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AL East Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

The Rays might face very stiff competition when it comes to defending their back-to-back AL East titles, but they’ll still be contenders. Oh, and they’ll also get a full year of Wander Franco.

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MLB: Chicago White Sox at Tampa Bay Rays Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

We are now fewer than three weeks away from Opening Day, and for the most part, the transaction flurry has settled. While some teams may change in some ways before the start of the season, rosters are largely set and so we’re going to take this opportunity to look at what the division looks like right now. For the next four days we’ll look at the roster composition for all of Boston’s AL East rivals. Up next are the Tampa Bay Rays.

2022 outlook in a sentence

Following back-to-back American League East division crowns, the Tampa Bay Rays should once again be in contention, and this time they’ll get to compete with Wander Franco for all 162 games.

2022 outlook in more than a sentence

The Tampa Bay Rays were an incredibly good team in 2021. Fresh off their second-ever World Series appearance during the shortened 2020 season, the Rays kept pushing down on the accelerator, racing their way to a franchise-best 100-62 record, which was the third-best mark in all of baseball.

Unfortunately for them, the Boston Red Sox caught magic in a bottle for a little while during the 2021 postseason, dispatching the Rays in four games in the ALDS on the back of some incredibly clutch hitting from folks like Enrique Hernández and Christian Vázquez.

In response to falling short of reaching the summit of MLB and actually winning the World Series, the Rays were pretty darn quiet this winter. Granted, so were most teams since there was a nearly 100-day lockout lodged into the proceedings, but even when activity was allowed before and after the lockout, the Rays remained relatively static, even if they found their way into a few rumors along the way and did make a few notable moves like signing Corey Kluber and trading Joey Wendle.

Keeping things mostly the same isn’t a terrible strategy for the Rays, a team that has won the AL East in each of the last two seasons and seemingly always finds ways to win even without the biggest stars (not that they don’t have a few of those as well). Unfortunately, the same hold-the-line style was not shared by the Rays’ primary competitors for playoff positioning in the AL East, which is evident in projections. In fairness, the Rays consistently baffle such systems, but, as of writing, FanGraphs projects them to win the fourth-most games in the AL East while having a 60.1 percent chance of making the playoffs, a number below the odds for the Blue Jays, Yankees and Red Sox. Those playoff odds are actually much better than they seem, though, as the Rays have the sixth-best shot to make the playoffs among AL teams overall, highlighting just how good the AL East will be once again. Of course, with an expanded playoff field and the Rays’ recent run of excellence, it would be foolish to count them out even if their odds weren’t as good.

Now that we’ve outlined where the team is as a whole, let’s dive into the roster a bit more.

Position Player Outlook

Broad Look: The Rays had one of the better groups of position players in baseball last year, as the team tied for the third most cumulative fWAR among non-pitchers (30.0). They will be losing a small chunk of that with the loss of the ultra-versatile Wendle, who accumulated 2.6 fWAR last season, but they will also get a full season of work from phenom Wander Franco, which will likely help make up the difference. Franco will once again man the shortstop post for the Rays, while the rest of the infield will likely belong to Brandon Lowe (second base), Ji-Man Choi (first base) and Yandy Díaz (third base), although with how the Rays mix and match, there will likely be plenty of lineup and position shuffling.

Other than Franco, Lowe was the standout among regular infielders last season for the Rays, leading the team in fWAR (5.2) and wRC+ (137) despite a .280 batting average on balls in play. That’s what will happen when you walk in 11.1 percent of your plate appearances in addition to slugging a team-high 39 home runs.

Miami Marlins v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Mike Carlson/Getty Images

While Franco and Lowe form an elite up-the-middle combination, the Rays’ also have a pretty strong outfield, where they will employ some combination of Randy Arozarena, Austin Meadows, Kevin Kiermaier and Manuel Margot. Arozarena has become a star in the league and posted a 128 wRC+ to go with a 20/20 season in home runs and stolen bases last year. Meadows doesn’t have the speed of Arozarena, but he has plenty of pop (27 home runs in 2021) and the ability to take a free pass (10 percent walk rate in 2021). However, Meadows has lost his ability to hit for average the last couple season, drastically reducing his on-base percentage and overall effectiveness as a hitter.

Behind the plate, the Rays got a rejuvenated Mike Zunino last season. On his way to his first All-Star selection, the former touted Mariners prospect bashed 33 home runs and produced a 134 wRC+. Zunino is definitely on the drastic end of the three true outcomes continuum, as he struck out 35.2 percent of the time last year and batted only .216, but his pop makes him a nice fit for the lineup, especially since he doesn’t have to bat in the absolute heart of the order.

Best Player: Wander Franco, SS

Franco is an exceptionally rare talent because of his approach at the plate. As a 20-year-old rookie in 2021, he only struck out 12 percent of the time. Considering most rookies need at least some adjustment time to get used to big league pitching before they stop striking out all the time, Franco definitely lived up to the hype in his 70-game run last year. Of course, Franco checked some of the more traditional boxes as well, as he slashed .288/.347/.463 with a .348 wOBA and a 127 wRC+. While you could definitely make the argument for Lowe or Arozarena here, Franco is obviously just getting started and if he gets even a little better in 2022, then he’ll easily be the best player on the Rays and perhaps even in the AL East overall.

