Today, our 2020 Prospect Opportunities series moves on to the Rays. As a reminder, I’m not listing every position or every possible replacement at the positions I do list. I’m only listing positions with players at risk of losing their job due to potential poor performance and replacements that have a chance of earning positive fantasy value. If there’s a potential replacement who could get a shot if the incumbent fails, but I expect him to stink up the joint, he won’t be included here.
The Rays are a difficult team to perform this exercise for, because they have good depth, take advantage of platoons, and really mix and match. So it’s likely any replacements will simply be current reserve bats, who aren’t exactly prospects.
Thanks to a career low BABIP and plunging power, Mike Zunino posted a horrid .235 wOBA last year. Because of his strong defense and the likelihood he rebounds offensively somewhat, I don’t actually think he’ll fully lose his job. But there’s a chance he could.
Michael Perez is too old to truly be considered a prospect and he is already expected to open the season as the backup catcher. While his minor league record has been merely solid and nothing to get excited about as a fantasy owner, he did enjoy a surprise power surge at Triple-A in 2019. His HR/FB spiked to 23.6%, the first time it even reached double digits since 2012 (!!!!), while his ISO jumped to .250, the first time above .176 since that same year. Over a small 184 at-bat sample, it could be a fluke. Or, it could be a catcher focusing on learning his craft and finally becoming a contributor offensively as well. In two catcher AL-Only leagues, this pair is a pretty solid one to roster together.
At Risk: Ji-Man Choi
Replacement: Nate Lowe
A consistently strong hitter in the minors, all Ji-Man Choi needed was a chance. Unfortunately, he’s been a slight negative defensively at first base, so his value comes solely from his bat. While a .348 wOBA is pretty solid in a vacuum, it’s no great shakes for a first baseman or DH. For that reason, along with the fact that he can’t hit lefties, he’ll be on thin ice as soon as he hits a slump.
The Rays have a ton of players who can slide over to cover first, but we’ll focus solely on actual first basemen here. Nate Lowe is the obvious choice and most expected him to be given a longer leash last year. Instead, he only recorded 169 plate appearances with the Rays. He struck out more than expected, but his SwStk% was actually below the league average, suggesting he wasn’t overmatched. He has power an excellent plate discipline, so there’s nothing in his stat profile to suggest he wouldn’t contribute positive fantasy value immediately.
The player known more for his massive biceps, was an interesting prospect with excellent plate discipline, but a severe ground ball tilt that really hampered his power. That all changed last year when he was given his biggest opportunity, and he rewarded the Rays by raising his fly ball rate and pushing his ISO above .200 for the first time in his professional career. I’m actually a fan and think he’s for real, but given his history, there’s a chance he reverts back to his worm-killing ways.
Some combination of Joey Wendle and Yoshitomo Tsutsugo are likely to steal any available playing time, but there are two other names who could make an impact. Michael Brosseau debuted last year, recording 142 plate appearances and holding his own with power. He broke out at Triple-A in 2019, as his HR/FB rate and ISO spiked, while he maintained his sub-20% strikeout rate and even upped his walk rate into double digits. At age 25, that could have been a true breakout.
Kevin Padlo made some swing changes, and those changes clearly worked. In 2019 during his first tours of Double-A and Triple-A, his ISO marks and HR/FB rates skyrocketed, both of which actually got even better at the higher level. Amazingly, he has posted double digit walk rates at every minor league stop in his career, while his strikeout rate had been insanely consistent in the mid-20% range. However, his strikeout rate did jump during his move up to Triple-A, falling just below 30%. The good news is his SwStk% marks have been fine and suggest the strikeouts are more a result of patience and passivity, rather than an inability to make contact. He’s one to watch to see if those power gains stick.
Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow are listed here solely due to health concerns, while Yonny Chirinos and Ryan Yarbrough are included here due to stamina/innings questions. There are going to be enough innings leftover for at least another full starter’s workload.
While Brendan McKay hits too, it’s his pitching that we really care about. He made a 49 inning debut last year that didn’t yield very good results (5.14 ERA), but his underlying skills were much better (4.17 SIERA). An inflated BABIP and suppressed LOB% combined to raise that ERA, but it provides savvy fantasy players a chance to buy him at a discount. McKay has always posted strong walk rates in the minors, to go along with his elite strikeout rates. The only concern is that while all his pitches generated a double digit SwStk% during his MLB debut, none actually stood out, with his best pitch, the curveball, only generating a 12.6% SwStk%. His fastball did generate a 10% SwStk%, which is very good, but without a dominating secondary pitch, it’s hard to believe he could sustain such fastball effectiveness.
Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.