Season Preview: Can The Rays Go All The Way in Title Town?

It’s been two weeks since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the Super Bowl, solidifying Tampa Bay as the new “Title Town” or “Champa Bay.” As part, the Tampa Lightning won their first Stanley Cup since 2004 and the Rays went to their first World Series since 2008.

Alas, the Rays were not able to come up with the victory in the World Series. An American League Championship banner will sure look nice flying high up at Tropicana Field, yet there’s still work to do. The question isn’t whether they’re still a playoff team, rather whether or not they have enough to go back. If they don’t, the derisory decision to pull Blake Snell in favor of a struggling right-handed flame thrower Nick Anderson against Mookie Betts, who was struggling against the lefty breaking pitch that’s Snell’s specialty, may haunt Kevin Cash for a long time. Perhaps, they’re similar to Ned Yost’s Royals, who nobody thought would go back after falling to the 2014 Giants and won the 2015 World Series.

Offseason Focus

Key Additions: Chris Archer, Francisco Mejia, Michael Wacha, Rich Hill, Colin McHugh.
Key Subtractions: Blake Snell, Charlie Morton, Aaron Loup, Hunter Renfroe, John Curtiss, Jose Alvarado, Michael Perez.

It was yet another offseason of the status quo for the Tampa Bay Rays, yet it’s what seems to regularly work for them. The Rays are always in the hunt, despite not spending big on free agents. This is due to their front office highlighting reclamation projects and veterans who seem to always work out, then cutting them loose for them to not perform as well elsewhere. They also got rid of high priced veterans, as is the usual. Charlie Morton’s option was declined and he went onto sign with the Atlanta Braves, the team that drafted him originally. Blake Snell, following the heartbreak of Game 6 of the World Series, was dealt to the San Diego Padres for a one-time top prospect backstop Francisco Mejia, prospects Cole Wilcox and Blake Hunt, as well as baseball’s number 23 overall prospect Luis Patino. Patino, a pitcher, made his MLB debut this past August but is likely to be kept in the minors a few weeks so that the Rays can manipulate his service clock.

A Full Season of Randy Arozarena

Randy Arozarena was the throw-in player for Jose Martinez in the Rays 2019 offseason. Jose Martinez was dealt to the Cubs in the middle of the year, as Randy Arozarena would break out into an overnight sensation. Randy Arozarena was sick with COVID-19 for over a month. He spent that month doing 300 pushups a day and eating nothing but rice and chicken. He packed on muscle. The result? You see it in the above clip.

In 23 regular season games, Arozarena hit seven homeruns with a 1.022 OPS. In the postseason, he shattered records. It’s worth noting a lot have pointed out that there was an extra postseason series last season, which would culminate in more games. Arozarena only played in 20 games. Between the wildcard game, Division Series, Championship Series and World Series there’s 20 games possible in a single postseason without it being expanded. The records are legitimate. Randy Arozarena shattered Derek Jeter’s rookie hit record set in 1996. He then would break the record for most hits in a single postseason by any player. He is also the first (and only) player to hit 10 or more homeruns in a single postseason. His line? .377/.442/.831, 1.273 OPS and 10 homeruns. He won the ALCS MVP award.

Obviously, you can’t hang all of your hopes on a hot two months, even if that two months is the most stellar two months in franchise history. That said, Randy is still only entering his age 26 season and with his discipline already where it’s at, command of the zone and quick, fluid swing, opposition may be in danger for the foreseeable future. The Rays front office have found yet another diamond in the rough.

Pitching Question Marks

Chris Archer.

Pictured above is Chris Archer, a one-time Rays “ace” in title, but not necessarily by performance. At the 2018 trade deadline, they dealt him to the Pirates for Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow, a trade I analyzed in 2019, but has only gotten worse for Pittsburgh as time has progressed. The irony of it is that now Tyler Glasnow finds himself in the same position that Chris Archer found himself in back then. With the absence of Morton and Snell, Glasnow is immediately taken from solid number three to ace at the helm of the staff.

Tyler Glasnow has some of the filthiest stuff in all of MLB. His sweeping curveball is one of the most devastating pitches in any arsenal and it’s complimented by a fastball that averages out at 98 mph. Despite a 5-1 record in 2020, that was about all that went well in the regular season. He posted a modest 4.08 ERA, lowering his career ERA to an average 4.43. In five seasons at the game’s highest level, he’s only pitched 315 innings, having never been great despite never having the workload of an ace. He has a 4.2 BB9 and 1.3 HR9 over his career. With only two pitches, it becomes easy to sit on different things. His mechanics also don’t allow for him to pitch 150-180 innings a season. That said, it’s being reported that he’s working on a legitimate third pitch, said to be a slider, to keep hitters on their toes.

The aforementioned Chris Archer? He recently returned to Tampa Bay on a one year deal, but since leaving has not been the same player. This is an excerpt from my report on his return:

“Let’s be honest: Archer isn’t the same pitcher they had and the pitcher they had previously wasn’t a true ace outside of one year. Archer is the franchise’s leader in wild pitches, while consistently struggling with command on his breaking pitchers. Focused on the strikeout, he walked too many as opposed to pitching to contact. Then, we he’d have to throw a strike, he’d place one down the middle to get tattooed over the fence and see the team in an early deficit. He’s averaged over one homerun per nine innings of work over the course of his career. Yet, when Archer is on, it’s hard to find somebody better. Archer finished top five in Cy Young voting in 2015.

