The defending AL pennant champion Rays accomplished a lot last year. They went 40-20 in the regular season, won the division (ugh), and went to the World Series for the second time in franchise history. They disposed of the Blue Jays, the Yankees (double ugh) and the Astros (yay! I guess?) before their showdown with the Dodgers where they lost in 6 games.
So, surely they took the base of a team that won the pennant and added more pieces to compete for the championship in 2021. That’s how it works, right? Well…not exactly.
The Rays celebrated their pennant by letting go two of their three best pitchers in Blake Snell and Charlie Morton. From a Yankees fan perspective I can only say: Way to go Rays!
After that quite nice celebration, how does this new season look for the Rays?
The Overachieving Offense
The Rays offense had a 110 wRC+ as a team last year, good for third in the American League. That was right behind the league leading Yankees and the White Sox (116 and 113 wRC+ respectively).
Their leading hitter (with at least 200 plate appearances) was Brandon Lowe. He had a career year with a 150 wRC+ and some good looking Statcast values backing it up, before he faded away in the postseason faster than Spider Man in the Avengers Infinity War snap with a minuscule 25 wRC+ in 82 plate appearances.
Also leading the way offensively: Yandy Diaz with a 138 wRC+ (25 points higher than his career average), postseason superstar Randy Arozarena (176 wRC+), and lefty masher Mike Brousseau (157 wRC+). Those last two did so in a really low number of plate appearances, though (76 and 98 respectively).
The Rays’biggest addition to the offense is catcher Francisco Mejía, who came from the San Diego Padres in the trade that sent away Blake Snell. Mejía was a long a big time prospect with some serious potential at the plate, although he hasn’t translated that potential yet. He has a career 75 wRC+ value in the bigs.
According to FanGraphs, and not taking into account Kevin Cash’s excessive love of platoons, this is the projected lineup for 2021 (with their ZiPS projected wRC+):
- Austin Meadows, DH – 106 wRC+
- Brandon Lowe, 2B – 110 wRC+
- Randy Arozarena, LF – 117 wRC+
- Yoshi Tsutsugo, 1B – 105 wRC+
- Manuel Margot, RF – 93 wRC+
- Joey Wendle, 3B – 83 wRC+
- Willy Adames, SS – 92 wRC+
- Kevin Kiermaier, CF – 86 wRC+
- Mike Zunino, C – 72 wRC+
Mejía (78 wRC+), Díaz (107 wRC+) and Brousseau (102 wRC+) complete the bench and will surely see a lot time because of Cash’s platoons.
We can see that the projections are bearish on most hitters. There are a bunch of solid values, but no one truly leading the way. I would easily take the over on the Lowe value (no pun intended) and expect him to continue being the force of the lineup. Arozarena has shown enormous potential albeit in a really small sample size that should be taken carefully.
The Funky Pitching Staff
As for the pitching staff, the Rays management is going to try to cope with the losses of Morton and Snell with the additions of Chris Archer, Rich Hill and Michael Wacha (a bold move indeed); and the incumbents Tyler Glasnow and bulk guy Ryan Yarbrough.
Glasnow is the de-facto new ace of the staff. Much of the Rays potential success will lie in his ability to stay healthy and deal like he has ever since he arrived to Tampa. He owns a 129 ERA+ with 12 K/9 and 2.9 BB/9 in 173.2 innings over three seasons, but multiple injuries have not allowed him to surpass even 90 innings in a season. His season high with the Rays came last season when adding his 28.2 postseason innings.
Their projected starting rotation according to FanGraphs is (with their ZiPS projected fWAR, and innings):
- Tyler Glasnow, RHP – 3.1 fWAR, 134 innings
- Ryan Yarbrough, LHP – 2.0 fWAR, 158.3 innings
- Chris Archer, RHP – 1.7 fWAR, 102.7 innings
- Rich Hill, LHP – 0.9 fWAR, 84.7 innings
- Michael Wacha, RHP – 0.9 fWAR, 107 innings
Even though those will be the projected starters, they are probably not all going to be “regular” starters. Surely a couple or more will be used as bulk-guys after an opener (especially Yarbrough, that seems to be his thing).
The numbers don’t look too attractive overall, with each of the additions having their issues: loss of effectiveness when comparing to their peaks in the case of the new righties and injuries in the case of Hill. Having said that, the Rays will find a way to optimize the use of those pitchers, combining them with their awesome bullpen which is the crown jewel of the team.
