2023 MLB Season Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

Image: Ivy Ceballo/Tampa Bay Times

2022 Record: 86-76 (.531 win%, 3rd in Division)

2023 Payroll: $64,451,211 (27th)

2023 Projected Lineup:

1. 1B Yandy Diaz, .281 AVG/.378 OBP/.421 SLG, 3.8 fWAR

2. SS Wander Franco, .284 AVG/.347 OBP/.455 SLG, 5.4 fWAR

3. OF Randy Arozarena, .255 AVG/.327 OBP/.433 SLG, 2.7 fWAR

4. 2B Brandon Lowe, .238 AVG/.321 OBP/.448 SLG, 3.3 fWAR

5. DH Harold Ramirez, .280 AVG/.324 OBP/.415 SLG, 1.0 fWAR

6. RF Manuel Margot, .257 AVG/.318 OBP/.388 SLG, 2.0 fWAR

7. 3B Isaac Paredes, .239 AVG/.333 OBP/.430 SLG, 2.7 fWAR

8. C Christian Bethancourt, .243 AVG/.288 OBP/.406 SLG, 1.9 fWAR

9. CF Jose Siri, .236 AVG/.290 OBP/.408 SLG, 2.3 fWAR

10. INF UTL Taylor Walls, .209 AVG/.301 OBP/.330 SLG, 0.7 fWAR

11. OF UTL Josh Lowe, .224 AVG/.301 OBP/.373 SLG, 0.7 fWAR

2023 Projected Starting Rotation:

1. Shane McClanahan, 184.0 IP/3.00 ERA/1.10 WHIP, 4.0 fWAR

2. Tyler Glasnow, 138.0 IP/3.19 ERA/1.11 WHIP, 2.9 fWAR

3. Drew Rasmussen, 173.0 IP/3.82 ERA/1.25 WHIP, 2.2 fWAR

4. Jeffrey Springs, 153.0 IP/3.74 ERA/1.22 WHIP, 1.9 fWAR

5. Zach Eflin, 146.0 IP/4.05 ERA/1.24 WHIP, 1.4 fWAR

2023 Projected Top 4 Relievers:

1. Pete Fairbanks, 65.0 IP/2.92 ERA/1.11 WHIP, 0.8 fWAR

2. Jason Adam, 68.0 IP/3.50 ERA/1.18 WHIP, 0.5 fWAR

3. Jalen Beeks, 63.0 IP/3.23 ERA/1.20 WHIP, 0.5 fWAR

4. Garrett Cleavinger, 62.0 IP/3.20 ERA/1.21 WHIP, 0.5 fWAR

What Does Baseball Mean to Tampa?

You’ve seen the clips from Tropicana with no one there. Attendance was third worst in the league last year despite Tampa being a playoff team. The Rays don’t have any fans, right? WRONG! Rays fans do exist, they’re just sitting at home on the couch. In 2022, there were 13 teams whose primetime games beat all competing cable and broadcast programming. The Rays were one of these teams.

Knowing this, the front office in Tampa Bay is doing everything it can to get these TV viewers into the stadium. The Rays released a ticket package that offered access to standing-room areas at either $49 a month or $249 for the entire season. These tickets come out to about $3 each. Now, this doesn’t solve the issue of getting fans into seats but it does help at getting fans into Tropicana which is a good first step.

A certain someone from the World Baseball Classic may also help bring fans to home games. Randy Arozarena took the world by storm with his antics in the largest baseball tournament in the world. Whether it was his spectacular catches in the outfield, offensive success at the plate, or attention-grabbing fan interactions, all eyes were on Randy in the WBC. I would not be surprised if fans flock to games to witness the star in person.

2022 Offseason Recap:

You can say many things about the Tampa Bay Rays but you cannot knock their ability to evaluate when a player is worth letting go. Last year, it was the likes of Michael Wacha, Austin Meadows, and David McKay, who all ended up being lackluster or missed time. This year, the Rays parted ways with a lot more familiar faces, but something tells me fans won’t be missing their presence. David Peralta, Corey Kluber, and Mike Zunino were among those the team let walk in free agency. 