Yet, there’s no such thing as a bad one year contract. This gives Tampa Bay much needed rotation depth, the fanbase somebody to attach themselves to and bring out their old jerseys, while seeing if Archer has anything left in the tank. If Archer can return to prominence, he’s a solid number three starter at this point in his career.”

Archer missed the 2020 season due to thoracic outlet syndrome, but for the Pirates, no production was the best production he’d offered to them. In 172 innings as a Pirate, he posted a 4.92 ERA. Perhaps, he missed Kevin Kiermaier? It’s unknown how healthy Chris Archer is and one storyline to look for in Spring Training is how snappy his slider is.

Archer isn’t the teams reclamation project as they also inked Michael Wacha to fill a rotation start. If you’re initial reaction reading that was to hum to yourself “wacha wacha, eh, eh” like Shakira, then you aren’t the only one. Wacha, an All-Star with the Cardinals, is still only 29 years old. He has a 4.01 lifetime ERA in eight major league campaigns, but posted an awful 6.62 ERA with the Mets in 2020. The Rays will hope to get a much better season out of him as a low-risk, high-reward caliber player.

Rich Hill was the teams other major free agent inking. Hill, who made his MLB debut in 2005, has a 3.79 lifetime ERA. Yet, after playing independent ball with the Long Island Ducks in 2015, he returned to the Majors with stints in Boston, Oakland, Los Angeles (Dodgers) and Minnesota and posted a scintillating 2.92 ERA. An excellent, savvy signing for the Rays, even if Hill is entering his age 41 season. Hill posted a 3.03 ERA with the Twins last season.

The rest of the pitching staff looks similar. Ryan Yarbrough will round out the rotation as starters such as Yonny Chirinos are still recovering from Tommy John Surgery. Yarbs has a 3.69 ERA since the 2019 All-Star break as the Rays hope he can take the next staff. The bullpen, one of the league’s best in regularity, looks strikingly similar to last year, with Diego Castillo’s 99 mph sinker and Nick Anderson’s rising fastball switching off in the closer role. Making his Rays debut will be long-time Astro Colin McHugh. Peter Fairbanks, Cody Reed, Chaz Roe and Ryan Sherriff are all expected to return to start the season. I expect a pitcher like Shane McClanahan to stay in the minors an extra few weeks much like Luis Patino.

Is The Boy Wander Near Ready?

Prospect Wander Franco.

It’s yet another year that MLBs number one prospect Wander Franco is expected to be in the big league camp, yet I don’t anticipate him breaking it. The Rays were in similar vein of teams like the Twins with Alexander Kirilloff and the Braves with Cristian Pache who were less conservative with their prospects last October, calling up Shane McClanahan in the ALDS against the Yankees (whose season preview can be read here). For a supposed generational such as Franco, who’s only 19 years old, you don’t want to potentially stunt his development. He’s never played above High A ball, and will likely begin the season in Double A. A fair timetable should he cruise through the minors would be September. That’s also dependent on the performance of “Free Willy.” Willy Adames, the teams current starting shortstop, averages 2.5 WAR a season per BBRef measures. By the same measurements, Cubs Javier Baez averages a 2.5 WAR. Willy Adames is a very solid player and does not present a weakness for the Rays, giving them zero reason to rush Franco to the Show. Adames has been noted in trade rumors all offseason, primarily with the Cincinnati Reds, but it’s unlikely that he’ll be dealt prior to Opening Day and he will be the club’s starting shortstop barring an unfortunate injury.

My Projected Opening Day Roster

Yandy Diaz.

Lineup:
RF Randy Arozarena
3B Joey Wendle
2B Brandon Lowe
LF Austin Meadows
DH Yandy Diaz
1B Ji-Man Choi
SS Willy Adames
C Mike Zunino
CF Kevin Kiermaier
Bench: Manuel Margot, Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, Francisco Mejia, Brett Phillips, Michael Brosseau.

Rotation:
RHP Tyler Glasnow
LHP Ryan Yarbrough
RHP Michael Wacha
LHP Rich Hill
RHP Chris Archer
Bullpen: Nick Anderson (closer), Chaz Roe, Diego Castillo, Pete Fairbanks, Colin McHugh, Cody Reed, Ryan Sherriff.

Season Outlook

Ji-Man Choi and Brandon Lowe.

That lineup will fluctuate for all 162 games, as is the Rays way. That being said, it’ll be the most fun team in baseball with the most personality, as it has been for two or three seasons now. The lineup looks solid, not great, but has the potential to be great should Brandon Lowe and Austin Meadows run back their 2019 All-Star campaigns and players such as Joey Wendle perform to their ceiling. The pitching seems a bit suspect, but the team should have all the confidence in the world after dominating the American League in 2020.

The Rays were extremely close to the prize in 2020, having just seen Nikita Kucherov lead the Lightning to the Stanley Cup. They have since seen Sean Bunting and the Bucs defense lead them to the Super Bowl. The pressure is on the Rays to complete the trifecta in 2021, and I’m sure that they’ll welcome it with open arms. Last season, they went to the World Series. This year, it’s time to win it.

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