With a 40-20 record in 2020, the Tampa Bay Rays were the best team in the American League from the start of the shortened-season to the finish line. The beneficiaries of a 14-5 one-run record, Tampa proved their worth by beating the Yankees, their perennial divisional foe, as well as the former AL juggernaut Houston Astros in the 2020 playoffs.
The roster heading into this season is largely the same, headlined by 2020 fWAR leader Brandon Lowe, and defensive wizard Kevin Kiermaier. Kiermaier is flanked in the outfield by a tandem of up-and-coming players, 2020 breakout left fielder Randy Arozarena and 26-year-old right fielder Manny Margot.
The infield again, is largely the same cast as 2020, with Joey Wendle at the hot corner, Willy Adames at short, Lowe at second, and Ji-Man Choi at first base. Mike Zunino will get majority of the playing time behind the dish, with newly acquired Francisco Mejia.
The biggest changes for the Rays come on the other side of the ball, as they lost Blake Snell and Charlie Morton, the two Tampa pitchers who mattered the most in the 2020 World Series. Still, they have Tyler Glasnow returning with a revamped slider that is getting pretty rave reviews from the local media, and will return flexible starter/reliever/opener Ryan Yarbrough.
It’s hard to replace the production of a pitcher of Snell’s skillset, the 2018 Cy Young winner of course was the most effective pitcher in Tampa’s postseason run. In a combined 9 innings in the LCS and World Series he gave up only six runs. Morton only posted four innings in the LCS but was magnificent in 10 ⅔ shutout innings in the World Series.
Replacing the production and innings-eating of Snell and Morton is no easy task, but the Rays have a plethora of options — how effective these options will be remains to be seen. Chris Archer regions the team after a not-so-successful run in Pittsburgh. 2020 saw Archer hit his career-high walk rate, and a spike in home runs against.
Behind Archer is Michael Wacha, who is another pitcher coming off an uninspiring 2020. Last season with the Mets Wacha posted a 6.62 ERA, a 5.25 FIP in 34 innings. The peripheral numbers are a little more encouraging, as his walk rate was nearly half of his career average entering the season, and his strikeout rate was the highest since his rookie season.
The Rays have plenty of options behind Glasnow / Archer / Wacha, having picked up Rich Hill and Collin McHugh as free agents. Even on top of the free agent veterans, Tampa can get innings from 25-year-old Brandon McKay, 24-year-old Josh Fleming, 23-year-old Shane Mclanahan, or 21-year-old Luis Patino. Oh and they also have 25-year-old Brent Honeywell, who is recovering from multiple injuries that have sidelined him for the last few seasons.
The Rays have a ton of depth to choose from on the mound...but what is the real upside of any of these players individually, let alone catching lighting-in-a-bottle from multiple players.
The Rays have their course laid out, they stick to their plan. Sometimes that plan backfires, as it did with Snell in game six of the World Series last October, but it’s that plan that has helped keep spendthrift Tampa relevant.
Per FanGraphs’ projections and playoff odds, Tampa is projected to garner ~84 wins, with a one-in-four chance to make the playoffs. The Yankees remain the top-of-the-class in the AL East, but if Tampa can take advantage of intradivisional games against the up-and-coming Jays, rebuilding Red Sox, and pathetic Orioles, they could hit the higher end of their projections.
If Arozerana takes a step back in 2021, if Brandon Lowe’s pop goes away in combination of regression and a new baseball, and if the middle and back-end of the rotation never gets it together, the Rays could be in for a year where they’re always close to contending, but are never really in a postseason position. They’re one of the more variable teams entertaining 2021, but with the Rays magic and the Rays plan, it’d be foolhardy to be against them.