Led by their big three of Pete Fairbanks, Nick Anderson and Diego Castillo; righties who all possess big time fastballs, ZiPS projections around 1 fWAR, and generally some really nasty stuff. You would be really hard-pressed to find a more effective triumvirate in MLB (although the Yankees combination of Chapman, Britton, and Green gives them a run for their money).
The aforementioned trio is complemented by righties Chaz Roe and his nasty frisbee-like slider, sidearmer Ryan Thompson, and personal target I liked for the Yankees Collin McHugh, whose stats as a reliever are much better (29.8% K% as a reliever versus 21.8% as a starter). The lack of an established lefty reliever is slightly concerning, but the righties are so good that it shouldn’t be an issue at all. Plus, starter prospects Shane McClanahan and Brendan McKay (when he returns from injury mid-season) might be used from the ‘pen.
The Prospect to Watch
There are many interesting names to choose here, but truthfully there is only one name to go with: Wander Franco. The Dominican 20 year old switch hitting shortstop is the consensus top prospect in baseball (did they hang that banner yet?). He signed with the Rays in the international amateur 2017-2018 signing period for the highest bonus given ($3,825,000).
Franco has absolutely killed the ball in the minors to the tune of a .928 OPS in 768 plates appearances spread across Single-A and High-A. If it wasn’t for the suspended MiLB season due to the pandemic, Wander would have probably reached at least Double-A in 2020.
According to MLB dot com scouting report on Franco:
Franco has the physical tools and natural ability needed to become the top switch-hitter of his generation. He creates electric bat speed with his exceptionally strong hands and wrists, and he knows how to manipulate his swing to put barrel to ball and make consistent hard contact to all fields. Franco’s approach and plate discipline are just as advanced as his swing. He tallied more walks (83) than strikeouts (54) while posting a .336 average during his first two seasons and recorded an elite swinging-strike rate (4.3%) in 2019. Franco’s plus raw power during batting practice should start to emerge in games once he learns to hit the ball in the air consistently. He shows more over-the-fence potential as a left-handed hitter, having hit all but two of his 20 career home runs from that side.MLB dot com Scouting Report on Wander Franco
Indeed, some really nice words. Franco is probably going to be an amazing hitter, he has all the tools for it. His only perceived weakness whether or not his athleticism gives him the ability to stay at SS. That’s alleviated by the fact that his bat is projected to play anywhere on the field and that the Rays are really into shifting and optimizing their defenders positioning.
|System||W-L||Runs Scored||Runs Allowed|
|PECOTA||86.5 – 75.5||770||727|
|FanGraphs||84 – 78||773||747|
I think the Rays are going to be more of an annoying team that matches up well with the Yankees, rather than a real competitor for the AL East. Their myriad of elite righty bullpen options given them an advantage against the Yankees righty heavy lineup. I also think they are going to be the third best team in the division, agreeing with Dom’s take in his preview of the Blue Jays.
The Rays simply don’t have a reliable offense to compete with the top teams and their vaunted pitching staff is not what it was last season. So much depends on the health of the unreliable but amazing Tyler Glasnow.
There is some upside offensively: if Lowe keeps his 2020 regular season form, if Arozarena is the real deal, and if they fast track Wander Franco and he mashes from the start. Still, those are a lot of ifs that have to go right for them.
On the pitching side, the Rays will probably make do with their mixing and matching of pitching looks along with their solid defense and shifting strategies. But there is certainly going to be some downgrade on their ability to prevent runs after the losses of Snell and Morton.
Overall, I feel the Rays are going to be a mid-80 win team, competing but failing to surpass the Blue Jays for a possible Wild Card spot (that’s what happens after you don’t try to upgrade your team, kids!). Although, I think they are still going to be a tough matchup for the Yankees and the regular season series between both teams will probably be an even one when all is said and done.
There is not too much wow factor on this team, so it probably is not going to be a fun team to watch either (especially after taking into account Cash’s millions of pitching changes per game). But maybe that gets better when Franco is in the team, or if Arozarena is indeed a superstar level hitter. Otherwise, the highlight is probably going to be their “whole stable of hard throwers”, so yeah… Good luck with that Kevin.