2022 Season Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

Image: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Tampa Bay Rays

by Daniel Pardi

2021 Record: 100-62 (.617 win%, 1st in Division)

2021 Payroll: $70,836,327 (26th)

Projected 2022 Lineup:

1. 2B Brandon Lowe, .244 AVG/.334 OBP/.487 SLG, 4.5 fWAR

2. SS Wander Franco, .288 AVG/.350 OBP/.481 SLG, 5.3 fWAR

3. DH Austin Meadows, .244 AVG/.325 OBP/.459 SLG, 1.9 fWAR

4. OF Randy Arozarena, .255 AVG/.338 OBP/.454 SLG, 3.0 fWAR 

5. 1B Ji-Man Choi, .234 AVG/.348 OBP/.420 SLG, 1.5 fWAR

6. 3B Yandy Diaz, .273 AVG/.371 OBP/.421 SLG, 2.6 fWAR

7. OF Manuel Margot, .259 AVG/.324 OBP/.415 SLG, 1.9 fWAR  

8. C Mike Zunino, .204 AVG/.277 OBP/.437 SLG, 2.1 fWAR

9. OF Kevin Kiermaier, .232 AVG/.298 OBP/.373 SLG, 1.6 fWAR

Projected 2022 Rotation:

1. Shane McClanahan, 159.0 IP/3.59 ERA/1.22 WHIP, 2.6 fWAR

2. Drew Rasmussen, 143.0 IP/3.92 ERA/1.31 WHIP, 1.7 fWAR

3. Corey Kluber, 148.0 IP/4.32 ERA/1.31 WHIP, 1.4 fWAR

4. Ryan Yarbrough, 140.0 IP/4.79 ERA/1.34 WHIP, 0.7 fWAR

5. Luis Patiño, 135.0 IP/4.28 ERA/1.30 WHIP, 1.0 fWAR

Projected 2022 Top 3 Relievers:

1. Andrew Kittredge, 70.0 IP/3.30 ERA/1.17 WHIP, 0.7 fWAR

2. JT Chargois, 63.0 IP/3.79 ERA/1.30 WHIP, 0.3 fWAR

3. Brooks Raley, 55.0 IP/3.74 ERA/1.25, 0.2 fWAR

Offseason Recap:

The Tampa Bay Rays fell short of a championship yet again last season after failing to defeat the Red Sox in the ALDS. However, this team was quick to secure its reliable pieces as well as improve upon some lackluster ones. In true Rays fashion, they remain low on the list as far as payrolls are concerned, but by no means should they be considered out of the hunt when the season finally commences.

The Rays began the offseason by making a handful of impactful moves before the lockout was implemented. With Tyler Glasnow undergoing Tommy John surgery in August, Tampa found themselves without their ace for the next year and filled the hole by signing veteran Corey Kluber to a one-year deal. Kluber should slide in nicely to the Rays’ developing rotation and serve as a mentor to the young squad that currently makes up the starters. Brooks Raley also inked a two-year deal with the team, strengthening an already accomplished bullpen.

The most exciting move Tampa made was with MLB’s former top prospect Wander Franco. In a no-brainer move, Franco and the Rays agreed on a deal worth up to $233 million which keeps him in a Rays uniform for as long as 2033. The superstar caliber shortstop made an immediate impact after being brought up last year and proved that the Rays still dominate as far as developing young players is concerned, despite being a small market team. Franco slashed a .288/.347/.463 with an OPS+ of 129 in 281 at-bats and looks to continue his offensive prowess this year.

Much to the dismay of Rays fans, Joey Wendle was dealt to the Miami Marlins in exchange for outfield prospect Kameron Misner in November. Wendle had been crucial to the Rays’ success, but his departure allows for younger players to get a shot in the platoon-style infield utilized by Tampa. Misner is currently ranked 15th in the Rays system, but if this team has shown anything it’s that any player funneled into this system should not go overlooked.

Post lockout action has been quite slow for the Rays as they prioritized avoiding arbitration with many of their core players. The team did sign relief pitcher Jason Adam and acquired utility player Luke Raley from the Dodgers. Both of whom should serve as depth guys this season.

While the offseason comes to a close as we near the arrival of opening day, acquisitions by the Rays should not be considered outside the realm of possibility. After the loss of “Boomstick” Nelson Cruz to free agency, this team lacks a power righty. Should the Rays find themselves in a position to make a strong postseason push, they might consider acquiring one to elevate their chances at a World Series.

2022 Season Preview:

The 2022 season is going to be a year showcasing young talent in Tampa Bay. Not only do the Rays have last year’s AL Rookie of the Year winner in Randy Arozarena, but they also possess the third and seventh place finishers in Wander Franco and Shane McClanahan. All three should headline an evolving roster as the Rays chase a championship they were so close to just two years ago. With aging members of the team having expiring contracts in the next two years, the transition from players present on that World Series team to prospects of the future could start in 2022. 

Last season the Rays saw 16 guys play at least 40 games on offense. This year, they will likely utilize another platoon-style approach to get the most of their deep roster. Corner infield will be some of the highly contested positions in Tampa. While Ji-Man Choi and Yandy Diaz will start the year at first and third base respectively, it does not guarantee they will have a lock on their spot all season. Guys like Taylor Walls and Vidal Bruján will want to make the most of any opportunity they get to fight for a starting spot. 

The outfield, a tougher scene to break into for the Rays, should still be considered a site for competition. Prospect Josh Lowe is set to get an expanded role this season and could easily become a rotational guy for the Rays. Outfield star Kevin Kiermaier will be tested yet again, as his stellar defensive talents offset his abysmal offensive ones. Kiermaier finished in the top 95th percent or higher for sprint speed, outs above average, and outfielder jump making him one of the game’s best defenders. He did this, however, all while being in the bottom six percent for xwOBA and four percent for xSLG. The Rays may have to ask themselves to what extent is Kiermaier’s fielding worth the detriment to the lineup.

