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Checking in on the AL East: Tampa Bay Rays

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The back-to-back AL East champs are building around a suddenly formidable young core.

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Boston Red Sox Vs. Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field Photo by Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

It’s now been about six weeks that we’ve been in a standstill in this offseason, with the players and owners still seemingly far apart as they try to hammer out a new CBA. In the meantime, we’ve been examining the Boston Red Sox from all angles to figure out what lies ahead on the other side of the lockout, but what about the rest of the American League East? For this week, we’ll be looking at where the rest of the division stands this winter, going over what they got done before the lockout, and what questions they have to answer when things pick back up. We’ll go in reverse order of the 2021 standings, today wrapping up with the Tampa Bay Rays.

What happened in 2021?

An extremely successful regular season combined with a disappointing playoffs. The Rays won a franchise-record 100 games with the fifth-lowest payroll in baseball, a remarkable feat for a team coming off an AL pennant who lost the yop three arms from their rotation. The Rays entered the season having traded Blake Snell and letting Charlie Morton walk, and then, in mid-June, lost Tyler Glasnow for the season, eventually needing to undergo Tommy John Surgery.

They did what they always do and pieced things together with a very good lineup, outstanding defense, and a deep bullpen full of prospects, has-beens, and cast-offs. They traded their closer (Diego Castillo) and their most experienced starting pitcher (Rich Hill) prior to the trade deadline, which certainly isn’t the blueprint for baseball success but they made it work. The Rays called up Wander Franco against the Boston Red Sox on June 22nd, a day that they lost their seventh straight game to fall to 43-31. After that date, they went 57-31 and cruised to the division title by eight games.

The Rays faced the Red Sox in the ALDS and after a convincing Game One win, lost three straight games, with each of the two losses in Boston happening in walk-off fashion. The young, inexperienced pitching staff struggled in big spots in the playoffs and a little bit of luck went against them on a certain ricochet near the bullpen.

World Series - Atlanta Braves v Houston Astros - Game Two Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Who did they lose before the lockout?

Nelson Cruz (DH) came over in July from Minnesota and provided a fearsome heart of the order bat to protect the young guys but didn’t quite provide the spark that the Rays may have expected. In 55 games, Cruz had a .226/.283/.442 stat line but popped his typical 13 HRs in that time to put his combined season mark at 32. While that’s the least in a full season for Cruz since 2013, he is still hitting the ball hard at a clip that put him in the top six percent of the league. He will likely get a one-year deal somewhere, probably similar to the $13 million he made in 2021. If the NL adopts the DH, he’ll have 15 extra options to choose from.

Joey Wendle (INF) played 136 games for Tampa and was an All-Star in 2021. So naturally, they traded that all-star to Miami this winter for OF prospect Kameron Misner. In fairness, Wendle probably wouldn’t be playing more than half the time in 2022. 25 of his appearances came at shortstop, and Wander Franco is up for good. The Rays have other options like Tyler Walls who may be in the mix at third base, battling Yandy Díaz.

Michael Wacha (RHP) on the whole did not stand out for Tampa, with a 5.05 ERA and allowing 1.66 HRs/9, which was a significant issue for the third straight year. However, in his final seven outings, Wacha allowed a 2.88 ERA with a 22.5% K-BB%. He swapped out his cutter for a curveball late in the season, contributing to the success. His changeup was great all year, and Wacha described the pitch as the “nastiest it’s been in my whole career. I feel like a new man out there.” This new man signed in Boston for a year at seven-million dollars and will likely compete for a rotation spot out of the gate.

34-year-old Collin McHugh (RHP) and soon-to-be 37-year-old David Robertson (RHP) were both relief pitchers on the playoff roster who are still free agents. McHugh was studly, going 6-1 with a 1.55 ERA and 0.94 WHIP in 64 innings out of the ‘pen, while Robertson shined most on the USA Olympic team before arriving in Tampa to make 12 appearances late in the season with a 4.50 ERA. McHugh should get some dough and might actually be a nice fit in Boston after opting out of the 2020 season as a member of the Red Sox who never pitched in a game. Robertson may be more of a “camp invite” type but he was throwing 92.1 MPH with the Rays, around his career norm, and may have something left in the tank.

Who did they add this winter?

Corey Kluber (RHP) at $8 million has been the biggest free-agent splash. Kluber will turn 36 just after opening day and is coming off of an 80-inning season with the Yankees where he was at least able to show a half-season of health, after throwing only 36 2/3 innings in the two prior seasons combined. Nine of those 80 innings occurred during a no-hitter against the Texas Rangers, the sixth in the league by May 19th. Kluber may not have the strikeout upside that he once did but he allowed a lot of soft contact with New York, sitting in the top-20% of both Average Exit Velocity and Hard Hit % allowed. If he can stay healthy, this is the kind of veteran stabilizing presence that the Rays could use in the playoffs.

Brooks Raley (LHP) spent a half-decade in the Korean Baseball Organization and returned in 2020 to make a handful of appearances with the Reds and Astros. His ERA was 4.87 with the Astros in 2021 over 58 appearances but the Rays saw something they liked. Perhaps the 3.27 FIP, 2.91 SIERA, 31.7% K-rate, the elite fastball and curve spin rates, or the lowest Hard Hit % in all of baseball (minimum: 100 balls in play). Either way, two years and $10 million for a 33-year-old lefty with only 107 career innings tells us there’s something interesting going on here.

Wander Franco (SS) signed an 11-year, $182 million extension this offseason. Not to bury the lede or anything. The Rays spent money where it mattered, making sure their 80-grade prospect is happy not only with a winning ball club but also with his paycheck for the foreseeable future.

What to expect post-lockout

Even though the Rays have made the playoffs for three straight years now, including a 96-win season, a .667 winning percentage in a short season with a World Series appearance, and, most recently, a 100-win season, it seems like their core is just starting to come together. Wander Franco, Brandon Lowe, Randy Arozarena, Austin Meadows, Shane McClanahan, Shane Baz, Luis Patiño, and the currently-injured Tyler Glasnow are a fantastic core to build around. Prospects Josh Lowe, Taylor Walls, and Vidal Brujan should all be involved in the 2022 season in some capacity. If the Rays have a need, they’ll likely look to the minor leagues and have multiple options to try out before making a trade.

They may make a move for a corner infielder as Ji-Man Choi and Yandy Díaz are now in their thirties and neither appear to be full-time players, with Walls a less certain option. Another bullpen arm or two that we may have never heard of seems certain as well. While a closer may seem necessary, the Rays rarely have a defined closer and Andrew Kittredge’s 97 MPH fastball, 1.88 ERA, and 22% K-BB rate in 2021 seems plenty capable to do the job.

The future is bright and although the Red Sox took them down in the playoffs, the division may go through the back-to-back AL East champion Tampa Bay Rays for the next several years.