AL EastAnalysis

2021 Season Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

As we prepare for the 2021 season, Diamond Digest writers will be taking a look at each team’s off-season and previewing the season to come. Today, Sean Huff takes a look at the Tampa Bay Rays!

The 2020 version of the Rays was an utterly elite and dominant team who were pretty clearly the best in the American League. Yet, the parsimony of their ownership and the improvements of their divisional competitors have made them a far less intimidating force heading into 2021. They’re still the Rays though. Count them out at your own peril.


2020 Season-In-Review

2020 Record: 40-20, 1st place in AL East

Team MVP: Brandon Lowe

Team Cy Young: Nick Anderson

For as well as things went for the Rays in 2020, they had some very poor individual performances. The entirety of the outfield, with the exception of Jon Osterman Randy Arozarena, was poor offensively in 2020. This will be better in 2021, on two fronts: a full season for Arozarena and a healthier Austin Meadows. While this augers well for 2021, the gain is offset by the regression due in players like Lowe and Willy Adames. The offense will be fine though. We’re talking about the Rays; they’re going to platoon and move guys around and put people in the best positions to succeed. And, like it always does for them, it’ll work.

On the pitching side, there are two frightening developments: Anderson and Tyler Glasnow, the two best pitchers on the team, were both very bad in the Postseason. The emergence of Pete Fairbanks and the inevitable return to health of Brendan McKay and Oliver Drake are all encouraging, however, and the respective aces, both rotation and bullpen, should return to form. There are plenty of reinforcements in the form of new arms and prospects as well, and again, this is the Rays. The pitching will be excellent.


Offseason Review

Key Losses from 2020: Blake Snell, Charlie Morton, John Curtiss, José Alvarado, Aaron Loup, Nate Lowe, Hunter Renfroe

Notable Free Agent Additions: Mike Zunino (re-sign), Chaz Roe (re-sign), Drake (re-sign), Rich Hill, Chris Archer, Michael Wacha, Collin McHugh

Notable Trades: Snell to the Padres for Luis Patiño, Francisco Mejía, Blake Hunt, and Cole Wilcox | N. Lowe to the Rangers for Heriberto Hernandez, Osleivis Basabe, and Alexander Ovalles | Curtiss to the Marlins for Evan Edwards | Alvarado to the Phillies in 3-team trade for Dillon Paulson

The Rays had quite a weird offseason. First they declined Morton’s option year and lost him to free agency. Then they decided Snell was too expensive for their liking and traded him for a four-player package (more on that in a bit). Two-thirds of their vaunted rotation that terrified teams in the Postseason for two consecutive years was suddenly gone. Yet, being the Rays, they started to build back up cheaply and in bulk. Wacha (1-yr/$3M) was the start of the new look rotation, signing on 18 December. This was a move I actually predicted, as he’s a very Rays guy. They’ll take advantage of his excellent changeup and great first time through the order career numbers, hopefully also getting him to ditch his oft-clobbered fastball. Wacha was the only addition for a while, until an extremely active two week span. On 2 February, old friend Archer inked his deal (1-yr/$6.5M), and immediately began openly discussing the changes to his repertoire he hoped his “new” team would make. Revamping the rotation ended on 12 February with the signings of the spinny curveball men. Hill (1-yr/$2.5M) and McHugh (1-yr/$1.8M) can’t be counted on for more than about 150 innings combined, but they’ll be very high quality innings if the pitchers are used correctly. And the Rays always use their players correctly.

Clearly not being big spenders, the only other major league contracts the Rays handed out this offseason were three re-signings. Zunino (1-yr/$3M, w/ club option) isn’t great, but he won’t be the worst starting catcher in baseball. Besides, the Rays didn’t have any real MLB catchers on their roster. Drake (1-yr/$775k) and Roe (1-yr/$1.15M) are good depth pieces for the bullpen, above average relievers who can handle high-leverage in a pinch.

The other additions the Rays made this offseason were return pieces in trades. Of the nine players they got back for Snell, N. Lowe, Curtiss, and Alvarado, only Mejía is likely to start the season on the major league roster, where he’ll be the backup catcher. Of the eight prospects, seven of them are just adding to the ludicrous depth of the Tampa Bay farm, baseball’s best by far. Hunt, a 50 FV catcher with a big arm and power, and Hernandez, a 50 FV C/1B with a 190 wRC+ in the minors are the headliners of this bunch. The one who doesn’t fit this description is Patiño, the 12th ranked prospect in baseball per FanGraphs. He’s marked with a 60 FV and a 2021 ETA, so he’ll likely play a role as a multi-inning reliever or back-end starter for the big league club this season.

2021 Season Preview

Projected Roster

Position Players

Normally in these Season Preview articles, this is where a Projected Lineup and Projected Bench would be listed. Doing so with the Rays would be ridiculous. They don’t and won’t have a set lineup, and the players who would be projected on the bench will probably all end up playing 70 or so games. Instead, I’ll just list all of the position players who are likely to receive significant playing time for the 2021 Rays, putting each player at the position they’d probably have the most time.

Oh. I have no idea how the Rays will play all of these guys, but they’re all legitimate MLB-caliber players. There will be tons of platoons, and I still think Adames gets traded to the Reds to make room for GOAT prospect Wander at shortstop, but it will happen. They’ll all play and be put in good situations. The Rays find a way.

On a more serious note, I’ll put forth what the most likely Opening Day lineup and bench are, assuming they oppose a right-handed starter.