Peralta was a mid-season acquisition for the Rays whose sole purpose was to provide depth to the postseason run. The team hoped he would be a solid left-handed bat, yet Peralta ended up slugging just .335 with 0 home runs in his stint with the Rays.

Kluber was an experiment for Tampa to try and revitalize the career of a Cy Young-winner. He wasn’t horrible, as he remained one of the best in the league in terms of walk rate. What hindered his performance last season was his continued decrease in velocity across his entire pitch arsenal. This led to a below-average performance in strikeouts and opposing batting averages (29th and 19th percentile). Needless to say, the Rays saw no need to bring the veteran back for another year. 

After four years with the Rays, the team finally parted ways with Mike Zunino. Having always been lackluster at the plate in terms of getting on base, Zunino’s value came from his spurts of power and solid defense. But after playing only 36 games last season, the Rays will look towards their other options at catcher

The first trade Tampa made came with the Pirates where they dealt first-baseman Ji-Man Choi. The Rays ended 2022 with a surplus of corner infielders and had more looking to come up from the farm. Someone was destined for the chopping block and Choi, unfortunately, found himself on it after producing a .233/.341/.388 line last year. In return, the Rays acquired 24-year-old Jack Hartman.

Long-time Ray Kevin Kiermaier was the next to go when the team declined his club option. Kiermaier played just 63 games in 2022 after undergoing hip surgery in August but had been regressing in his final years with the Rays. A truly elite defender riddled by struggles at the plate simply didn’t have a place on a Rays team continuing their push for a ring. His strikeout rate rose 10% since 2015 while he averaged an OPS+ of just 88 during the last five years. With Jose Siri commanding center field in his absence, a return for Kiermaier seemed unlikely.

JT Chargois had a 2.42 ERA in his 21 games last season yet the Rays traded him to the Marlins back in November. On the surface, he seemed like a staple of the bullpen but some of his underlying trends made the move a little more palatable. Chargois’s movement on all three of his pitches regressed towards almost nothing since 2021. Additionally, his spin rates fell to below average since being a benefit to his arsenal back in 2016. With less to work with mechanically and age playing a large role, Tampa saw no future with Chargois.

Miles Mastrobuoni, Ryan Yarbrough, Brooks Raley, and J.P. Feyereisen also left Tampa in trades. Most of these were unsurprising, and in some cases necessary, in order to free up roster spots. However, Feyereisen’s departure caused many to scratch their heads. He pitched just 24.1 innings in 2022 but in that span had a 0.0 ERA, 9.25 K/9, and 5.8% walk rate. On paper, he looked stellar, but the Rays likely saw issues in his injury history. Looking deeper into Feyereisen’s performance he had an xFIP of 3.56 despite never giving up an earned run. Now with the Dodgers, we’ll have to see if the Feyer-arm can continue his dominance or if he was simply extremely lucky.

The Rays signed a sole free agent to a major league deal in Zach Eflin. The 28-year-old has played his entire career with the Phillies having a sub-4 ERA just once in his seven years in the bigs. However, the change in defense behind him might bring his numbers to a more respectable level. His most recent 4.04 ERA in Philly was almost a full half-point higher than his FIP of 3.56 and had an even greater difference with his xERA of 3.27. Philadelphia’s defense ranked 25th in terms of defensive runs saved in 2022, while the Rays finished 14th. Combine this with Eflin’s elite ability to combat power-hitting and Tampa may have a hidden gem on their hands. 

(The Rays also signed Trevor Kelley to a minor league deal who will likely make the roster but more on him later.)

