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Previewing the AL East: Tampa Bay Rays

The defending AL East champions are coming off their best season in franchise history and, for once, bringing back mostly the same roster.

MLB: ALDS-Tampa Bay Rays at Boston Red Sox Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Ready to feel old? Consider this: 2022 will mark the 25th season of the Tampa Bay Rays’ existence.

Long gone are the days when the then-Devil Rays were a hapless expansion team and the only thing that kept the woeful Orioles out of last place in the AL East. The Rays have been a consistently winning club since 2008, finishing over .500 in 10 of 14 seasons in that span while making seven postseason appearances and two trips to the World Series.

Last year was their best yet, reaching the 100-win mark for the first time in franchise history before an all-too-early exit against the Red Sox in the ALDS. Of those 100 wins, an eye-popping 18 of them came against the Orioles, one shy of sweeping the 19-game season series. Even if they don’t repeat that level of dominance against the Birds this year, the Rays promise to be a daunting foe.

Additions and Subtractions

The Rays have made a living off of developing young stars, trading them at peak value for prospects, turning those prospects into stars, then trading them, and so on, which leads to a perpetual cycle of roster turnover but has helped them remain near-annual contenders. This year, though, they’re bringing back largely the same team that won 100 games last season. Of the 12 position players who made the most appearances on last year’s team, only one (Joey Wendle, traded to the Marlins) won’t return for 2022. Nearly every significant pitcher from last year is also back, minus veterans Michael Wacha and Collin McHugh, who left in free agency.

Tampa Bay’s only offseason additions have come on the pitching side. The club took a flyer on two-time Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, who has suffered three injury-shortened seasons in a row but had a 3.83 ERA in 16 games with the Yankees last year, including a no-hitter. The Rays also added lefty reliever Brooks Raley and righty Jason Adam, coming off underwhelming seasons with the Astros and Cubs, respectively.

Starting Rotation

The Rays excel in pitcher development like few other teams, with an uncanny knack for bringing young hurlers to the majors and having them find instant success. Last year’s shiny new toy was flamethrowing lefty Shane McClanahan, who debuted during the 2020 postseason and became the club’s best pitcher in 2021, posting a 3.43 ERA and racking up more than 10 strikeouts per nine innings. The 24-year-old will start on Opening Day against the Orioles.

Late last year, another Shane made his mark. Right-hander Shane Baz, acquired in the Chris Archer haul from the Pirates in 2018, debuted with three dominant regular season starts before struggling in one ALDS appearance. He’ll presumably join McClanahan and Kluber in the rotation.

Of course, the concept of a starting rotation is a rather fluid one for the Rays, who were the first team to regularly employ openers, bulk relievers, and the like, before the rest of the league caught on. They’ll likely do the same in 2022, with pitchers such as Luis Patino, Drew Rasmussen, and Josh Fleming serving in a variety of roles as needed.

The Bullpen

Speaking of fluid roles, the Rays generally don’t anoint one specific closer. Last year they had 14 different pitchers record a save. The year before, in only a 60-game season, they had 12. The club always seems to cobble together a quality, strikeout-heavy bullpen made from spare parts and castoffs from other teams, guys with names like JT Chargois and J.P. Feyereisen (what, no J.B. Bukauskas or J.B. Wendelken?). Last year’s bullpen star was 31-year-old righty Andrew Kittredge, who was released and re-signed in spring training and went on to have an All-Star season with a 1.88 ERA. Jeffrey Springs, who racked up 12.7 K/9 last year, will join Raley as lefties in the pen, while hard-throwing righty Pete Fairbanks, veteran Matt Wisler, and submariner Ryan Thompson also figure to be part of the crew.

The Lineup

The Rays have a deep, versatile lineup that will now get a full season of wunderkind shortstop Wander Franco, last year’s #1 prospect in baseball, who debuted in June and was an immediate hit. Franco reached safely in 43 consecutive games, tying the longest streak in baseball history (along with Frank Robinson) for a player 20 years old or younger. That’s good company right there. The Rays quickly locked up Franco to an 11-year, $182 million deal, so he’ll be around to terrorize Orioles pitching for a long time.

Franco’s double play partner is University of Maryland Brandon Lowe, whom FanGraphs rates as the most valuable second baseman in MLB for his combination of power (39 homers last year) and patience (a .340 OBP, nearly 100 points higher than his .247 average). Behind the plate, Mike Zunino enjoyed a breakout, All-Star campaign with 33 homers and an .860 OPS. Oh, and we haven’t even mentioned the 2021 AL Rookie of the Year, left fielder Randy Arozarena, who followed up on his historic performance in the 2020 postseason with a strong .274/.356/.459 line last year, belting 20 home runs.

The Rays, perhaps more than anyone, utilize platoons to their full advantage, with lefty-swinger Ji-Man Choi and righty Yandy Diaz forming a potent tandem at first base and Brett Phillips and Manuel Margot splitting time in right field, ensuring they get the best matchups against any given starting pitcher.

The Defense

The Rays’ 72 Defensive Runs Saved last season were the third-best in the AL, headlined — as always — by three-time Gold Glove center fielder Kevin Kiermaier (13 DRS). The Rays don’t have a lot of flashy defenders, but they get the job done. They’ve also got quite a bit of defensive flexibility, shuffling players around to different positions to keep them fresh. Diaz plays both first and third base, Lowe moonlights in the outfield when he’s not at second, and Franco made appearances at third and second in addition to shortstop last year.

The Projections

PECOTA: 85-77

FanGraphs: 86-76

Draftkings Sports Book: Over/Under 89.5 wins, +320 to win AL East, +1700 to win World Series.

Despite their status as reigning AL East champions and 100-game winners, the Rays aren’t getting much love from projection systems as of now. Both PECOTA and FanGraphs project them to be good, not great, each pegging the Rays to finish fourth in the division behind the higher-priced, higher-profile Yankees, Red Sox, and Blue Jays. Still, with two-time defending AL Manager of the Year Kevin Cash at the helm of a talented, young roster, the Rays stand an excellent chance at defending their division crown.