X-Factor: Wander Franco’s performance and development in a full season

As great as Franco was last year and as sustainable as his production appears, there’s always the chance he could regress. After all, he played in less than half a season in 2021 and MLB pitchers will have a much better read on him during his second circuit in the majors. How Franco responds to those adjustments from opposing pitchers will go a long way in deciding his success in 2022 as well as the success of the Rays overall, as the team will certainly be looking to him to take another step toward becoming their current franchise player and not just their future one.

Tampa Bay Rays v Boston Red Sox Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Rotation Outlook

Broad Look: As the pioneers of the opener, the Rays didn’t employ a traditional approach to the rotation last season. For example, Ryan Yarbrough led the team in innings pitched, while starting in 21 games and making nine appearances out of the bullpen. Regardless of their unconventional strategies around pitcher usage, the Rays have a top-flight group of starters, the only problem is health. When at full power, the Rays would have a starting rotation featuring budding ace Tyler Glasnow, touted prospect Shane Baz and promising young southpaw Shane McClanahan. As the seasons nears, only McClanahan is healthy enough to pitch, making him the de factor ace for now.

The rest of the rotation will feature a wide assortment of experience levels, with former Cy Young winner Kluber added as a veteran arm following his time with the Yankees last year. Kluber struggled to remain healthy in 2021, but he pitched to an 89 ERA- and 88 FIP- in 80 innings, so he still has some juice. In addition to Kluber, the Rays will once again rely on Yarbrough for swingman duties while younger guys like Drew Rasmussen and Luis Patiño contribute as well.

Best Player: Shane McClanahan

In a perfect world for the Rays, this would be an easy answer, with Glasnow clearly the best pitcher on the roster when healthy. Since Glasnow will miss most of this year following Tommy John surgery, McClanahan gets the honor instead. That’s not a knock on the lefty, though. The Rays didn’t entirely unleash McClanahan last season, his first at the MLB level and first above Double-A. However, despite averaging fewer than five innings per start, he still impressed, posting more than respectable marks in ERA (3.43), FIP (3.31), strikeout rate (27.3 percent) and walk rate (7.2 percent) while averaging nearly 97 miles per hour on his fastball. He’ll be at the top of the rotation this season and it will interesting to see if the Rays give him a bit more room to go deeper into games.

X-Factor: Health

The X-factor for just about every rotation is health to some degree, but as I’ve mentioned multiple times already, the Rays are going to be without Glasnow and Baz for a while. Baz is on track to be back sooner, especially with Glasnow undergoing another procedure, but until both starters are back, the Rays will have to keep being creative with their rotation.

Cleveland Indians v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Bullpen Outlook

Broad Look: Based on fWAR alone, Tampa Bay had the best bullpen in baseball last season, narrowly beating out the Chicago White Sox. While arguments can be made for other teams depending on what metric you use, there’s no denying the Rays had a solid group of relievers. Of course, by making some creative choices with their rotation, the Rays also innovated on the bullpen side, leading to strong showings from pitchers up and down the roster. Even though they traded Diego Castillo (who would end the season as Tampa Bay’s saves leader) to Seattle in July, the Rays got strong showings from Andrew Kittredge, Collin McHugh, Pete Fairbanks, JT Chargois (who was part of the Castillo trade), Rasmussen and more. Some of the group won’t be back this year, namely McHugh, but the Rays still have plenty of depth in the bullpen, especially since we can expect some of the pitchers pegged as starters now to handle some relief duties down the road.

Best Player: Andrew Kittredge

Kittredge experienced a breakout of sorts in 2021, doing so in his age-31 season after four largely forgettable years with the Tampa Bay. The right-hander posted a 1.88 ERA (3.04 FIP) across 71 2/3 innings, making 53 relief appearances and four starts. His strikeout and walk rates were both very strong, but the real noteworthy factor in his rise to glory was the sudden pickup in his velocity as well as his ability to miss bats. According to Baseball Savant, Kitteridge ranked in the 75th percentile in strikeout rate last year while sitting in the 100th percentile in chase rate. While reliever performance often fluctuates year by year, until he starts regressing, Kittredge is definitely Tampa Bay’s best reliever.

X-Factor: Pete Fairbanks’ walk rate

Even if Kittredge maintains his run of dominance in 2021, he could still be supplanted as the Rays’ top bullpen arm if Fairbanks takes another step forward. The hard-throwing right-hander absolutely scorched it last season, averaging more than 97 miles per hour on his fastball to rank in the 95th percentile in baseball. With such heat, Fairbanks had a potent 29.6 percent strikeout rate, making him an ideal setup man or closer. The only thing holding him back was his control, as he had a ghastly 11.1 percent walk rate. Double-digit percentages in this metric have plagued the now 28-year-old during his three seasons at the MLB level, but if he can cut down on the walks without giving up any of his heat, he’ll be an absolute nightmare in the late innings for opposing hitters.