The 2019 MLB season is in the books. The Washington Nationals are World Series champions for the first time. Watching them square off with the Houston Astros, fans of the Tampa Bay Rays couldn’t help but wonder what might have been if Tyler Glasnow hadn’t been tipping his pitches in Game 5 of the ALDS and/or if Gerrit Cole was human.
But now the Rays and their fans have had some time for the sting of elimination to wear off. We can look back on the 2019 season as a positive one. The Rays proved their surprising 90-win 2018 campaign was no fluke, winning 96 games this year — falling just one win shy of the 2008 team’s franchise record — as well as reaching the postseason for the first time since 2013 and coming just one win away from a huge upset of a juggernaut Astros team.
With a young team and still plenty of talent in the farm system, fans can take solace in the fact that their window looks like it’s just opening. Building a sustainable winner will always be tough for a team with the Rays’ payroll limitations. However, they look to be set up as well as they could hope to be to contend for years to come.
Before we look ahead to 2020, though, let’s take one more look back at the 2019 season. Here are the 2019 end-of-the-season awards.
2019 Awards for the Tampa Bay Rays
MVP: Austin Meadows
Austin Meadows was by far the Tampa Bay Rays’ best hitter this season, slashing .291/.364/.558 over 138 games and leading the team in most major offensive categories, whether it was average, slugging, home runs (33), RBI (89), triples (seven), extra-base hits (69), OPS (.922) or OPS+ (143).
He did struggle in the postseason, going 3-for-23 with 10 strikeouts in six playoff games. But his scorching finish helped get them there in the first place. Meadows was named AL Player of the Month for September. The numbers he put up were an absurd .378/.472/.744 line with nine homers and 20 RBI in 24 games.
Cy Young: Charlie Morton
Charlie Morton was the rock of the Rays’ rotation throughout the season as they dealt with injuries to Glasnow, Blake Snell and Yonny Chirinos. On many days the Rays seemed to be left to scramble to get nine innings out of their pitching staff. But every fifth day they can trust Morton was going to give them a chance to win.
Morton covered 194 innings over 33 starts, going 16-6 with a 3.05 ERA, 2.81 FIP and 1.08 WHIP. He also started and won a pair of elimination games for Tampa Bay in the postseason. The 35-year-old just continues to get better with age and was named an All-Star for the second straight year. Morton was the most expensive free-agent signing in franchise history, and it couldn’t have worked out better for the Rays.
Rookie of the Year: Brandon Lowe
Prior to suffering an injury when he fouled a ball off his shin on July 2 that sidelined him into late September, Brandon Lowe was looking like a strong contender for AL Rookie of the Year. That’s not going to happen now, but we’ll still give him the award for the Rays.
Lowe slashed .270/.336/.514 with 17 homers and 51 RBI over 82 games, good for a 124 OPS+ and 2.9 bWAR. That would have put Lowe on pace for around 30 homers, 100 RBI and five-plus WAR had he played the whole season.
Unsung hero: Willy Adames
Willy Adames greatly improved his defense at shortstop in his first full MLB season, finishing with 13 defensive runs saved and a 2.5 UZR/150, definitively answering any lingering questions about whether he could stick at the position and leading some teammates to think he deserved a Gold Glove nomination.
After a slow start offensively with a .681 OPS prior to the All-Star break, Adames rebounded to post a .807 OPS in the second half and finished with near league-average offensive numbers, slashing .254/.317/.418 with 20 home runs and 52 RBI (95 OPS+). He led Rays position players with 4.2 bWAR.
Adames was also perhaps Tampa Bay’s best player in the postseason. He hit .294/.400/.706 with two homers in six playoff games, and the perfect relay he and Kevin Kiermaier combined to get Jose Altuve trying to score in Game 4 was one of the highlights of the postseason.
In a year the Rays were hit hard by injuries, there was also value in Adames’ durability. He led the team with 152 games played and was one of just three players along with Morton and Tommy Pham who was on the active roster for the entire season.
LVP: Mike Zunino
When the Rays acquired Mike Zunino, they knew he was going to strike out a ton and didn’t expect him to hit for a high average. The Rays liked the pop in his bat and his work behind the plate. But offensively he was a player who may have had a high ceiling but also a very low floor. Would the Rays get the 2017 version of Zunino that slashed .251/.331/.509 with 25 homers? Or the 2018 version who hit .201/.259/.410?
Unfortunately, Zunino’s offensive performance in 2019 was, uh, to put it politely, terrible. There’s really no sugarcoating it. The Rays hoped 2018 was Zunino’s worst-case scenario. However he crashed through that floor like the Kool-Aid Man, then somehow fell through the basement, too.
In 90 games, Zunino slashed just .165/.232/.312. He didn’t show much of that pop, either, recording just nine homers and 20 extra-base hits. He eventually, mercifully, lost the starting job to Travis d’Arnaud.
Projected to earn $4.9 million in 2020, his final year of arbitration before he’s eligible for free agency, Zunino seems like a prime non-tender candidate. With d’Arnaud set to become a free agent, the Rays may once again be searching for a new catcher this offseason.