Could Rays pursue a boost for their rotation?

January 24th, 2021

The Rays feel good about the pitchers they have on their roster and the arms they have on the way.

But even with some interesting internal options and a loaded farm system churning out players, Tampa Bay could still use more pitching as Spring Training gets closer. Specifically, the Rays are on the lookout for another pitcher who could slide into their starting rotation or into a bulk-innings role and replace the stability they lost with Charlie Morton now in Atlanta and Blake Snell in San Diego.

It’s difficult to say where that search will lead the Rays before Opening Day. Even as offseason activity has picked up around MLB over the past week, there are still a bunch of free agents available and plenty of trade candidates still on the block. And it’s possible Tampa Bay could wait a little longer for a few reasons.

One, the Rays will be able to clear a few spots on their currently full 40-man roster as soon as they’re able to place injured/rehabbing pitchers on the 60-day injured list, thus avoiding a self-imposed roster crunch. Two, they’re confident in their internal options behind Tyler Glasnow, Ryan Yarbrough and Michael Wacha -- a group that, if healthy, should include Josh Fleming, Shane McClanahan, Brent Honeywell Jr., Luis Patiño, Brendan McKay and Joe Ryan, among others.

But as the Rays continue their pursuit of arms, we can speculate about what they might do based on what they need and who’s out there. Here are some intriguing external rotation candidates Tampa Bay might consider.

Free-agent options
It’s probably safe to rule out right-hander Trevor Bauer, the top available starter, former Rays righty Jake Odorizzi, who is reportedly seeking a three-year deal, and former Yankees righty Masahiro Tanaka, who is also considered to be one of the top free-agent starters.

But there is still an appealing class of pitchers behind those three, a group thinned out a bit recently with Jon Lester (Nationals, $5 million), J.A. Happ (Twins, $8 million), José Quintana (Angels, $8 million) and Corey Kluber (Yankees, $11 million) and Garrett Richards (Red Sox, $10 million) agreeing to sign one-year deals. Perhaps that run on rotation help will continue, because there are still plenty of starters out there.

Among the most interesting free-agent starters who might command similar guaranteed deals are former Yankees lefty James Paxton, 28-year-old right-hander Taijuan Walker, 12-year veteran Rick Porcello, veteran lefties Cole Hamels and Rich Hill and a familiar face: former Rays ace Chris Archer.

Archer struggled with injuries and inconsistency after the Rays traded him to the Pirates, and he didn’t pitch at all last season after undergoing surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome, but he was a durable and strikeout-happy starter during his time in Tampa Bay. Now 32 years old, Archer might benefit from playing in a comfortable environment as he moves past a lost season.

The free-agent market offers another crop of veteran starters looking to bounce back from significant injuries or rough seasons. Julio Teheran and Aníbal Sánchez recently held a showcase to pitch in front of teams. Former National League Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta plans to do the same next week, MLB Network insider Jon Heyman reported on Friday. Chase Anderson was a solid pitcher who averaged 28 starts per year from 2015-19, before taking a big step back with Toronto last offseason. Right-hander Trevor Williams struggled the last two years, but the 28-year-old posted a 3.11 ERA over 170 2/3 innings in 2018 and averaged 156 innings per season from 2017-19.

Trade candidates
The Rays have one of the best farm systems in baseball, a deep group full of potential impact players. Even if they deem their highest-regarded prospects as off limits in trade talks, surely they could work out something with a rebuilding team that could spare a starter.

That leads us to the Pirates. The Bucs just shipped starter Joe Musgrove to the Padres for a haul of young players, and MLB Network insider Ken Rosenthal recently reported that Pittsburgh also received interest in right-handers Jameson Taillon and Chad Kuhl.

The Rays targeted and pursued Taillon, according to industry sources, before he was dealt to the Yankees on Sunday for four prospects. previously reported that the Rays and Yankees were two clubs known to be doing background work on Taillon.

That leaves Kuhl, who like Taillon offers three things the Rays typically look for: club control (through the 2022 season), an affordable salary ($2.13 million this year) and upside, albeit with some risk.

Kuhl, 28, returned from Tommy John surgery last season and mostly pitched well, putting together a 4.27 ERA with 44 strikeouts in 46 1/3 innings over 11 outings as a starter/bulk-innings pitcher. Remove one tough start in which he battled blister issues, and he had a 2.66 ERA in 44 innings. Kuhl throws a 95 mph fastball with two swing-and-miss breaking balls, but his intriguing arsenal has only produced a 4.36 ERA and 4.45 FIP over 72 big league outings since 2016.

It is unclear if the Pirates are interested in trading another starting pitcher, however, after parting with Musgrove and Taillon. And no rumors or reports have directly linked the Rays to Kuhl.

If there’s not a match in Pittsburgh, perhaps Tampa Bay could find common ground with Arizona regarding pitchers like right-hander Luke Weaver, a Florida State product who was excellent in 2019, before struggling last season, or Caleb Smith, a left-hander with a high-spin fastball.