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Previewing the Division: Tampa Bay Rays

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We finish our look at the AL East with the reigning AL champs.

World Series - Tampa Bay Rays v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Six Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

For the next four days, we will be looking at the competition that the Red Sox will be facing in the 2021 season in the division. We’ll take a look at their projected record by averaging projections from Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs, and then we’ll look at their top players before diving into their overall offense, rotation and bullpen outlooks. We’ll be going in reverse order of last year’s standings, meaning today we wrap things up with a look at the Rays.

Broad Overview

The Rays went full Rays this winter, coming off their second ever World Series appearance only to turn around and let Charlie Morton walk before sending Blake Snell out west to San Diego. In a vacuum, these moves could be defended. Morton is getting older, and they got a good haul back for Snell. But given the context of them being one win from a World Series title last year, it’s not a great look for the game that they have turned around and gotten worse this year. With all that being said, for as much as I and others like to complain about the Rays, they are undeniably great at identifying and developing talent and putting together a good team. We’ve yet to see that culminate in a title, and they’ll keep getting deserved criticism until that happens, but they’ll probably be at least right back in the mix this season.

2020 Record

40-20

Projected 2021 Record

85-77

Best Position Player

Brandon Lowe

The Rays are a really weird contender in that they are good at pretty much every position around the lineup, but they aren’t really great anywhere. Or, at least that’s the reputation. I do believe that line of thinking tends to forget about Lowe, though, and that’s a shame because he is great. The second baseman hasn’t yet played a full season in the majors (assuming we’re not counting last year as a full season), but he’s gotten a good chunk of games across three separate years and performed well in each. Last season was the best we’ve seen him, and he was legitimately one of the best players in the American League, contributing a 150 wRC+ while playing a good second base.

World Series - Tampa Bay Rays v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Six Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Looking ahead to this season, he’s probably not going to repeat that performance as he relied on a lot of power that will likely come down due to both sample normalization and the deadened ball. That said, he had a 125 wRC+ in a half-season in 2019, and if he can land somewhere in the middle he’ll probably be something like a six-win player. Lowe doesn’t get a whole lot of credit because of the whole aura around the Rays, and he does strike out a bit more than you’d like from your best hitter, but he just consistently hits the ball with authority and he’ll be the scariest opponent in this lineup, at least until Wander Franco truly arrives.

Honorable Mention: Austin Meadows

This was a tough one and I went back and forth between Meadows, Randy Arozarena and Willy Adames before landing on the former. He had a bit of a down year last year, but he has the best prospect pedigree of the bunch and to my eye the bat that I feel most comfortable is going to be good. It was only two years ago that he was the best hitter in this lineup, after all, putting up a 143 wRC+ in nearly 600 plate appearances in 2019.

Best Pitcher

Tyler Glasnow

The thing about the Rays is that they can trade Blake Snell and they can let Charlie Morton walk in free agency but still turn around at the end of the day and have Tyler Glasnow at the top of their rotation. We’ll talk about the rest of the rotation in a minute, but at the top they have as much talent in this division as anyone outside of New York. (I’d take Hyun-Jin Ryu here, but Glasnow certainly has the skillset to make that look silly.) Glasnow was absolutely electric in 2019 before an injury stopped him in his tracks, as he looked like potentially the best pitcher in baseball for that season through six weeks or so. He came back last year and wasn’t quite as consistently sharp, but the stuff was still as good as it gets.

I’m actually personally a bit lower on Glasnow than I think a lot of people are, and that largely comes down to the command issues he’s shown in the past. That said, even in an inconsistent 2020 he still kept his walk rate at nine percent for the season, and given his stuff — which can stand right up there with any other starter in the game — that’s more than enough to work. I think he’d look a lot better as a number two behind Snell, but the Rays will hardly get any complaints about having him and his roughly 35 percent strikeout rate from the last two years atop their rotation.

Honorable Mention: Nick Anderson

The Rays grow good pitchers on trees, so I assume someone will step up as their number two starter and be better than Anderson, but there’s no one I’m comfortable picking out of that group. So I’ll go with their closer, who will be remembered for his playoff failures but was bananapants in the regular season. In each of the last two seasons, he’s carried a strikeout rate over 40 percent and a walk rate under seven percent, which just seems unfair.

Lineup Overview

If you’re doubting the Rays, it’s likely because you’re not seeing enough going on in their lineup. As I alluded to above, they are certainly lacking star power here, at least depending on how much you want to buy into Arozarena’s playoff run. But where they may lack in top-end talent, they are good at every position besides catcher. They’ll need Lowe to be very good, which he should be, and they’ll probably need one of the other three I mentioned in the honorable mentions above to break out and turn be a five-win player, but the pieces are there. And given their ability to develop pitching, they just need a good lineup, not a great one. Oh, and I should mention they have Wander Franco, who is the best prospect on the planet and should be up at some point this year.

Rotation Overview

This will be the year their pitching development is put to the test after the aforementioned departures from this group. Glasnow at the top is a nice foundation, but the group after is littered with question marks. Michael Wacha and Chris Archer haven’t really been good in years, but the Rays have a habit of turning those kinds of careers around. Ryan Yarbrough and Josh Fleming aren’t going to be aces, but they can be solid back-end contributors. Really, the key here is going to be if they can get either Archer or Wacha to take a step up from their recent performances, and then if they can get their prospects up and contributing. They have plenty of options there too, with guys like Brendan McKay (health dependent), Luis Patiño, Brent Honeywell, Shane McClanahan, and potentially others, ready to get the call at some point this summer.

Bullpen Overview

If you’re really determined to be annoyed by the Rays, which I always am, then the bullpen is where to look because they seemingly have a lair where they conjure 29-year-old journeymen to turn into elite relievers. That is the makeup of their bullpen right now, with the aforementioned Anderson along with Diego Castillo and Peter Fairbanks forming a horrifying trio late in games. I assume there will be three more pitchers just like that popping up this summer — including maybe Jeffrey Springs! — but I cannot begin to predict who they will be. All I can say is I’m pretty confident the Rays will have a good bullpen, because it’s what they do.

Sum it up in a sentence

It feels very easy — almost too easy — to discount this Rays roster, but they have a way of making the most out of their depth on an annual basis, so you count them out at your own peril.