Wednesday, May 29, 2024
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The Closer’s Time in Tampa Bay Comes to a Close

Photo: Twitter, @RaysBaseball

The Rays appear to really hate naming a closer. In 2019, they progressed from using Diego Castillo and Jose Alvarado in the ninth to anyone with a favorable matchup before Emilo Pagan seized the role in the second half. Even then, they preferred to keep flexibility and never officially call him the closer. In a surprising trade on Saturday, Pagan was sent to the Padres for outfielder Manuel Margot and catcher/outfielder Logan Driscoll.

The Rays only had Pagan for the 2019 season, as they acquired him from the Mariners the previous offseason. On the surface, everything about him was excellent: a 2.31 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, and 20 saves for a team that badly needed it after a major slump for Castillo and a lost season for Alvarado. A deeper analysis proves that his success was, indeed, deserved: his .221 xwOBA was the best in MLB, and he struck out over a third of batters he faced in 2019. Pagan’s 3.30 FIP and 3.15 xFIP suggest he is not truly as elite as he showed last season, but they both point to him being an above average pitcher. In three years, all with different teams, Pagan has a career 3.26 ERA.

Tampa Bay’s bullpen is still filled with very good pitchers even after the departure of Pagan. Castillo, Nick Anderson, Colin Poche, Oliver Drake, and Chaz Roe all project to make the Opening Day roster, as does bounceback candidate Jose Alvarado. One of their most intriguing relievers, Peter Fairbanks, is ranked the ninth best reliever by Driveline Baseball’s Stuff metric (private), according to Eno Sarris of The Athletic. His arsenal is identical to Pagan’s with more vertical movement on the slider. The Rays didn’t buy him in the bargain isle either; to acquire Fairbanks, they had to trade infielder Nick Solak to the Texas Rangers at a time when both Yandy Diaz and Brandon Lowe were injured.

In Manuel Margot, the Rays are getting an outfielder with defensive abilities that rank among the best in the league. He is in the 97th percentile in Outs Above Average with an Outfielder Jump in the 95th percentile and a sprint speed in the 93rd sprint speed. Assuming no major corresponding moves are made, Margot should be a formidable platoon partner for Kevin Kiermaier. Margot’s offense has been underwhelming so far in his career, hitting to a cumulative OPS under .700. However, against lefties he’s hit .330/.420/.466. The Rays are experts at maximizing value through limited usage, so it would be reasonable to expect a CF platoon that also helps Kiermaier both in terms of performance and health, since he wouldn’t have to be an everyday player.

The second piece from the Padres, Logan Driscoll, was the 73rd selection of the 2019 draft. Only having played half a season in Short Season A ball, Driscoll hit .268/.340/.458 with a .366 wOBA and a 124 wRC+. In college, he averaged a .944 OPS with his walks (74) keeping pace with his strikeouts (75). Needless to say, this would be excellent production from anyone, but, to the Rays, he’s not just any other good hitter. Driscoll is a catcher who is said to have good defense and a strong arm. For a team whose best catching prospect is a converted infielder (Ronaldo Hernandez), Driscoll has a chance to emerge as the catcher of the future.

For the second time this offseason, the Rays and Padres have made a trade in which the 96-win Rays come off as the sellers. Surely, Tampa Bay wouldn’t sell its best reliever in 2019 for roster scraps less than a week before pitchers and catchers report, so there is much to be learned in February as this one settles.

Nicholas Lobraico

High school student, former baseball player. Pitching enthusiast. Rays man in a Yankees land. Follow me on Twitter @LobraicoNick