As for extensions, the Rays brought back three pieces that served them well last season giving deals to Yandy Diaz, Pete Fairbanks, and Jeffrey Springs. Diaz had a career year in 2022 posting 3.8 fWAR and 90th percentile or higher finishes in the following stats: Average Exit Velo, Max Exit Velo, Hard Hit Rate, xwOBA, xBA, K%, BB%, Whiff%, and Chase Rate. Despite his age, Diaz still appears to be on the up and the Rays will look to capitalize on it for the next three years. 

In the 24 innings Fairbanks played last year he was electric. His video game stat lines included a 1.13 ERA, 0.86 FIP, and 14.25 K/9. Hopefully getting a full season of play, I expect him to outperform the numbers Fangraphs predicts for him. The three-year deal has a club option in 2026 which could fair very well if Fairbanks continues to be elite through his 30s.

Jeffrey Springs had a sneaky good season. Currently slated as the Rays’ four in their rotation, Springs outperformed in his first year as a starter. Through 135.1 innings he had a 2.46 ERA and 3.0 fWAR. His arsenal consists of a 4-seamer, slider, and changeup which all had negative run values (-4, -5, and -12); the ladder had a 38.1 Whiff% last year. His 4-year deal will keep him as a Ray until age 34 with a club option in 2027.

2023 Regular Season Preview:

The Rays have made the playoffs each year since 2019, yet are still chasing the ultimate goal of a World Series win. Despite putting together some extremely talented rosters, the injury bug has run rampant through Tampa. Hoping to keep as many pieces healthy as they can in 2023, the Rays are looking again to make the late push to a championship. With big names on the bump set to return and an established lineup looking to replicate another successful season, this could finally be the year for the Rays. 

Already hindering this process is Tyler Glasnow who suffered an oblique injury in spring training. When healthy, he’s one of the better pitchers in the game however Glasnow hasn’t played a season where he pitched more than 88 innings since becoming a Ray in 2018. His fastball topped out at 97.4 MPH last season while his curve and slider are something out of a hitter’s nightmare as Glasnow gets 13 and 18 percent more vertical movement on them than the average pitcher.

With a six-foot-eight frame, Glasnow’s extension is in the top echelon of the league, meaning hitters have even less time to see these pitches blaze by them. If the Rays can keep Glasnow on the mound once he returns they’ll surely benefit.

Shane McClanahan had one of the best first halves of pitching in baseball last year. Unfortunately, he stunk in the second half. Pre-all-star break McClanahan had a 1.71 ERA, .795 WHIP, 12 K/9, and an opposing batting average of .177. The Cy Young seemed like his to lose, and lose it he did.

His second-half numbers of these same stats were a 4.20 ERA, 1.186 WHIP, 7.6 K/9, and an opposing batting average of .228. Some minor injuries likely hindered his performance and his bounce back seems imminent. Despite the regression, McClanahan finished in the 70th percentile or higher in all StatCast pitching metrics besides fastball spin and Barrel%. Now surrounded by even stronger starters and with a healthy bullpen, McClanahan will hopefully have a full year of elite play. 

The epitome of what the Rays can do to a pitcher, Drew Rasmussen went from a 4.24 ERA to 2.44 after being traded for in 2021. Amongst pitchers with at least 140 innings last season, Rasmussen was 16th in ERA and BB%. He has some elite pitch movement which led to a 90th-percentile finish in chase rate. Rasmussen might not be the frontrunner in any particular category but as a third or fourth starter, he is certainly more than sufficient.

Josh Fleming was recently picked to be the team’s fifth starter in the absence of Glasnow. There’s not much to say about him other than he’s not very good. He has the league’s worst spin on his curve and doesn’t throw his sinker hard enough to make up for it. His two highest volume pitches also had a run value of +7. The other option was Yonny Chirinos who has pitched just five games since being a regular in 2019. Feels like a pick your poison situation for Tampa. 

Brandon Lowe will take back over at second base after missing the majority of last year due to various injuries. Steamer projects him to have 25 home runs which would lead the teams despite him also being projected to regress in slugging about 100 points from his previous best years.

