The Rays do almost everything right in the office and on the field, and remain as dangerous as ever in 2023.
The Tampa Bay Rays always find a way to be competitive. Every year, every time. In 2022, they managed to overcome half a season without their best hitter and posted an 86-76 record, good enough to make the postseason as the sixth and last seed of the American League. An early exit at the hands of the Cleveland Guardians represented a sour end to an otherwise successful campaign, and put more emphasis on their offseason. The Rays, however, were not going to outspend anyone in the winter.
Tampa Bay Rays
2022 record: 86-76 (3rd, AL East)
2023 FanGraphs projection: 88-74 (3rd, AL East)
Their organizational modus operandi consists on identifying talent and developing it using a myriad of tech resources and an analytics-heavy approach, and it tends to work for them year in and year out. Their only offseason additions were Zach Eflin for the rotation and Kevin Kelly for the bullpen. The rest of their core remains intact, with some players returning to full health — Tyler Glasnow’s recent injury notwithstanding — including the sensational Wander Franco.
Limited to 83 games last season by quad, hamstring and hand issues, Franco still managed to post a 116 wRC+ and 2.3 fWAR. He is still somehow 22, so if he is fully healthy he could make that leap into 4-5 fWAR territory. He’s the key player in an offense that was right about average last season, ranking 15th in wRC+ with 101.
He is not their only offensive threat, though. ZiPS projects second baseman/outfielder Brandon Lowe for 24 home runs and a 129 OPS+, and Isaac Paredes is the favorite to lead the team with long balls with 25 according to the projection system. He is expected to take a step forward, too, with a projected 119 OPS+.
Francisco Mejía and Christian Bethancourt will share catching duties. The former has power upside and the later does, too, plus good framing skills and a positive defensive reputation. First base will likely be shared by Jonathan Aranda and Yandy Díaz. The former hit .318 in Triple-A with 18 home runs and a 142 wRC+ but struggled in limited time in Tampa, while the latter blossomed into a 3.8 fWAR player despite his customary lack of power.
Lowe and Franco will be the double play combo, and Díaz will share third base with Paredes. In the outfield, perhaps Josh Lowe finally puts it all together and earns a spot in the lineup. The projected starters, however, are Randy Arozarena (a real threat for a 20-20 campaign and a wRC+ in the 120-130 range), Manuel Margot and José Siri. The last two are very good fielders with 15-15 potential at the plate.
Harold Ramírez will also be in the mix. The upside element on this unit will be provided by two names: Josh Lowe and Kyle Manzardo. Both have star potential and could find themselves helping in the second half.
Pitching, however, is the foundation of the Rays’ success. While Glasnow will be out for the next 6-8 weeks with an oblique strain, he could return in mid-to-late April and still carries ace potential. After a few horrible years in Pittsburgh, he has posted an elite 3.05 ERA in 268.1 innings as a Ray.
The rotation has enough star power to absorb Glasnow’s absence for a few weeks. Shane McClanahan (2.54 ERA, 194 strikeouts in 166.1 innings) has developed into a top 10 starter in the American League, and some would say top five, while Drew Rasmussen and Jeffrey Springs both had ERAs below 2.90 in 2022. Eflin and Yonny Chirinos complete the staff, with Luis Patiño, Josh Fleming and top prospect Taj Bradley ready as alternatives.
The bullpen is deep and strong, too. Just take a look at their top two righty relievers, Pete Fairbanks and Jason Adam: they finished with a 1.13 and 1.56 ERA, respectively, in 2022. After that elite pair, you have Jalen Beeks, Shawn Armstrong, Garrett Cleavinger, Ryan Thompson, Kelly, Colin Poche, Calvin Faucher, and an army of talented young minor leaguers waiting for their chance.
They are all well-managed and led by Kevin Cash, who knows the team philosophy and translates it to the field almost to perfection.
FanGraphs projects the Rays to finish third in the AL East behind the Yankees and Blue Jays, with an 88-74 record. It certainly looks both plausible and accurate, but the potential is there for more. This is a very dangerous team, one that you don’t want to see in a short playoffs series.