2019 Tampa Bay Rays Season Preview: Can they find success again in loaded AL East?

Editor’s note: Baseball is back and Yahoo Sports is previewing all 30 teams over the next month. This year’s previews will focus on fantasy and reality, as our MLB news staff and our fantasy baseball crew come together to assess each team before opening day. Next up, the Tampa Bay Rays.

Popularizing the “opener" is going to follow the Tampa Bay Rays for a while, which is probably a badge of honor for one of baseball’s most forward-thinking franchises. The Rays, who have never been big spenders, continually find interesting ways to compete with the likes of the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox in the AL East.

The problem is, every year seems like a new challenge. Every year is an opportunity to ask, “Can they really do it again?” For their sake, let’s hope for the opener strategy has a longer shelf-life than the Wildcat offense had in the NFL.

The Rays, who won 90 games last year, have managed to find success despite having a lot of moving parts. Heck, they traded Chris Archer at the deadline last year. Of course, they had the eventual AL Cy Young winner in Blake Snell, so that sure helps.

It’s always a sum-of-the-parts type strategy in Tampa Bay. This year’s parts may not blow you away on paper — besides Snell, there’s not really a must-have fantasy player, for instance — but that’s kind of how the Rays do it. They have players loaded with potential (Austin Meadows? Tyler Glasnow?) and guys who will often surprise you.

Which makes them always a sneaky team to keep an eye on, whether you’re the Red Sox and Yankees or someone trying to populate a fantasy roster. - Mike Oz

Rays’ offseason grade

The biggest prize of the Rays offseason is veteran starter Charlie Morton, whose name may not ring out like Bryce Harper, but he’s been mighty good the last two years for the Houston Astros. He gives the Rays a solid second starter behind Snell, and another good arm to bridge the gap between the front of the rotation and the openers.

Tampa Bay Rays' Blake Snell pitches to the Philadelphia Phillies during the second inning of a spring training baseball game Monday, March 11, 2019, in Clearwater, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Blake Snell, fresh off winning the AL Cy Young, has some help in the rotation with the addition of Charlie Morton. (AP)

The Rays also added Avisail Garcia, the rare player whose batting average can fluctuate nearly 100 points year to year — it was .330 in 2017 and .236 in 2018. He could be good or incredibly frustrating. Mike Zunino also came over in a trade with the Seattle Mariners. He’s great on defense but the bat is also up-and-down. The Rays are also betting on Yandy Diaz, who they acquired from the Cleveland Indians in the Jake Bauers trade. He’s a versatile infielder who had a .797 OPS last season in 39 games.

Our grade: C — It won’t wow you, but Morton and a couple others could end up being great moves for them. - Mike Oz

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Tampa Bay’s projected lineup and pitching staff

The Tampa Bay Rays projected lineup for 2019. (Yahoo Sports)
The Tampa Bay Rays projected lineup for 2019. (Yahoo Sports)

Who is Tampa Bay’s breakout player?

Austin Meadows was ready for a splash in 2018, it was just held back by injury and lack of opportunity. Mix his 69 games together (minors and majors) and you get a handy .303/.348/.533 slash, with 12 homers and 12 steals. The Rays like to force the issue on the bases and Meadows has always been a high-percentage thief -- there's potential for 20 or more steals here. And he's likely to hit for a plus-average and knock around 15-18 homers in a full season. Heading into his age-24 campaign, Meadows is a terrific value in Yahoo drafts, commonly taken outside the Top 200. - Scott Pianowski

What is Tampa Bay’s biggest fantasy question?

Is Tyler Glasnow ready to put it all together? He took a major step forward in 2018, striking out 10.3 batters per nine and fashioning a reasonable 1.28 WHIP. Alas, a 4.27 ERA is too high for our purposes, and his control, while improved, is still holding him back (4.3 BB/9). Glasnow also has occasional issues keeping the ball in the park, with a HR/FB rate around 17 percent for his career. If you take the plunge for Glasnow around Pick 170 in Yahoo drafts, you're betting on elite pedigree, the possibility of better control, and the likelihood of improvement during an age-25 season. Once you get to the middle of your draft, upside rules the exercise. - Scott Pianowski

Rays’ prospect to watch

Pitcher Brent Honeywell shouldn’t be on this list. He was set to see significant time in the majors last season before Tommy John surgery wiped out those chances. He’s currently rehabbing from the surgery, though should be ready to go at some point in 2019. Though the 23-year-old Honeywell hasn’t made his major-league debut yet, he may already be known among casual fans since he’s one of the few players to throw a screwball. As long as he hasn’t lost any of his stuff while injured, he should make an impact the instant to gets called up. - Chris Cwik

Things that MUST go right for Tampa Bay

1. Success with openers: The Rays were trendsetters in 2018 when they brought "openers" to the forefront of MLB. They'll almost certainly utilize that strategy again in 2019 with Blake Snell, Charlie Morton and Tyler Glasnow as the only starters set in stone, and they'll need similar success when they do. The Rays finished top 12 in MLB in rotation, bullpen and overall ERA, which helped them win 90 games last season, but they lost a key cog in that strategy when frequent opener Sergio Romo signed with Miami. If Tampa Bay's pitching takes even a small step back this season, it will be costly.

2. Protect the Trop: The Rays won 51 games at Tropicana Field last season. That matched the third-most home wins in franchise history, and tied for third overall in MLB last season behind only the Red Sox (57) and Yankees (53). It's a unique atmosphere considering that the Rays rarely have more fans in the ballpark than the visiting team, but they've still made it a difficult place for opponents to win. That must continue in 2019.

3. Red Sox and Yankees come back to the pack: Very few teams can say they won 90 games and still finished 18 and 10 games behind first and second place, respectively, in their division. Unfortunately, that was the Rays reality last season. The set up doesn't look much better this season, but the Rays outlook would improve immensely if Boston and New York somehow settle in the 90-95 win range. - Mark Townsend

If this team had a walk-up song, what would it be?

The team that gave us the opener deserves a bona fide hip-hop classic that just so happens to have “open” (or in this case “opin”) in the title. It’s Black Moon’s “I Got Cha Opin” — which features a hook that is basically saying, “You better recognize how good we are.” And that’s fitting for the Rays, whose went from a team whose opener strategy was mocked to a postseason contender whose strategy was quickly emulated. Don’t front, baseball teams. - Mike Oz

More 2019 MLB Previews From Yahoo Sports

Baltimore | Miami | Kansas City | Detroit | Texas | Toronto | San Diego

Chicago (AL) | Minnesota | San Francisco | Pittsburgh | Arizona | Seattle

Cincinnati | Los Angeles (AL) | Oakland | Tampa Bay | Colorado | Cleveland

New York (NL) | St. Louis | Atlanta | Philadelphia | Milwaukee | Chicago

Washington | Los Angeles (NL) | Houston | New York (AL) | Boston