Though some worry about his injuries, a Spring Training slash line of .313/.395/.594 makes it seem like Lowe is ready to hit the ground running. With club options just over the horizon, his performance over the next two years will factor into how long Lowe will be a Ray.

In my preview of the Rays last year I highlighted their use of a platoon offense and it’s hard to not acknowledge it again this season. Corner infield has been the spot of interest for the rotating group in recent years and 2023 should be no different. Yandy Diaz will get the most games at first filling the void left by Choi meaning third base will be up for grabs to Isaac Paredes and Taylor Walls with Jonathan Aranda playing first when Diaz isn’t there.

Paredes made his way to Tampa just before the season last year in a trade with the Tigers. He took a step up in the Rays system. Having two below-average years in Detroit, he posted a 114 OPS+ with 20 bombs in his first year with the new team.

Looking to elevate his game again, Paredes will likely find a home at third. He’s quite good at the hot corner finishing in the 90th percentile for outs above average. At just 24 years old, the Rays could continue to develop Paredes into a staple of this lineup. 

A player possibly on the verge of a breakout could be Jonathan Aranda. His 32-game introduction to big league ball wasn’t as planned with Aranda slashing an unimpressive .192/.276/.321. Fans shouldn’t write him off just yet though as in 2021 he was a top ten minor leaguer in wRC+ with 164.

His playing time will remain about the same seeing the right side of the infield on starters’ off days. In his 78 at-bats last year he did not make weak contact a single time on balls he put in play. It would take a lot for Aranda to work his way into an everyday guy but as a utility role player, he may still find success.

No Ray fits the infield utility role better than Taylor Walls. He played 25 or more games at short, second, and third last year. His defense, unfortunately, is quite bad as he found himself in the first percentile for OAA as one of the worst fielders in the league. His hitting is not much better despite him having a 6.2 Barrel%.

Strength seems to be an issue for Walls, though, being that his max exit velocity was only 106.4 MPH, and he’s in the bottom 4% for hard-hit rate. With Franco hopefully back for an entire year Walls’s workload is sure to decrease.

You know what I love? Tampa Bay’s outfield group. As stated in an earlier section, Randy Arozarena absolutely killed the World Baseball Classic. Although last season showed some regression from his 2021 Rookie of the Year campaign, his recent prowess makes it seem like Randy will be trending toward elite-caliber play again.

His continued ability to make good contact has kept Arozarena as a plus player with a 124 OPS+ last season. As is the trend with Rays hitters, expect him to be a solid player with a high upside.

The Astros found themselves with one too many outfielders last season and decided to part ways with Jose Siri. In the three-team trade, he landed with Tampa and flourished. His debut in 2021 was spectacular, slashing .304/.347/.609 in 46 ABs, but to start 2022, he struggled with just a .542 OPS in his 48 games as an Astro.

As a Ray, however, Siri bounced back a little performing as just a slightly below-average hitter rather than a horrendous one. His real value comes as a defender. Siri had 15 OAA last year with elite arm strength averaging 93.2 MPH on his throws from center. His five five-star catches were tied for second-most last year behind only Daulton Varsho. Although the Rays lost an elite defender after the departure of Kiermaier, they may have quickly found a respectable replacement. 

Manuel Margot rounds out the group in right. Margot seemed to be in the midst of a breakout season before colliding with the Tropicana wall which sidelined him for two months. Before the injury, he had an impressive 132 wRC+ and was batting over .300 but cooled off after returning. Margot says he’s fully healthy this year and has a .766 OPS through spring training so far. Here’s to hoping he can start off hot again in 2023.

In my off-season plan for the Rays, I highlighted how congested the catching group was. With Zunino gone, the position seems open for someone to take over as the team’s primary guy behind the dish. 

Francisco Mejia and Christian Bethancourt are projected to split time equally at catcher this season but I’d suggest that not be the case. Mejia is meh on offense, but that is the case at the position across the league. Gone are the days of .500 SLG seasons for Rays catchers.

