Despite the fact that a number of teams have had issues at their back of their bullpen this season, free agent closer Craig Kimbrel is still very much available. One team that has looked pretty strong late in games may well look to get even stronger with him.
According to Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times, the Tampa Bay Rays remain in touch with Kimbrel, though there’s no indication that anything appears close.
Interestingly, this comes even as the Rays sit in first place in the AL East with two dominant bullpen arms. Diego Castillo has a 1.71 ERA, while teammate Jose Alvarado is even lower at 1.13.
Adding Kimbrel would obviously make the Tampa Bay bullpen a huge point of strength. Other teams have been in contact with the free agent closer, but the Rays may be his best shot at making the playoffs as things stand.
Preseason predictions were meant to be defied. That’s true in every sport, but baseball can particularly throw you off, given the length of the seasons and how teams can be prone to lengthy hot or cold streaks. A bad month may be masked over a full season, and a bad team may have a good month that goes unnoticed, but both are harder to miss — and potentially more impactful — when they happen early on in the regular season.
Here are ten teams that have surprised onlookers so far in 2019 — either in a good or bad way.
10. Atlanta Braves
The Braves were expected to take a step forward this season after breaking into the playoffs last year, but they’ve instead loitered around .500 through the first month or so of the season. A big part of this is down to an unreliable bullpen and a pitching staff that, in general, has really struggled to settle into a groove. They have plenty of time to turn it around, especially with no one seizing the initiative in the NL East.
As a pre-arbitration player, Tampa Bay Rays ace Blake Snell has no real say in his salary. The Tampa Bay Rays do, and they opted against giving him special treatment for turning in a Cy Young season in 2018.
That has Snell a bit peeved as spring training starts, and in a statement issued through his agents, he made it pretty clear what he thought.
“The Rays have the right under the collective bargaining agreement to renew me at or near the league-minimum salary. They also have the ability to more adequately compensate me, as other organizations have done with players who have similar achievements to mine. The Rays chose the former,” Snell said, via Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times. “I will have no further comment and look forward to competing with my teammates and field staff in our quest to win the World Series in 2019.”
Snell was given a raise of just $15,500, bringing his salary to $573,700 for the 2019 season. That’s just under $20,000 more than the league minimum. This falls within the Rays’ pre-determined salary guidelines, from which they refused to grant Snell an exception despite the fact that he went 21-5 with a 1.89 ERA last year.
Snell may be used to disrespect, but he has every right to be disappointed with this. The Rays are playing within the rules, but it’s not really a good way to ensure that players are going to stay loyal to the organization long-term.
It’s pretty clear which teams can expect to be near the top of the standings in Major League Baseball and which can expect to be near the bottom. That leaves a mess of teams in the middle that may or may not be good enough to contend, but at least a few will be similar to last year’s Oakland Athletics and pleasantly surprise.
Here are seven teams that could unexpectedly make some noise in MLB this season.
7. Pittsburgh Pirates
The Pirates quietly won 82 games a year ago, and they may be poised to do even more this season. The key will be finding out where the offense comes from; the likes of Starling Marte will have to have solid seasons for the Pirates to improve. They were helped significantly last season with the emergence of Trevor Williams as a solid starting pitcher. The addition of Chris Archer should really start to bear fruit this year, potentially leading to some improvement from the club.
The Tampa Bay Rays are serious about making moves in free agency, and they have landed a solid prize on the market.
According to numerous reports, the Rays are have agreed to a two-year deal with starting pitcher Charlie Morton.
Free agent starter Charlie Morton and the Tampa Bay Rays have agreed to a two-year, $30 million deal, sources told Yahoo Sports.
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) December 12, 2018
The Rays typically don’t make significant moves in free agency, but this definitely counts as one. Morton is coming off an All-Star season with the Houston Astros, where he put up a 3.13 ERA in 30 starts.
The Rays had been linked to Morton already, but so had other teams, and they weren’t regarded as a favorite in part due to their traditionally thrifty history. The Rays were a 90-win team last season and look like they want to try to make that happen again this season, even in a crowded AL East.
The Tampa Bay Rays are known for being a low-budget team with a penchant for drafting and developing young players before moving them on when their salaries begin to rise, which tends to put the roster in a constant state of flux. One former member of the team thinks that needs to end.
Hall of Famer Wade Boggs, who played the final two seasons of his career with Tampa Bay, said he believes the team needs to form a strong nucleus of players and build around them instead of serving as a developmental organization.
“I don’t just want to keep turning it into the University of Tampa Bay, where every four years they graduate and leave,” Boggs said Saturday, via Thomas Bassinger of the Tampa Bay Times. “You have to build a nucleus that the fans can sit there and relate to. I’ve said this about every team that does this — that you have to have a four- or five-guy nucleus and build around that. It’s great to have young players. It’s great to have the best minor-league system in the world. People want world championships.”
The Rays did successfully do this a decade ago, when they built around the likes of Evan Longoria and David Price to become a regular AL East contender. Those players have since moved on, and the team has been in a semi-rebuilding state since. It hasn’t been a total failure — they’re 69-61 this year — but not enough to make them postseason contenders. They’ve even traded another key part of the franchise away, so it seems unlikely that the cycle will end anytime soon.
The Tampa Bay Rays continued to provide the crazy this blessed baseball season.
During Wednesday’s game against the New York Yankees, Rays manager Kevin Cash turned to some unorthodox tactics again. Righty reliever Sergio Romo had entered the game in the eighth inning and retired both batters he faced to preserve a narrow 3-2 lead. To start the ninth inning, Cash decided to bring in lefty reliever Jonny Venters to face the lefty-hitting Greg Bird but moved Romo over to third base for the one batter. That way, Romo could remain in the game to pitch to the righty-hitting Yankee batters to follow.
Ladies and gentlemen, your Tampa Bay Rays. pic.twitter.com/lHZA1PLtHB
— Andrew Simon (@AndrewSimonMLB) July 25, 2018
What makes it especially interesting is that Cash played an extreme shift against Bird and put Romo at the spot where the ball was least likely to be hit.
— Marc Topkin (@TBTimes_Rays) July 25, 2018
The strategy worked to perfection. Venters got Bird to ground out to second, and Romo re-took the hill, eventually getting the final two outs to seal the victory (and earn his 12th save of the season).
Earlier today, Sergio Romo became the first player to play third base and be credited with a save in the same game since the save became an official MLB stat in 1969 pic.twitter.com/WehjFRF2sA
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) July 25, 2018
While such a move would likely be a little too zany for most teams, this is just business as usual for the Rays. After all, they implemented a very similar tactic with another one of their relievers just last month.