA was second to only the San Diego Padres for best in the Majors heading into deadline day. However, that number includes ample innings from breakout rotation arms Jeff Springs and Drew Rasmussen, who will both be out for the remainder of the 2023 season. That left ace Shane McClanahan alongside Zach Eflin and Tyler Glasnow as the only three traditional starting pitchers currently in St. Pete. Despite the Rays history of implementing the opener strategy, not having a bullpen as steady as previous years presented glaring issues with their rotation setup, most notably workload. Extending the workload of an already questionable bullpen only heightens the amount of runs the Rays are likely to surrender, making a starting pitcher critical at the deadline.
The issue, as will be seen with the areas the Rays did not address, is that the expanded postseason brackets have kept more teams in the running this late into the season. This created a situation where there were significantly more buyers than sellers, thus driving up the price on the few limited options in a seller's market. The Rays were reportedly interested in a number of available arms, including White Sox ace Dylan Cease and their Opening Day adversary Eduardo Rodriguez, neither of whom were dealt. However, the arm they landed on is 2023 breakout Aaron Civale. Civale is a Tampa project to a tee, though the peripherals suggest his 2.34 ERA is a bit of a fluke. His peripherals still suggest a solid Major League arm, representing a 3.5 FIP, but they're more in-line with Civale's lifetime 3.77 ERA.
Civale's a high-upside righty with pinpoint control. Surrendering walks at a better pace than the average pitcher in the league, Civale offers the Rays a proto-typical Rays arm philosophically. The Rays currently sit behind only the San Francisco Giants and Seattle Mariners for fewest walks surrendered by their starting staff in 2023. Civale's success varies year-over-year based on his home run rates. This year, for example, he's cut his home run rate by more than half. The Rays are banking on it being sustainable, based on the changes in how he attacks hitters. For example, he offers a cutter and sinker a majority of the time against righties with the curveball as his primary put-away pitch, also mixing in a four-seamer and occasional sliders and split-fingers. He attacks right-handed batters more frequently on the outside part of the plate. This is completely different from how he's attacked southpaw hitters this season, however, he eliminates the split-finger and sliders entirely. He throws the cutter at a higher percentage against lefties and uses it as his primary putaway pitch. Lefties will frequently see cutters, curveballs and sinkers, and that's about it.
Civale is a six-pitch pitcher who used to throw a changeup as a seventh pitch. The Rays usually pick up arms that throw a variety of pitches and cut it down. Jason Adam, for example, was the Rays' biggest 2022 success story after a career as a journeyman. Adam relied on a fastball/slider combination before getting to Tampa, but since his most thrown pitch is his changup. The fastball is the change of speed as it adds on velocity from the plus-pitch with the most movement. The Rays could, theoretically, change Civale's repertoire in a similar way to exploit the volume of his arsenal, making him an even better arm.
Ultimately, the piece the Rays parted with is one of their best offensive prospects in club history in Kyle Manzardo. However, with Manzardo being MLB-ready and Yandy Diaz at first base, conflated with top prospect Curtis Mead in the pipeline, Manzardo was a moveable piece. The Rays subtracted from a place of surplus depth with Cleveland, who has surplus starting depth, and a new opening at the MLB level for Manzardo after trading Josh Bell south to Miami. Moving a top prospect, even one as valuable as Manzardo, was necessary with the prospect surplus ahead of the upcoming Rule 5 draft. Similarly, the Rays dealt multi-time All-Star Jake Cronenworth and breakout starter Joe Ryan in recent years for similar reasons.
Beyond a savvy trade for a starting pitcher under club control before the market asking price flipped upside later on for a player the caliber of Civale, it seems as though the Rays left the 2023 deadline with more hills than they filled. The team essentially half-addressed their remaining woes, acquiring Alex Jackson from the Brewers and two arms from the Cubs.
Jackson, who does have a World Series ring from the 10 games he played in for the 2021 Atlanta Braves, is having a very good year in AAA. He's hit 12 home runs with a .913 OPS for Nashville. However, his .777 OPS lifetime in the Minors is a far cry from his production in the Majors. Across time with the Braves, Marlins and Brewers, Jackson has hit to a paltry .470 OPS, 72% worse than league average, albeit in only 66 games. Perhaps, the Rays see something in his offensive profile that has yet to be unlocked due to certain hitting mechanics or a lack of consistent playing time, but as of now the Rays seemingly acquired the proverbial 4A player for minor-league depth, should something happen to Rene Pinto or Christian Bethancourt.
Defensively, the Rays catching has called the games for the best-starter ERA in the American League. However, a recent injury to Francisco Mejia as the league inched toward the deadline has made their catching situation more murky than the statistics imply. Pinto isn't a good pitch receiver nor does he excel at pitch-calling, and while he does have certain tools such as his throwing arm, he provides little-to-no defensive value. Over his brief MLB tenure, he's accumulated negative defensive value analytically. Poor defensive performance coincides with poor offensive performance for Pinto, unfortunately. Pinto is similar to Jackson in having solid MiLB offensive numbers, but a Major League output that has yet to translate. Pinto has an offensive profile 137% below league-average in 2023, and has a .228 lifetime OBP without any pop.