On defense, Mejia is lackluster. His frame rates suck and his blocking skills have regressed far below the league average. His pop times are fine but with stolen bases likely to increase due to the new rules, Mejia may suffer.

Christian Bethancourt, on the other hand, is much more appealing. He may have had similar numbers to Mejia last year in terms of standard hitting stats but under the hood there’s a lot more to work with in Bethancourt. He had a max exit velo of 113.4 MPH last year and a whopping 28 barrels which were 7th amongst catchers in Barrels/PA.

On defense, he’s also the better option. His framing is still nothing to write home about but at least it’s better than Mejia’s. His pop time is tied second in the league with the likes of Sean Murphy and Rays catching contestant number three who we’ll get to next. He’s also a plus blocker with 5 above average. To me, Bethancourt is the obvious choice to catch the majority of games.

Rene Pinto could sneak himself into the competition as well. He’s also tied for second fastest pop time and is the best framer of this group. If given the opportunity, I think Pinto could excel. With the Rays focusing on team success though, it won’t surprise me when they opt to play the experienced guys.

Your designated hitter has one job. Be a hitter. Harold Ramirez is great at being a hitter. When he makes contact with the ball it’s dangerous as he had one of the best expected batting averages and highest max exit velos. He also has some sneaky speed being in the 72nd percentile for sprint which you might not expect at first glance of 5’10” 232lb Ramirez.

His flaw is his plate discipline, as he’s bottom of the league in walk and chase rate despite not striking out that much. This would explain his low barrel rate given his hitting prowess. If Ramirez can tighten up his zone, he may be able to elevate his production even more.

It’s looking like Luke Raley will start the year up at the major league level and could be on the verge of a breakout year. Looking to act as a platoon outfielder and first baseman, Raley has little to show for his two partial seasons of MLB play. He’s never batted over 200 and his xwOBA has hovered around 300.

However, Raley changed his swing this offseason and focused on staying more compact as he drives to the ball. A trait that will help his above-average pull rate translate into harder-hit balls. He’s had a fantastic spring with a 1.159 OPS and five home runs. He also adds a power left-handed bat that this lineup so desperately needs.

I’m going to go into the bullpen more in a later section but I’ll highlight some of the key players a bit here. I touched on Fairbanks earlier but here are some of his other ridiculous metrics. He had a .101 expected average against his four-seam last season despite it geting just 7.5 inches of drop. From a batted ball perspective he’s also doing everything right forcing ground balls over half the time while allowing barrels 2.2% of the time. 

Jason Adam is the premier setup guy and has maybe one of the prettiest baseball savant pages I’ve ever seen. Aside from an average walk rate, there’s nothing this guy isn’t elite at. He also played in the WBC and, besides walking three guys in the championship, looked good performing feats like striking out the side against Colombia. His slider had an opposing average of .096 with -13 run value last year accompanied by his fastball and changeup to make up an arsenal of three plus pitches. 

Player to Watch #1: SS Wander Franco

All eyes are on Wander Franco. The former top prospect has played well but has yet to live up to the expectation of a number-one pipeline guy. He continues to have insane plate discipline with just a 9.6% strikeout rate last year. His xBA was also one of the best in the league at .285. So what’s holding Wander back?

Surprisingly, it’s his hard-hitting skills that haven’t been firing. Franco is barrelling up the ball just 4.6% of the time, more than two percent below league average. If Wander can elevate the ball a little more in 2023, I don’t see why he couldn’t be one of the best players in the league.

Until then, he’ll just have to continue being one of the better hitters in this Tampa lineup. With what the Rays hope is a full season ahead of the 22-year-old, the sky is still the limit for Wander Franco.

Player to Watch #2: 1B Kyle Manzardo

Come in close because I’m about to tell you about the most slept-on prospect in all of baseball. Kyle Manzardo is about to be electric and now’s your chance to get on the train before it’s left the station. Although he’ll likely play most of the year in the minors, I expect him to make an immediate impact once called up.

