NORTH PORT, Fla. -- The Rays had a lot to talk about Tuesday morning after their Monday night decision to trade outfielder/DH Austin Meadows to the Tigers, acquire infielder Isaac Paredes and a Competitive Balance Round B Draft pick, then add outfield prospect Josh Lowe to their Opening Day roster.
Moving Meadows brought an end to weeks of trade speculation and cleared a path to playing time for Lowe, who has proven to be ready for the Majors. It didn’t fully resolve their outfield logjam, but their comments about the trade revealed how they intend to balance the playing time of Kevin Kiermaier, Randy Arozarena, Manuel Margot, Brett Phillips and Lowe, among others, and why they saw this as the right time for such a deal.
Here are five things we learned Tuesday about the Rays’ series of moves.
1. The lineup is now ‘less proven,’ but still dangerous
Had the Rays not lined up on a trade with the Tigers, Meadows might have spent a lot of time this season in manager Kevin Cash’s cleanup spot. He hit 33 homers in 2019, drove in 106 runs last season and frequently came through with clutch hits. He was a key part of the Rays' lineup the last three years, and they’ll likely feel that absence at times this season.
“We're not the team that we've been the last couple seasons without Austin Meadows,” Cash said.
President of baseball operations Erik Neander acknowledged the Rays are now “less proven” offensively, noting that Lowe’s MLB experience consists entirely of going 1-for-1 with a walk and a steal in two games last September. But Lowe, Tampa Bay's No. 2 prospect per MLB Pipeline, is hardly a slouch offensively -- he hit .291/.381/.535 with 22 homers, 26 steals and 78 RBIs in 111 games for Triple-A Durham -- and he’ll be surrounded by the rest of a lineup that scored the second-most runs in the Majors last season.
“I try not to understate how much we’re going to miss [Meadows], but we’ll have guys to fill in. Excited to see what’s going to come out of this with how we rotate guys or when guys are going to play on certain days and whatnot,” Kiermaier said. “Josh Lowe, he’s very exciting to think about. He can do it all.”
2. The DH rotation is back
Meadows started 58 games and Nelson Cruz started 52 as the Rays’ DH last season, with nobody else getting more than Arozarena’s 18 starts. Expect a little more balance on that front going forward. Without Meadows or another dedicated DH, the Rays can and will rotate players through that spot.
“Our DH spot should be pretty fluid,” Cash said.
The Rays will continue to rest players so they’ll be healthy and effective throughout the season. But rather than giving them a full day off to keep them fresh, Cash can occasionally shuffle them through the DH spot instead. Everyone potentially stands to benefit from that change, helping Tampa Bay make up for the loss of Meadows’ spot by getting the best bats in the lineup more often. But the players most affected might be Lowe, Arozarena, Ji-Man Choi and Brandon Lowe.
Harold Ramírez figures to DH a lot against left-handed pitchers, but now the Rays have choices with how they utilize that spot against righties. Arozarena will still play regularly in left field, but he can now DH on days he might have otherwise had off. Without Meadows, the DH spot would be open for Choi on days Yandy Díaz (or potentially Ramírez) starts at first base. Josh Lowe can stay sharp offensively, a tough challenge for someone accustomed to playing every day, by getting DH at-bats. Brandon Lowe can DH on his days off, with Taylor Walls lining up at second base. There also could be times Tampa Bay uses the freed-up DH spot to get both catchers, Mike Zunino and Francisco Mejía, into the lineup.
3. They really wanted Paredes
The most immediate, significant impact of the trade on the Rays’ Major League roster will be the switch from Meadows to Lowe. But they were highly motivated to acquire Paredes, someone Neander said they’ve been trying to get for years.
The 23-year-old Paredes (pronounced “puh-RAY-dehs”) will start the season with Durham, working at second and third base as well as shortstop. While Paredes' big league numbers over the past two years may not stand out, Cash said he received a strong endorsement from Tigers manager A.J. Hinch. Overall, the Rays believe they’re getting an intriguing young hitter with emerging power and above-average defensive ability at second and third base.
“For someone that's 23 years old, it's about as advanced an approach at the plate when it comes to the pitches he's swinging at,” Neander said. “The advanced plate discipline, high-end contact ability, truly, and … we're seeing some signs of greater impact that showed up last year in [Triple-A] Toledo. … I think there's a lot of different ways he could fit really well with our current core as they go forward.”
4. This was a baseball trade
When the Rays trade an established player, some often assume it was financially motivated. Although Tampa Bay will shed Meadows’ $4 million contract for this season and any future commitments through the arbitration process, that wasn’t the case here. If the Rays were just looking to shed salary and move an outfielder, it would have made more sense to deal Kiermaier.
“Financial considerations were not a part of this at all,” Neander said. “There are times where that is the case for any club, but this was a decision that was made entirely independent of that.”
5. Their outfield defense could be even better
By Statcast’s outs above average, the Rays had three of the Majors’ top nine defensive outfielders last season: Margot (first, 16 OAA), Kiermaier (fourth, 12 OAA) and Phillips (ninth, 10 OAA). Arozarena, with 2 OAA, was a Gold Glove finalist in left field. Meadows was the weakest link, statistically, with minus-3 OAA.
All the Rays are doing now is adding Lowe, with his 60-grade defense and plus arm, to the mix.
“He has really long strides. He has pretty good range. His arm strength is good. Really good wing span, so he can close and finish plays,” Rays first-base coach Chris Prieto said. “His routes have gotten better, so that’s the area that he likes to work -- and he’s going to continue to work on it.”
That essentially leaves the Rays with four above-average (or significantly better) center fielders, plus an above-average corner outfielder in Arozarena. Surely, you won’t hear any complaints out of Tampa Bay’s fly-ball pitchers.
“It's a lot of speed out there,” Cash said.