2021 Season Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

(Photo: Dennis Poroy, TB Times)

Tampa Bay Rays
by Jared Greenspan

2020 Record: 40-20 (.667 win%, 1st in AL East, AL Champions)

2020 Payroll: $28,300,000 (28th)

Projected 2021 Lineup (All projects from Steamer and Rotochamp):

  1. DH Austin Meadows, .253 AVG/.326 OBP/.462 SLG, 1.3 fWAR
  2. 2B Brandon Lowe, .247 AVG/.329 OBP/.459 SLG, 2.7 fWAR
  3. LF Randy Arozarena, .260 AVG/.334 OBP/.452 SLG, 2.2 fWAR
  4. 1B Ji-Man Choi, .241 AVG/.345 OBP/.426 SLG, 1.0 fWAR
  5. RF Manuel Margot, .254 AVG/.319 OBP/.402 SLG, 1.4 fWAR
  6. 3B Joey Wendle, .257 AVG/.314 OBP/.382 SLG, 0.9 fWAR
  7. SS Willy Adames, .251 AVG/.326 OBP/.419 SLG, 2.4 fWAR
  8. CF Kevin Kiermaier, .229 AVG/.299 OBP/.386 SLG, 1.5 fWAR
  9. C Mike Zunino, .197 AVG/.270 OBP/.385 SLG, 1.1 fWAR

Projected 2021 Rotation: 

  1. Tyler Glasnow, 163 IP/3.55 ERA/1.19 WHIP, 3.6 fWAR
  2. Ryan Yarbrough, 163 IP/4.56 ERA/1.33 WHIP, 1.2 fWAR
  3. Chris Archer, 139 IP/4.25 ERA/1.28 WHIP, 1.8 fWAR
  4. Michael Wacha, 121 IP/4.69 ERA/1.39 WHIP, 0.8 fWAR
  5. Rich Hill, 106 IP/4.44 ERA/1.33 WHIP, 1.0 fWAR

Offseason Recap: 

The last time we saw these Rays, they were on the wrong side of a celebration, walking off the diamond at Globe Life Park having fallen two games short of the coveted and elusive World Series title. 

Tampa Bay certainly began the offseason in the limelight, broiled in controversy following Kevin Cash’s decision to yank Blake Snell from Game 6 of the World Series, a decision that ultimately backfired and marked the Rays’ downfall. From that point on, though, adhering to typical Tampa Bay fashion, the Rays compiled a quiet winter. 

Their only move of note, and undeniably a head-scratcher, was the deal that sent the aforementioned Snell to San Diego in return for a quartet of prospects. Second-guessing Tampa Bay trades always seems foolish, but we’ll nonetheless take the bait again. Snell, 28, is under contract through 2023 and due only $11 million this season. For a player of his caliber, a budding ace two seasons removed from a Cy-Young campaign, the contract is a bargain. But the Rays, financially strapped as one of the game’s true small-market clubs, maintained that it couldn’t afford Snell. So Snell became the next pitching star in a long lineage of Tampa Bay castoffs, joining the likes of David Price, James Shields, Matt Garza and Chris Archer. The point? This is nothing new in Tampa Bay. 

In terms of the trade, it’s now wait-and-see for the four prospects that the Padres dealt. The hope is that one or two pan out, while the others at the very least could provide cheap, flexible depth, which is a commodity that the Rays are constantly pursuing. Flamethrowing right-hander Luis Patiño brims with upside. Not long ago, Francisco Mejía was widely regarded as the game’s top catching prospect, but his bat has yet to translate to the major league level. Blake Hunt offers insurance behind the plate, should Mejia flop. Chris Wilcox, San Diego’s third-round pick in this past year’s MLB Draft, poses as a high-upside right-hander who is at minimum three years away from breaking into the majors. 

Snell’s departure isn’t the only absence that the Rays suffered from their heralded rotation. For two seasons, veteran stalwart Charlie Morton made for one of baseball’s biggest bargains — after signing a two-year, $30 million contract after the 2018 season, Morton posted a 3.33 ERA through 232 innings. After Tampa Bay declined to pick up a potential $15 million option, Morton fled for Atlanta. Again, budget concerns dictated the Rays’ strategy. 

To fulfill these rotation voids, Tampa Bay signed a trio of high-risk, high-reward options. Southpaw Rich Hill, a soft-tossing ageless wonder, pitched to a 0.7 fWAR in MInnesota last season. At 41 years old, though, questions linger regarding his durability. How many starts can the Rays reasonably expect Hill to give them, considering he has started just 21 games in the last two seasons combined? Michael Wacha, not long ago a budding star in St. Louis, flopped last season on a one-year trial with the Mets after battling injuries to pitch to a 6.62 ERA. Tampa Bay can only hope that Wacha, still just 29, can rekindle the success from his first five seasons, when he averaged a 2.0 fWAR per season. Lastly, the Rays reunited with a familiar face in Chris Archer. Archer never panned out in Pittsburgh, posting a 5.19 ERA in 2019 and missing last season with thoracic outlet syndrome, but the hope is that he can reinvigorate a once-promising career in the organization in which he started. 

2021 Season Preview: 

Tampa Bay’s strength is undeniably its pitching, but to again best the Yankees in the AL East and capture a second consecutive American League pennant, the Rays will need some sort of consistency from its offense. 

The Rays will enter 2021 with a similar offensive strategy, one marked by versatility and a mix-and-match, platoon-style approach. Personnel-wise, the lineup remains constant. Kevin Cash and company evidently are not buying much stock into the pandemic-truncated 60-game season, instead hoping that certain players rekindle their 2019 performances. 

The high-flying Randy Arozarena carried a floundering Tampa Bay offense through the postseason, putting together one of the best postseason stretches in history with a brilliant power display, blasting ten home runs. We didn’t see much of Arozarena in the regular season, as a bout with COVID-19 limited him to just 23 games and 76 plate appearances. Still, he compiled a .281/.382/.641 slash line, including a 0.8 fWAR. His postseason performance is undeniably unsustainable across a full 162-game slate, but the Rays would still love a 162-game version of his regular season statistics. 

In addition to Arozarena, Tampa Bay is banking on a bounce-back campaign from Austin Meadows. Meadows, once a top prospect in the Pittsburgh system, posted a 4.1 fWAR in 2019 before losing his knack last season. Willy Adames is conceivably the third-best offensive player, but his stronghold on the shortstop position is somewhat precarious, with wunderkind uber-prospect Wander Franco waiting in the wings. Should Joey Wendle struggle to rediscover his success from 2019, the Rays could experiment with a left side of the infield containing both Adames and Franco, once the latter earns his inevitable call-up. 

While their offense is boom or bust, the Rays boast one of the strongest defensive alignments in all of baseball. Kevin Kieirmaier is otherwordly in centerfield, with Tampa Bay willing to live with his offensive shortcomings to reap the benefits of his defensive wizardry. Manuel Margot, a centerfield convert, is above-average in left field, flanking Kiermaier. Ji-Man Choi, in spite of his 260-pound stature, is surprisingly nimble around the bag at first base. 

The Rays, perhaps more so than any other team in baseball, buy into lefty-righty splits and platoon systems. Postseason hero Mike Brosseau figures to split time with both Keirmaier and Meadows, drawing a spot in the lineup against left-handers. Yandy Díaz offers a solid bench option, with power, to platoon with Joey Wendle at the hot corner. Yoshi Tsutsugo, a Korean transplant, struggled in his first season in the majors but will look to rebound in his second year in the states. 

The rotation takes a step backwards without Snell and Morton, but still remains a strength. Tyler Glasnow seems to be just scratching the surface. The overpowering 6-foot-8 right-hander struck out 14.28 batters per nine innings last year. Injuries remain a concern, but at this point they seem to be the only factor holding Glasnow back from stardom. 