Manzardo flew through the minor leagues playing in high A and AA last year with an OPS of 1.043 and 22 home runs. In Spring Training he’s slashing .333/.400/.630. Despite all this, he’s only ranked as MLB’s 73rd prospect. I understand the hesitancy.

Sure. he’s never played a AAA game but the dude is only 22 years old and looks ready to take the MLB by storm. All it’s gonna take is someone suffering an unlucky injury or some lackluster play from Aranda for Manzardo to get his shot.

Player to Watch #3: OF Josh Lowe

Josh Lowe seems like he’s itching to break onto the MLB scene. Sure, he played 52 games with the Rays last season but his opportunity has yet to be on his accord as his debut may have been rushed due to other players’ injuries.

At the AAA level, he slashed .315/.402/.556 last year in 80 games. His defense is also considered some of the best amongst Rays’ prospects despite the numbers he’s put up so far. Almost certainly being the fourth outfielder for 2023, Lowe could easily play his way into an everyday job. 

Position Group to Watch: The Bullpen

The Rays bullpen is always their most fun group to watch because it’s where the “Rays Effect” seems to have the most impact. Fairbanks and Adam are the staple guys but there are a ton of interesting players in this group. 

Jalen Beeks is great at forcing strikeouts due to his impeccable changeup which has a 30% strikeout rate. He’s also had an ERA+ over 100 every year with the Rays since being acquired from the Red Sox. Last season was the best of his career as Beeks has improved each year of his late 20s.

Colin Poche and Ryan Thompson are two relievers who have played just a combined five seasons despite them being 29 and 30 years old. However, both are projected to improve in 2023. Poche throws a pretty good 4-seam with 10.7 inches of drop which was fourth in the league vs average. He’s also great at preventing power with a hard-hit rate of 31%.

Thompson throws one of the league’s best sinkers in terms of movement. He really broke out in 2021 when he had an ERA+ of 171. Regressing to more average numbers last year, Thompson is projected to bounce back in 2023.

Acquired from the Dodgers last year, the Rays used Garrett Cleavinger in 18.2 innings where he had an ERA of 2.41 and a FIP of 1.77. It’s too early to tell whether the pitching coaches will be able to fully work their magic on him but the Rays did give him the nod in both wild card games last year where he had 6 strikeouts and a lone hit in 2.1 innings.

Trevor Kelley got his most action last year as a Brewer where he threw 23.2 innings posting a 6.41 FIP. So, what’s the appeal? Well, Kelley threw really well in AAA last year with a 2.36 ERA and a 30.0% strikeout rate. He’s also got a funky side-arm release from which he throws a high sinker that has “Rays pitcher” written all over it.

Selected in the Rule 5 draft, Kevin Kelly also has the makings of a fun Rays reliever. His 2022 in the minors consisted of a 2.04 ERA, 11.8 K/9, 1.116 WHIP, and 59% groundball rate. In spring training he’s looked solid with a 2.38 ERA across 11.1 innings.

2023 Record Prediction: 88-74

The AL East is a tough division once again. Lucky for the Rays, they’ll play fewer games against division opponents thanks to the new schedule. Vegas currently has their line set at 89.5, one game below the Blue Jays and five below the Yankees. Their record will ultimately come down to the health of the team.

Will Glasnow make a successful return? Will Wander play the whole year? Do the rest of the starters stay off the IL?

It sounds trivial, but these issues have been holding the Rays back for the last couple of years. I’ve predicted them to finish just under their line at 88 wins because I think some injuries are bound to happen which will prevent this team from reaching its full potential.

I also don’t see three teams finishing with 90 wins in the East if we’re assuming both the Jays and Yankees meet expectations. This is my realistic prediction, but if the Rays are firing on all cylinders I could see them having a much better year.

Categories: 2023 Season Preview, Articles, Season Analysis

Tags: ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: