On one of the occasions that John Angelos opened his mouth to talk about the Orioles over the last couple of months, one of the things that he said is that he sees the Tampa Bay Rays, along with the Cleveland Guardians and Milwaukee Brewers, as examples of teams who can have sustained success in smaller markets.
Exactly in what way the current reigning Angelos would like for his family’s franchise to emulate the Rays is not something he directly established. On a basic level of how often they make and succeed in the postseason, the Rays can be envied. They’ve been in the last four playoffs, have made it eight times since 2008, and have been in the World Series twice. In that same stretch of time, there have only been two 162-game seasons where the Rays won fewer than 80 games.
The Rays have another reputation on top of this that strikes me as making the experience of being a Rays fan much less fun than it might otherwise be. As a perennial low-payroll team, they are notorious in recent years for dumping players as soon as they start to get “too expensive” in arbitration. One would be wise not to get too attached to most players on their roster, or at least not for long.
Wondering when a cool player will get traded during a rebuild is bad enough. Wondering when one will get traded while the team is good? That has to suck. When asked whether the low payroll is what he meant, The Baltimore Banner’s Andy Kostka noted (my interpretation) that Angelos did not own up to the logical conclusion of his prior statements. But enough about that. Let’s look at the 2023 Rays.
About last year
- Record: 86-76
- Postseason: Lost as road team in wild card round to Guardians, 2-0
- Best player (bWAR): Shane McClanahan (4.0)
Additions and subtractions
In one sense, it was a very busy offseason for the Rays. They made eight different trades, including trading away five players who appeared for the team in 2022. They declined a 2023 option for longtime Ray Kevin Kiermaier, and did not tender a contract to sometime starter, sometime guy after the opener Ryan Yarbrough. Three other players, including Corey Kluber, departed as free agents.
However, in terms of impact to the actual roster that won 86 games last year, these moves didn’t move the needle much. None of the Rays top 10 players by bWAR left or were shipped off.
The Rays also pulled off two things that I would have liked to see the Orioles do. One is that they signed a starting pitcher to a multi-year contract. That’s 28-year-old righty Zach Eflin, who will make $40 million over the next three seasons. Eflin missed all of July and August and half of September with the Phillies last year, pitching to a 4.04 ERA - about league average - when healthy.
The other thing the Rays did is they reached contract extensions with some of their soon-to-be free agents. That set included infielder Yandy Díaz and starting pitcher Jeffrey Springs, who were, according to bWAR, the second- and third-best Rays last year.
Note: Roster projections come from RosterResource depth charts at FanGraphs.
- Shane McClanahan
- Drew Rasmussen
- Zach Eflin
- Jeffrey Springs
- Yonny Chirinos
The Baltimore-born McClanahan is on his way to being seen as one of the game’s true aces if he can duplicate the success he had last year, when he posted a 2.54 ERA and 0.926 WHIP in 28 starts. Not bad. The rest of those guys are not household names, but Rasmussen and Springs were each very good last year, Eflin is passable, and Chirinos has been good before.
The group will not, at least at the beginning of the season, include either Shane Baz or Tyler Glasnow. Baz required Tommy John surgery at the end of last season and will not return this year. Glasnow missed nearly all of last year due to Tommy John. He suffered a spring training oblique injury that will cost him at least two weeks of the regular season.
Projected late-inning leverage relievers:
- Pete Fairbanks
- Jason Adam
- Jalen Beeks
- Colin Poche
Fairbanks appeared in 20 games for the Rays last year and was about as good as you could ever hope for a reliever to be. He held batters to a 0.667 WHIP and struck out 38 batters while walking just three. That is a good ratio. Adam, who was tied for the team saves lead with Fairbanks at eight, was not far behind him, posting a 0.758 WHIP.
Reliever volatility being what it is, it’s no guarantee these guys will duplicate that success, but the Rays tend to have a number of guys you’ve never heard of before waiting in reserve if someone stumbles.
- C - Christian Bethancourt
- 1B - Yandy Díaz
- 2B - Brandon Lowe
- 3B - Isaac Paredes
- SS - Wander Franco
- LF - Randy Arozarena
- CF - Jose Siri
- RF - Manuel Margot
- DH - Harold Ramírez
This lineup is a great illustration of one of the things a future Orioles team that emulates the Rays could look like. Whether that is a good thing or not is for each of us to decide for ourselves. That is, seven of these nine players were acquired in trade. Four of those trades happened within the last 365 days. The Rays never keep too many players for too long. Arbitration years get expensive. There are regularly many new faces. I hope the Orioles can find success without this extreme level of churn even in their period of success.
Perhaps the best thing that the Rays have going for them right now is that Franco, one of the most exciting young players in the game, will only cost them about $2.5 million this season and next season before his contract starts to escalate towards the $25 million he’ll get annually from 2028-2032. A full, healthy season from Franco would be a big boost for the Rays fortunes. He played in only 83 games last year.
Tampa’s offense was not very good in the 2022 season. They ranked 11th in the American League with 666 runs scored, and their overall team OPS of .686 was 12th. The Orioles were just a bit better at 674 runs scored and a .695 team OPS.
If players perform about how they did last year, the Rays should manage some improvement on that offensive performance. Some of their worst hitters from last year are either gone or out of projected starting roles. Particularly important will be keeping Lowe and Franco healthy so that Taylor Walls (.553 OPS in 466 PA last year) is not called upon too often. Lowe only played in 65 games last year after finishing in the top 10 in MVP voting in 2021.
The Rays were almost perfectly average on team defense last year, notching exactly +1 in Statcast’s Outs Above Average total for the team. Their weak spots were at second base (Lowe’s position) and shortstop (Franco’s), so again it seems like keeping those two players healthy is crucial.
Díaz was weak as a third baseman last year, but he’s shifting over to first and being replaced by Paredes, who was 90th percentile in OAA in 2022. That’s another potential big upgrade.
When the 2022 season ended, the next team that the Orioles needed to pass was the Rays. They came up three wins short. If things play out as these projections believe, the Orioles will have to do a little bit better than 86 wins to get themselves past the Rays. They could start by managing to have a winning record against the Rays, instead of coming in to their final head-to-head matchup at 9-9 and then getting one-hit. There were some fun 2022 Orioles games. That was not one of them.