Pinto would be a more serviceable backup for the Rays if the Rays didn't platoon their catchers, but Christian Bethancourt hasn't ever been an everyday catcher at the MLB level. While Bethancourt isn't a great offensive player, teams aren't exactly looking for the next Johnny Bench offensively and Bethancourt is a very good defender. However, the hole in the lineup isn't justified if the catcher who starts in the lineup every other day can't carry his weight on either side of the ball.
The top catcher moved at the deadline wound up being Austin Hedges, acquired by the Texas Rangers from the Pittsburgh Pirates. In fact, Hedges was the only catcher moved at the MLB level, and only acquired after All-Star Jonah Heim was ruled out for the remainder of the season. While Hedges is a tremendous glove, the Rays were set to bid against a number of teams, including a Rangers team even more desperate and willing to spend more money, to acquire Hedges. Not acquiring a better catcher is certainly a tough pill to swallow, but the market for catchers never materialized this deadline.
The Rays lineup didn't get a bat. After their historic start, the lineup has cooled off in a major way, a big reason for their mediocre July performance. However, with breakout candidates such as Luke Raley, three 2023 MLB All-Stars and team cornerstone Brandon Lowe starting to get hot and healthy for the first time this season, the Rays are gambling on the starting lineup to be as solidified as they need to be. For the pricetag, the only real offensive player that would have fit the current ballclub without being relegated to the bench regularly would have been a reunion with Tommy Pham, who is now traveling to Phoenix to play for the Diamondbacks. A backup infielder with the struggles of infielders Vidal Brujan and Taylor Walls could have been a move, but those minor moves can still materialize going forward in avenues that aren't trades.
The big conundrum for the Rays is the lack of bullpen acquisitions. The Rays did acquire Manuel Rodriguez and Adrian Sampson from the Cubs, but those two present minor-league depth. Sampson has a 4.43 ERA and 5.09 FIP across MLB time with Seattle, Texas and Chicago. In AAA Iowa this season, Sampson has struggled to an ERA over 10, seeing a further demotion to the Cubs rookie-level affiliate at age 31. The odds of Sampson becoming a reliable arm for the Rays are slim to none, while Manuel Rodriguez has a 4.42 ERA this year in Iowa. His brief MLB time, though, has shown better numbers, registering a 3.29 ERA, granted in 20 fewer outings. Rodriguez does miss bats with a 13 K-per-nine in MiLB this year, so perhaps the Rays are banking on him figuring out how to limit baserunners better.
A number of big-name relievers moved this deadline, which isn't abnormal. Yet, while the Yankees, Blue Jays and Orioles traded for relief arms this deadline season, the Rays have done the opposite. The Rays designated Yonny Chirinos for assigned because he was out of options, yet he was performed to an ERA of 3 when you take out the one outing against Kansas City that inflated his season totals. That's better than quite a few of the Rays relief arms this season.
The Rays, who are usually known for having the best bullpen in baseball, have the highest ERA of all five teams in the American League East. The Rays bullpen has been better as of late, especially with the improvement of reclamation projects Jake Diekman and Robert Stephenson, however, the Rays still have Ryan Thompson in a position to potentially pitch crucial innings in a close game during a pennant race as he continues to post an ERA over 6. With injury concerns to closer Pete Fairbanks, the Rays bullpen struggled mightiliy to close out games, even with Jason Adam as the next man up. The Rays had blown 17 saves this season heading into the All-Star break and the only answer to shore up the bullpen is calling up Erasmo Ramirez in the twilight of his career. Ramirez had performed so poorly he'd been cut by the worst team in the National League early in the season before catching on a minor-league pact to return to the organization.
While the Rays certainly have a contingency of very solid relief arms, including breakout years from Kevin Kelly and Colin Poche, the lack of an established closer such as a David Robertson, Paul Sewald or Brad Hand, even if the latter isn't having his best season, is a poor reflection on the front office as the close games down the stretch don't appear to be disappearing any time soon.
Overall, the Rays added a very attractive piece for the forseeable future in Civale, and a healthy rotation of McClanahan, Eflin, Civale, Springs and Rasmussen late next season promises to excel. In the AL East, it never hurts to have as many frontline starters as possible and it's evident that the Rays buy into Civale's breakout 2023 season. However, the lack of significant upgrades to areas that could have used them more will likely leave a sour taste in the Rays mouth. While the other contending teams in the league such as the Rangers, Astros, Blue Jays and Orioles made larger splashes to improve their team, the Rays may no longer be a contender to win the American League East.
But, always remember, it's baseball. The Rays could easily get hot, play out of their minds again, and the front office is proven right in not making moves. The book hasn't yet closed on the 2023 season, but the chapter of the trade deadline provided a destitute trade market that clearly didnt fit the Rays plans.