Lineup
  1. Meadows, RF
  2. Lowe, 2B
  3. Arozarena, LF
  4. Choi, 1B
  5. Tsutsugo, DH
  6. Adames, SS
  7. Wendle, 3B
  8. Kiermaier, CF
  9. Zunino, C
Bench
  • Margot
  • Díaz
  • Brosseau
  • Mejía

These are the established Major Leaguers. The prospects like Bruján, Walls, J. Lowe, and Him will have a part to play this year for sure. But it won’t be on 1 April against the Marlins.

Pitchers

This is another area where the weird usage patterns and never ending depth of the Rays makes it really hard to define roles. Instead of starters (Glasnow is the only true starting pitcher on the roster) and relievers, the Rays have more multi-inning and single-inning pitchers. Below, I’ll list all of the pitchers I expect to play a real role with the MLB team, specifying what their likely job will be, while also listing their 2019-20 xERA.

Author’s Note: TTO stands for times through the order

NameAgeProjected RolexERA
Tyler Glasnow27Primary starting pitcher2.69
Ryan Yarbrough29Starting pitcher 2 TTO3.82
Chris Archer32Starting pitcher 2 TTO5.40
Rich Hill41Starting pitcher 1-2 TTO3.86
Michael Wacha29Starting pitcher 1-2 TTO5.51
Collin McHugh34Piggyback starter4.18
Brendan McKay25Piggyback starter4.63
Josh Fleming25Piggyback starter3.43
Trevor Richards28Piggyback starter4.39
Chris Mazza31Piggyback starter6.40
Brent Honeywell Jr.26Piggyback starter/multi-inning relieverN/A
Shane McClanahan24Piggyback starter/multi-inning relieverN/A
Luis Patiño21Piggyback starter/multi-inning reliever4.15
Ryan Thompson29Multi-inning reliever, mid-leverage3.36
Shane Baz22Multi-inning reliever, mid-leverageN/A
Jeffrey Springs28Multi-inning reliever, low-leverage5.45
Andrew Kittredge31Multi-inning reliever, low-leverage3.86
Nick Anderson30Single-inning reliever, relief ace2.72
Pete Fairbanks27Single-inning reliever, high-leverage4.32
Diego Castillo27Single-inning reliever, high-leverage3.03
Chaz Roe34Single-inning reliever, mid-leverage3.92
Oliver Drake34Single-inning reliever, mid-leverage3.19
Cody Reed28Single-inning reliever, low-leverage4.75
Ryan Sherriff31Single-inning reliever, low-leverage2.97
Joe Ryan25Single-inning reliever, low-leverageN/A
Hunter Strickland32Single-inning reliever, low-leverage5.01
Yacksel Ríos28Single-inning reliever, low-leverage7.70

That’s 27 pitchers. It’s absurd. Yet, it’s likely all or close to all of them will see MLB innings in 2021. The prospects (Honeywell, McClanahan, Patiño, Baz, and Ryan) won’t start the season with the team, but at least the first three will be major players for the Rays. There’s not much else I can say about the staff; my above table outlines how I expect each pitcher to be used. So I’ll just do what I did with the position players and put forth my predictions for the Opening Day roster.

Starting Rotation
  1. Glasnow
  2. Yarbrough
  3. Archer
  4. Hill
  5. Wacha
Bullpen
  • Anderson
  • Fairbanks
  • Castillo
  • Thompson
  • Roe
  • McHugh
  • Reed
  • Sherriff

Record Projections

FanGraphs Projected Record: 82.5-79.5, 4th Place in American League East, 24.4% chance of making Postseason

PECOTA Projected Record: 86.6-75.4, 2nd Place in AL East

Personal Projection: 89-73, 2nd Place in AL East

This was a tough prediction to make. The numbers say they’re about a true talent 85 win team. My instinct says to never mark them lower than 93. So I averaged the two. What the projections can’t take into their respective folds are just how good the Rays are at using their unholy amounts of depth (I identified 45 MLB caliber players!) to create advantageous situations for themselves. No matter what their opponent does in-game, they can counter accordingly with at least an average player. If someone gets hurt, there’s another player at the ready to fill that exact role, and one behind them as well. The Rays are master tacticians with deploying their roster, and that will absolutely buoy them.

All of that being said, I see the 2021 Rays as a very high variance team. There’s a timeline where Glasnow is a Cy Young candidate, Franco, Arozarena, and Patiño all make a Rookie of the Year case, Lowe stays an elite hitter, and Meadows returns to being one. There’s also a timeline where the prospects fall flat or don’t get called up, and the aforementioned headlining pitchers and hitters continue their World Series struggles. In the former scenario, this is another 100-win team; in the latter they may not reach .500.

Final Thoughts

Would you feel comfortable betting against the Rays? I’m one of the least loss-averse people you could meet, a true Holzhauerian-gambler, and I’d be terrified to take the under on this team even if they had the Dodgers O/U mark. The Rays are smart. The Rays are resourceful. The Rays are deep. The Rays find a way. Underestimate this team at your own peril. And don’t be surprised if, come the end of October, they somehow managed to secure the Commissioner’s trophy.

Sean Huff

Sean is a psychology major and mathematics minor in his junior year at Fordham College at Rose Hill. He is a lifelong baseball fan with a nominal affinity for the Phillies. You can follow him on Twitter at @srhkthew2 for occasional comments on baseball and assorted esoterica.

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