Beyond Glasnow, the Rays rotation is a bit of a question mark. Tampa Bay’s inclination for the opener is well-documented and it appears likely that the trend will continue in the upcoming season. Yarbrough, a southpaw, is penciled in as the number two starter. Beyond that, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Kevin Cash deploy an opener ahead of either of Wacha, Hill or Archer as a way of mixing and matching, limiting the opponent’s ability to stack left-handers against Wacha or right-handers against Hill.

Tampa Bay’s confidence in the opener stems from the strength of its relief corps. The bullpen remains one of the league’s best, though the unit received a recent blow with the elbow injury to Nick Anderson, who will be out until July with a torn ligament. Pete Fairbanks struck out 39 batters in 26.2 innings, pitching to a 3.04 FIP. Diego Castillo stepped up when Anderson struggled in the postseason, pitching to 1.66 ERA. Ryan Thompson, Chaz Roe and Brandon Sheriff are all capable arms that round out one of the league’s best units. 

Record Prediction: 85-77

Tampa Bay has too many holes in its roster to repeat last year’s dominating success. Losing Snell and Morton, two dependable cogs in the rotation, means the Rays are relying too much on broken parts. Perhaps one of Hill, Wacha and Archer will pay dividends, but asking all three to replicate the production that Snell and Morton provided is too tall a task. 

The loss of Anderson, too, damages the high-octane nature of the bullpen, which will again be counted on considering no member of the Rays rotation has shown an ability to consistently go deep into games, nor has Kevin Cash shown an inclination to allow them to. 

Despite this, a stellar defense, still above-average pitching staff and solid offense will be enough to enable the Rays to feast on AL East cellar dwellers like the Orioles and Red Sox, while competing with the Yankees and the Blue Jays. Expecting a .667 winning percentage again is unreasonable, but at the very least, the Rays should be in postseason contention per usual. 

Player to Watch #1: SS Wander Franco

It’s finally time. Expect Major League Baseball’s consensus top prospect to make his highly-anticipated debut at some point this season. All of 20 years old, Franco plays with an approach beyond his years, even though he has seen just 52 career at-bats above the High-A level. His plate discipline is highly advanced, as he registered more walks than strikeouts in his last full season. A switch hitter, he suffers no drop-off in terms of contact from either side of the plate. The raw power is already evident and will undoubtedly grow more apparent as he adds more strength to his already compact 5-foot-11 frame. Defensively, his glove remains a work in progress, with some scouts questioning as to whether shortstop will be his long-term position. But he has held up at every level thus far. The bigger roadblock appears to be service time manipulation, which will prevent Franco from opening the season with the Rays, along with the serviceable Willy Adames, who has done an admirable job at shortstop the past few seasons. Expect to see Franco, though, sooner rather than later at Tropicana Field. 

Player to Watch #2: LF Randy Arozarena

Considering his emergence as a postseason folk hero, it’s easy to forget that Arozarena has played in just 42 career regular season games. Such a smaller sample size leaves us to wonder what player the Rays truly have in the flamboyant, 26-year-old Cuban. Surely, his postseason dominance is unsustainable, but will Arozarena develop into an All-Star caliber everyday player, or become nothing but a flash in the pan? The numbers suggest the latter, with Arozarena posting a .286/.384/.607 regular season slash line between the Rays and the Cardinals; he also did belt seven regular season home runs last year, proving that the postseason wasn’t entirely a fluke. Still, the small sample size ultimately carries the most weight. How Arozarena holds up over a 162-game slate will go a long way towards dictating Tampa Bay’s ceiling, or floor. 

Player to Watch #3: SP Chris Archer

Baseball reunions are always heartwarming to a degree, and this one is no exception. Archer and the Rays always seemed like a perfect fit; things simply didn’t pan out for him in Pittsburgh. Now, somehow 32 years old, Archer returns to the place he found success and kickstarted his career in hopes of rekindling past success and bolstering Tampa Bay’s rotation. Archer pitched better than the numbers indicated while in Pittsburgh—his ugly 5.02 ERA obscured a solid 3.75 FIP in 2019—but it seems like his glory days are fleeting. If Archer can somehow restore his All-Star caliber self, that will help fill the voids of Snell and Morton. 

Categories: 2021 Season Preview, Articles

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