Top of the Order: Could This Be the (Temporary) End of Rays Magic?

Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to Top of the Order, where every Tuesday and Friday I’ll be starting your baseball day with some news, notes, and thoughts about the game we love.

On Tuesday, I wrote about how the Brewers have been able to leverage largely unheralded depth into an excellent start to their season. In a conversation about the column with one of my friends the following day, I referred to the Brewers as “Rays North” for their ability to extract the most out of players and pile up wins. But really, the Brewers are paving their own trail and the Rays are at something of a crossroads.

Entering a huge four-game series against the Orioles on Friday, the Rays are 31-31, and 13 games back in the AL East. They’ve got 100 games left, so there’s no need to panic just yet, but they’re at risk of missing the playoffs for the first time since 2018, and for their first losing season since 2017.

The ever-present depth that has defined the Rays for much of Kevin Cash’s tenure just hasn’t been there, especially on the pitching side. The bullpen, which has been fodder for cheeky memes whenever the Rays pick a reliever up off waivers (I love tweeting “1.80 ERA coming” for every arm they snag off the scrap heap), has plunged to 29th in WAR, with the team simply not possessing the breadth of arms that it has in years past. The middle relievers have been especially troublesome; while Pete Fairbanks, Jason Adam, and Garrett Cleavinger have all been excellent once the ball has gotten to them in the late innings, the bridge to them is crumbling.

And their starters aren’t helping matters. Only Ryan Pepiot and Zack Littell have ERAs below 4.00, and Aaron Civale and Taj Bradley have been hit especially hard. Bradley has tantalizing potential and can carve through hitters with the best of them when he’s on — he struck out eight batters in his first three innings against the Red Sox two starts ago — but when he’s off for an inning or two he gets absolutely hammered. He’s allowed seven homers across five starts. That inconsistency has fueled a rotation that ranks 26th in WAR, and unlike in prior years, the Rays don’t have reinforcements on the way. Joe Rock is their only prospect pitching particularly well at Triple-A.

It’s a bit more encouraging — if not by much — that Tampa Bay sits 19th in the majors by position player WAR, and maybe that’s enough to conjure up some Rays magic. However, I’m just not sure this offense should even be this good. Isaac Paredes is almost singlehandedly carrying the bats, with last year’s core of Yandy Díaz (99 wRC+), Randy Arozarena (83 wRC+), and Josh Lowe (109 wRC+ in just 15 games thanks to a couple IL trips) failing to support him. I don’t think Díaz is suddenly an average bat; he won the batting title in 2023, continues to hit the ball hard, and still makes great swing decisions. Arozarena is a different story. His swing-and-miss issues and newfound inability to optimally hit the ball (his sweet-spot percentage is in the first percentile) don’t exactly give me hope that a turnaround is imminent.

So, where do the Rays go from here? Many other teams would be relieved if they still had a .500 record as plenty of their most important players underperformed; those clubs might bank on some positive regression and decide to upgrade their roster before the trade deadline. But that’s not how the Rays operate, especially in an extremely tough AL East.

Complicating matters is their payroll, which is currently at $97 million, by far the highest of the six years for which we have payroll data at RosterResource. While teams will never open the books and say exactly what a particular payroll means for financial losses and gains, owner Stuart Sternberg claimed before the season that the high payroll would lead to “real losses.” Sternberg added that he views those losses as worth it because he’d “like to keep [the successes] rolling,” and I have no real reason to doubt that he means that; the Rays have been good for years, and he’d surely like to have a talented team when the franchise’s new stadium ostensibly opens in 2028. What I’m not sure, though, is if augmenting this deeply flawed team to win this season is the best move. For the first time in a while, I could see the Rays going in the complete opposite direction.

The Rays are never ones to make huge additions at the deadline — it’s more complementary players like Nelson Cruz and Civale, and longer-term plays for untapped potential like Arozarena and Fairbanks — but that doesn’t mean they might not make huge subtractions. Tampa Bay is famous for never having untouchables, and despite his anemic performance, teams are apparently quite interested in Arozarena. He has the third-highest salary on the team, and I have no reason to believe the Rays also wouldn’t entertain offers for their two highest earners, Zach Eflin and Díaz, if the return is commensurate and the front office thinks that such a move would be the best path toward improving in 2025 and beyond. On a smaller scale, if the Rays are roughly .500 by the time the deadline rolls around, I’d be surprised to see Amed Rosario, Shawn Armstrong, Phil Maton, Chris Devenski, and Harold Ramírez still on the team.

As usual, what the Rays end up doing at the deadline might lead to some head-scratching; plenty of their moves during their stretch of success seemingly came out of nowhere, and some of those surprises hardly made sense at the time. But this is an organization that is always thinking about what’s next rather than pushing all its chips in for a single season. And there’s no reason to think that this won’t be a quick reset rather than a long rebuild. Next year, ace Shane McClanahan, Jeffrey Springs, and Drew Rasmussen are expected to return to the rotation after recovering from elbow injuries that will cost them most or all of this season. Also, the Rays should have über-prospect Junior Caminero, who is currently battling quad issues in Triple-A, healthy and ready to contribute in 2025. And don’t forget about Xavier Isaac, who’s tearing through the minors himself and could be an option for the big league club as soon as next year. Playing for next season is probably the smart move for the Rays at this point, and if that means trading away some talent from this year’s club, then so be it.

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