Posted on July 27, 2017, by Bryan Zarpentine

Lucas Duda

Image via espn.com

It’s been a few years since the Tampa Bay Rays were playoff contenders. But the Rays are definitely acting like they’re contenders in 2017. On Thursday, the Rays made two separate trades they hope will help them reach the postseason. Earlier in the day, the Rays acquired lefty reliever Dan Jennings from the Chicago White Sox for first base prospect Conor Gillaspie. In the evening, the Rays acquired first baseman Lucas Duda from the New York Mets for pitching prospect Drew Smith.

Duda is likely the bigger addition for the Rays, as he adds another home run threat to Tampa’s lineup. On the season, Duda is hitting .246 with an OPS of .879 by virtue of 17 home runs and 21 doubles. Duda missed three weeks early in the season with an elbow injury and had an injury-plagued 2016 season that limited to just 47 games. However, between 2014 and 2015 he hit 57 home runs with an OPS greater than .830 each season.

With Logan Morrison entrenched at first base in Tampa Bay, Duda may end up getting most of his at-bats as a DH. With Duda and Morrison taking up spots at first base and DH, Corey Dickerson figures to see less time at DH and more time in left field. The acquisition of Duda is essentially a way to fill the vacancy in left field left by Colby Rasmus, who is stepping away from baseball for the rest of the season.

The addition of Duda gives the Rays five players with at least 15 home runs this season. Rays manager Kevin Cash should be able to find a way to balance the left-hand hitting trio of Duda, Dickerson, and Morrison with right-hand hitting sluggers Evan Longoria and Steve Souza Jr. The Rays already rank third in the American League in home runs, and so the addition of Duda makes them an even more potent lineup.

Meanwhile, the addition of Jennings helps a bullpen that’s been mediocre at best this season. Tampa Bay’s rotation is one of the best in baseball. But the club’s bullpen doesn’t stack up against many of the other teams competing for a playoff spot in the American League.

Jennings has posted a 3.50 ERA this season and has been utterly dominant against lefties. He figures to join Chase Whitley and Tommy Hunter as Tampa’s most reliable setup men for closer Alex Colome. Earlier this week, the Rays traded for Sergio Romo, hoping to catch lightning in a bottle from a veteran who’s had a rough season.

The additions of Duda, Jennings, and Romo over the past week may not make headlines around the league. But they represent positive progress for the Rays heading into the stretch run. Tampa Bay began Thursday just 2.5 behind the Red Sox atop the AL East and just one game out of a wild-card spot. The club has all to play for during the last two months of the season, and with a top-notch rotation, they are a threat to reach the postseason and make some noise if they get there.

Romo offers no guarantees, but the addition of Jennings should help a bullpen that could use a lift. Meanwhile, adding Duda helps to lengthen Tampa Bay’s lineup and gives the Rays yet another hitter who’s a home run threat every at-bat. Thursday’s trades have both made the Rays moderately better and will help ensure they remain relevant in the playoff race until season’s end.

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