Breakout star Wander Franco will see his first full year on an MLB roster this season and looks to continue what he started in Tampa last year. While his previously mentioned offensive success was crucial to the 21-year-old’s triumph, an aspect of Franco’s game that goes overlooked is his defensive ability. Fielding 97.7% of balls at shortstop with 69 putouts last year, Franco had only five errors. Although he only played 63 games at the position, his performance is more than promising and there is no doubt that Franco will prosper at a position concentrated with talent across the league. Don’t be surprised if Franco finds himself in the Gold Glove conversation after playing an entire season as captain of the Rays’ infield.

The Rays yet again have a deep pitching staff this year even with the injuries they’ve sustained. Tyler Glasnow will likely sit out the entire season meaning the rotation will be reliant on the young core. Shane McClanahan will occupy the ace spot for a second year with Drew Rasmussen and Corey Kluber behind him. The tail end of this staff, on the other hand, is more undecided. Ryan Yarbrough and Luis Patiño are expected to anchor the rotation for the beginning of the season. 

However, Rays’ top pitching prospect Shane Baz will get innings after coming back from injury. The more options for the Rays the better though. It seems every year players in Tampa Bay are getting injured and with the shortened spring training, teams could see injury rates at an all-time high. Relievers should have an excellent year on this team and the Rays could opt to offload some of their unused starters and instead utilize the extensive arm barn for bullpen games.

Out of the bullpen, the Rays see variation yet again. Andrew Kittredge continues to serve well for the Rays having his best performance last season at age 31, posting a 1.88 ERA with eight saves. But with Pete Fairbanks going down recently to injury, newly acquired Brooks Raley will have to step up and join JT Chargois as primary members of the bullpen for the first part of the season. 

The Rays also benefit from the return of Jalen Beeks who hasn’t thrown a pitch in an MLB game since 2020. In the 12 games he did play that year, Beeks dominated, striking out 32.1% of batters and despite receiving Tommy John surgery in early September, he still finished in the 99th percentile for chase rate. Relievers as a whole will be a strength of this team. The Rays improved upon their bullpen that was already stellar, finishing with the third-lowest ERA last season and lowest FIP amongst all teams. The group also combined for the most wins above replacement with 7.9.

Record Prediction: 88-74

The Rays have to live with the consequences of playing in the best division in baseball. The roster they’ve put together is stellar, but the lineup lacks the overall power that Toronto, Boston, and possibly even New York all added in the offseason. The Rays lost two of their big contributors from 2021 in Nelson Cruz and Joey Wendle, but the name of the game in Tampa Bay is always the future. This season should be a successful one, and while the growing pains of young players need to be sorted out, these are two things teams usually aren’t able to accomplish at the same time.

Tampa likely settles into the middle of the division behind at least the Blue Jays, and possibly the Red Sox, however all of the contending teams in the AL East could finish anywhere in the first four spots of the division. A record of 88-74, which I have predicted for the Rays, could land them as high as first in the division if it is as competitive as I expect it to be, but could also result in a lower finish if another team finds more success. 

Player to Watch #1: SP Shane Baz

Shane Baz is unfortunately set to miss the first few weeks of the season as he recovers from injury. When he returns, he’ll be competing with the likes of Shane McClanahan for the ace slot in the Rays rotation. The top prospect for Tampa Bay dominated AA and AAA last year, posting a 2.06 ERA and 0.801 WHIP in his 17 games in the minors. He also had 113 strikeouts to only 13 walks, showing immense control which is rare amongst young pitchers. Baz’s fastball reached a scorching 97 MPH when he threw for the Rays last year, a pitch he throws over half of the time. At just 22 years old, Baz is going to foster much of Tampa Bay’s success not only next season but for years to come. 

Player to Watch #2: C Francisco Mejía

Francisco Mejía was considered the top catching prospect for some time, but has yet to receive an opportunity to break out. In his time with Cleveland, Mejía was called up during the legendary 22 game win streak where the catcher position was already secured by incumbents. He suffered a similar fate in San Diego where he never saw a full season of play. 

One might expect an identical experience for the 26-year-old this season as he finds himself behind Mike Zunino, but the aging catcher could regress as this Rays team tries to push towards a championship. If given the chance, don’t be surprised if Mejía emerges as the Rays’ top guy behind the plate. His 84 games played yielded a slash line of .260/.322/.416 which trumped all but Zunino’s slugging last year. If Mejía can compete with Zunino’s defensive excellence, the Rays will find themselves with another great catcher.

Player to Watch #3: OF Manuel Margot

The Rays usually opt to extend their players while they are early in their career rather than down the line. For outfielder Manuel Margot, a future in Tampa Bay looks unlikely. That is unless Margot uses this season as his chance to finally break out. The 27-year-old finished sixth in rookie of the year voting in 2017 and has been consistently average since. However, there is still room for Margot to elevate and Tampa is a good place to do it. 

Finding himself towards the back end of the lineup, Margot is behind guys like Arozarena and Yandy Diaz. These guys get on base a lot and could lead to some great run-scoring opportunities for Margot. In the outfield, Margot was bumped to right field as Kiermaier occupied center. However, with Kiermaier a potential trade piece for the developing Rays, a move back to his primary position could be a spark for Margot. His preseason performance points towards a good season, as Margot is currently slashing .308/.357/.615 in Spring Training. If Margot can continue this success into the regular season he will be a sneakily productive piece for the Rays this season.

Categories: 2022 Season Preview

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