Tampa Bay Rays 2019 season preview: Can they replicate last season's success and earn a playoff spot?

The Tampa Bay Rays won 90 games last year, but the amount of wins wasn't the only headliner of their 2018 season. Manager Kevin Cash introduced the revolutionary opener concept to the game, basically to help lower the amount of times a weaker starting rotation faced the opposing team's best hitters. American League Cy Young winner Blake Snell made the most starts (31) for Tampa with no other regular starting pitcher making more than 17. The Rays had Sergio Romo, Ryne Stanek and Hunter Wood, all normally relievers, deployed as starters during the season. As wacky as it seemed, Tampa Bay's strategy did see success, as the team's ERA decreased after using the strategy.

The club picked up veteran starter Charlie Morton this winter to a two-year contract, including an option for the 2021 season. After reviving his career in his 2018 campaign with the Houston Astros, he's a welcome addition to the Rays' mostly starter-less rotation. Tampa also added catcher Mike Zunino, Avisail Garcia and Yandy Diaz this offseason.

The Rays will probably be fighting the Twins, A's and Angels for the last Wild Card spot this season. But this club's among the most unpredictable teams in baseball so if there's a team who can exceed expectations in 2019, it's Tampa Bay. 

Probable lineup

  1. Kevin Kiermaier, CF
  2. Tommy Pham, LF
  3. Joey Wendle, 2B
  4. Avisail Garcia, DH
  5. Ji-Man Choi, 1B
  6. Austin Meadows, RF
  7. Willy Adames, SS
  8. Mike Zunino, C
  9. Matt Duffy, 3B

Bench: Yandy Diaz, DH/1B, Daniel Robertson, SS, Brandon Lowe, 2B, Michael Perez, C, Guillermo Heredia, OF

This lineup will look different often in 2019, the Rays are a matchup-driven team.

Probable rotation

  1. Blake Snell, LHP
  2. Charlie Morton, RHP
  3. Tyler Glasnow, RHP
  4. Ryan Yarbrough, LHP
  5. Yonny Chirinos, RHP

The Rays will be paced by AL Cy Young winner Blake Snell once again in 2019, but the team will also with use pitching depth to replicate 2018's success with the opener strategy.

Probable bullpen

Closer: Jose Alvarado, LHP
Setup: Diego Castillo, RHP, Emilio Pagan, RHP, Chaz Roe, RHP, Adam Kolarek, LHP, Hunter Wood, RHP, Austin Pruitt, RHP, Wilmer Font, RHP
Long: Ryne Stanek, RHP, Hunter Wood, RHP

Will they find success again with openers?

It's a valid question considering the Rays totally ambushed teams with their use of openers last season. Opposing hitters struggled when they realized they wouldn't be facing the same pitcher multiple times in one game. Now, that the opener strategy is more well-known throughout the league, teams will be more prepared and the Rays lost the element of surprise. They have the pitching depth to replicate their success, but will opposing teams' batters begin to prep accordingly and cut down on the success of openers? 

Whether it's bullpenning with a bunch of openers, or using the typical rotation, the Rays arms are going to determine the club's postseason fate. As important as the success of Tommy Pham, Austin Meadows and others to live up to their offensive potential in 2019, the success of Tampa's pitchers is going to be the deciding factor in whether or not the club will make it to the playoffs. 

Adames, Glasnow both pivotal pieces for 2019

The Rays are going to need productive seasons from all of their players, if they want to compete with the reigning World Series champion Boston Red Sox and the 100-win New York Yankees, as they face both teams a total of 38 times. More specifically, right-hander Tyler Glasnow and 23-year-old infielder Willy Adames will be crucial to Tampa's success in 2019.

Glasnow came over from the Pittsburgh Pirates in the Chris Archer deadline trade last year. Right now, he'll start the season pitching in a conventional starting role but he easily could be used in other scenarios. Either way, he'll be an important pitcher for the Rays in 2019. Glasnow is a high-potential arm that could be a solid bridge between Blake Snell and Charlie Morton and the rest of the Rays' rotation/openers. Glasnow, 25, stands at a formidable 6-foot-8 and he can reach the upper-90s with his four-seam fastball and has a solid curveball that generates a high number of swings and misses. He averaged 10.3 strikeouts per nine innings last year, but his walks were high at 19 in just 11 games. Glasnow's ceiling is high for 2019, and the Rays will be hoping he can reach his full potential.

Adames, 23, seems like he's ready to take the next step as he'll hope to solidify himself as the Rays' everyday shortstop in 2019. He faced a natural adjustment period in the majors after he kicked off his debut with a home run off Boston's Chris Sale. The Rays called up Adames for 85 games (80 starts) last season and he eventually concluded the season as the team's starting shortstop. He slashed .278/.348/.406 with 10 home runs and 80 hits. During the offseason, he spent time working on his defense with Dee Gordon and Francisco Lindor. He's fully committed and if he can hit for more power and steal more bases next season, then he could be locked in as Tampa Bay's shortstop for years to come. 

Will Diaz live up to his offensive potential?

Losing out on both Nelson Cruz and Edwin Encarnacion (plus designating C.J. Cron for assignment) means the Rays are still without a big bat in the middle of the lineup. Cruz signed with the Minnesota Twins, and Encarnacion was dealt from the Cleveland Indians to the Seattle Mariners. So that makes Yandy Diaz all that more important. Diaz was acquired from the Cleveland Indians in the three-team trade with the Mariners in which the Rays gave up Jake Bauers. Diaz is a .319/.415/.432 hitter in 282 career Triple-A games and a .283/.361/.366 hitter in 88 MLB games. He has only hit 27 home runs in 604 professional games since defecting from Cuba, largely because his swing produces a high rate of ground balls. At 27-years-old, Diaz has a high offensive ceiling but he hasn't yet played consistently in the majors. He should get more of a chance in 2019.

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