2023 Rival Preview: Despite minimal off-season additions, the Rays will be better than last year
Photo credit:© David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
By Evan Stack1 month ago
Over the next few weeks, we’ll look at each American League team and discuss their 2022 season, their offseason moves, and their 2023 outlook.
2022 Season Recap…
Plagued by injuries would be an understated summary of the 2022 Tampa Bay Rays. Like, it was really bad.
The Rays made the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season last year, despite their roster being decimated with injuries. 2B Brandon Lowe, SS Wander Franco, and SP Tyler Glasnow were just a few names that spent habitual time on the injured list in 2022.
The pitching staff in Tampa was, however, enlightened by the emergence of a few of their starters. Shane McClanahan finished in the top 10 of the American League in ERA, strikeouts, and quality starts. He would’ve likely finished top 5 in all of those categories – and maybe won the Cy Young – had he not run into a left shoulder injury late in the season. Even with the injury, McClanahan finished 6th in Cy Young voting, and looks to serve as the ace of the rotation this season.
Among the other notable studs in Tampa’s rotation, Jeffrey Springs and Drew Rasmussen both posted career-bests in starts, innings pitched, and ERAs.
In the bullpen, the Rays were hit with tremendous injury problems, but they found a potent 8th and 9th inning pair in Pete Fairbanks and former Blue Jay Jason Adam. Fairbanks, who, you guessed it, also missed significant time due to injury in 2022, had a 1.13 ERA through 24 games. He’s struggled to stay on the field since he has been in the big leagues, but the 99 mph average on the fastball and 96 mph average on the sinker speaks for itself.
The pitching staff posted tremendous results, but the offensive side of the ball presented larger issues. The Rays were 21st in the MLB in runs per game, as they only had two players qualified for MLB statistic rankings, and only six logged action in over 100 games. Hence, the Rays were forced to ask a lot of guys like DH Harold Ramirez, SS Taylor Walls, and INF Isaac Paredes. While Ramirez (.300 batting average, .747 OPS) showcased a very solid season, Walls and Paredes were nearly automatic outs with .172 and .205 batting averages, respectively.
Randy Arozarena and Yandy Diaz carried a lot of the weight. Arozarena ranked 5th in the AL in doubles, with Diaz ranking third in the AL in OBP as their leadoff man.
Tampa Bay also dealt with a lot of questions at catcher. Mike Zunino, an All-Star in 2021, played in only 36 games last season. Francisco Mejia, Christian Bethancourt, and Rene Pinto exchanged catching duties for most of the season, but they never received any consistent production from any of them.
Regardless, the Rays are the Rays, and they made it work. While they did make the playoffs, the lack of offensive output was exposed in the Wild Card series against the Guardians. They only scored one run between the two games. The crazy part is that had they found a way to score only three runs in each of those two games, they would’ve swept the series and advanced to the ALDS.
The Rays cut ties with their expiring contracts, most notably SP Corey Kluber, Zunino, OF David Peralta, and thankfully SP Ryan Yarbrough. They also dealt 1B Ji-Man Choi to the Pittsburgh Pirates, their longtime mainstay at first base, as well as watched CF Kevin Kiermaier become a Toronto Blue Jay.
Tampa Bay remained relatively quiet throughout the winter. They did, however, use the offseason to simply get guys healthy. As the calendar turned to November, the Rays transaction list displayed a slew of “_____ activated from the 60-day injured list”.
Tampa Bay’s signature move was signing SP/RP Zach Eflin, formerly of the Philadelphia Phillies. Eflin served primarily as a starter during his seven seasons in Philadelphia, but he was moved to the bullpen at the backend of the 2022 season. Last year out of the bullpen, he only allowed one earned run in 7.2 innings, striking out nine batters to no walks.
Why call it a “signature move”? Eflin’s contract is the largest contract for a free agent in Rays franchise history. Despite Eflin’s success (albeit a short stint) out of the bullpen, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Rays threw him in the rotation. Many credible sites already list him on the depth chart as a rotation member anyways.
Alongside Eflin’s signing, the Rays signed a few of their returnees to extensions: Springs, Fairbanks, and Diaz were all inked to respective paydays. Don’t get your expectations too high, though – Diaz has the highest AAV of the three, boasting $8 million per year.
The Rays made a flurry of trades during December, however, these weren’t headliner deals as the players involved were minor leaguers and/or fringe MLB players. While they still look to get the most out of their major league roster, bolstering their minor league depth has always been Tampa Bay’s strong suit, and that’s exactly what they did with those deals.
My take on Tampa Bay’s 2023 outlook…
Look, the Rays have now made it a habit of being good (especially against the Blue Jays), but I really don’t think people are talking about Tampa Bay enough. Even with a roster last season in which the next man up was getting the call every week, the Rays finished third in the AL East and made the playoffs as a Wild Card team.
The most intriguing part of this roster is the rotation. With the Yankees signing Carlos Rodon and the Blue Jays bringing in Chris Bassitt, baseball media went back-and-forth on which of those two teams possessed the more superior rotation in the AL East.
Truthfully, if the pitching staff can replicate the results from last year, I believe the Rays have an argument for this being the best staff in the division. The (healthy) rotation of McClanahan, Glasnow, Rasmussen, Springs, and Eflin is elite. McClanahan, Rasmussen, and Springs all owned sub-3 ERAs last season, with Glasnow looking sharp off of his Tommy John surgery, including five scoreless innings in the playoffs. Shane Baz, a recent MLB Top 100 prospect, still hangs around as a depth piece.
The offense is still a question mark, and it’s likely what is holding them back from a division crown. They will need a bounce back from guys like Lowe and Franco, especially, as both of them have showcased All-Star talent. With the money they have invested in Franco specifically (and they don’t invest money too often), he needs to be the franchise guy Tampa is hoping he’ll be.
In summary, the Rays can quietly be a major player for AL East crown. To be fair, they’re only three seasons removed from a World Series appearance, and only two seasons removed from a division championship. The two big “ifs” are if everyone can stay healthy and if the offense can improve from last year. If both of those come to fruition, we’ll likely see more nightmares at the Trop.
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