Playing Pepper 2021: Tampa Bay Rays

Opening Day is just around the corner (knock on wood after 2020, of course) and as such, that means it’s time for everyone’s favorite post series!  OK, maybe second favorite after Top Cards on Twitter.  It’s Playing Pepper!  Year 13 of our intrepid series finds us, as always, asking questions of bloggers (both former and current) of other teams, seeing how they view the upcoming season.   I think it’s a solid way of getting a handle on MLB as a whole.  So get your bats and ignore that sign on the fence–let’s play some pepper!

Tampa Bay Rays
40-20, first in the AL East, lost in the World Series
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper

The Rays keep doing what the Rays do.  They continue to work with a minimal payroll and they continue to have significant success.  Last year was the same old song, as they made it to the World Series and then, in the offseason, worked to get payroll down by shipping off their ace starter.  Will it continue to pay off for these iconoclasts?  Let’s see what their fans say!

Blogger Site Twitter
Danny Russell DRays Bay d_russ
Mat Germain In The Tank Mat_Germain_
Anthony Ateek X-Rays Spex XRaysSpex

C70: Baseball in 2020 was like nothing we’ve ever seen before. What are your thoughts on that season? Did you like the rule changes? How was following baseball the same or different during the pandemic?

Danny: 2020 was wild! As a percentage of games in the season I probably watched my most baseball ever, I think I missed four games of the 60? The rule changes did not bother me, in fact I prefer the DH in both leagues. Pitchers hitting is an unnecessary injury risk.

Mat: It truly was an unexpected season, but overall, I think everyone has to be satisfied with what we got to enjoy. Although much shorter than most of us would have liked, the fact that majority of players managed to abide by the rules and kept infection rates low shows that you can navigate through this pandemic effectively if people respect one another.

The season itself from a Rays point of view was absolutely stellar. Despite losing 12 pitchers to injury through the season, they managed to win 40 of 60 games, and added a new star of epic proportions in Randy Arozarena. Fans enjoyed watching him make history, and got to see Rays eliminate the Evil Empire & cheating Astros (who both had 3+ times the budget) so that we could all enjoy a very entertaining Rays vs Dodgers World Series.

Rule change wise: Loved DH in both leagues (should have happened decades ago tbh), I liked the man on 2B in extras more than I thought I would, but feel it should only be used from 12th inning onwards, absolutely hated the 3 batter minimum (let managers manage), and I liked the larger rosters (feel like we should now move from 40 man to 42 man rosters, with 27 being active at all times & no in season roster size changes).

Following baseball was PAINFUL before the season began, as both MLB & MLBPA showed off their worst sides as they fought for parameters that suited them most – not the fans. Blackouts continued – which is ludicrous, schedules and oppositions were very limited, some teams got hit hard by COVID issues, and staff we needlessly let go across many organizations. In short, we saw that greed rules MLB ownerships, and that business can get really ugly when it needs to.

Anthony: As a baseball fan in general, the truncated season offered a brief reprieve from what otherwise was one of the weirdest years on record. And while I wasn’t able to attend any games — well in person, although my avatar/fan cutout was in attendance for most of the season and part of the playoffs — I was relatively content to see some fairly entertaining on-field action. I liked a few of the rule changes, like universal DH and seven-inning doubleheaders, although I could do without the extra-innings runner on second rule. 

C70: How hard is it to see Blake Snell leave, especially after the team got so close to a title last year?

Danny: Extremely hard. He was the star pitcher and was the one the Rays seemed to be hanging on to given 2021 finances and letting Charlie Morton go. Perhaps the Rays just got godfathered into the trade — an offer they couldn’t refuse — but this trade was not just the loss of a player fans had grown to love. It was also a sign the Rays were not trying as hard as you’d expect to return to the World Series next year.

Mat: We all got to enjoy watching Blake Snell grow as a pitcher and mature as a person. He helped bring the Rays to consecutive playoff seasons, and won a Cy young the year prior – those are the great things we all will miss, along with his easy going personality. Having said that, he was not an ace, and the returns were ace worthy. Both Luis Patino and Cole Wilcox (who most didn’t think would sign in ’20 draft) have front end starter potential (I like Patino’s ceiling more than Snell’s tbh and see a lot of Pedro Martinez in him), and Rays might have FINALLY resolved their issues behind the plate by acquiring Francisco Mejia, who will surprise many people at the plate (provides Cash with SHB that has great hit tool) and is controllable through his growth into his prime years. And if he doesn’t work out, they also have Blake Hunt from the deal. The return, along with shoulder issues that limited his IP inn 2019 and 2020, his “Slap$%ck prospect” comment, the pull in game 6, and his salary (~17% of Rays budget) all combined to make it the perfect time to trade him with the perfect returns (oddly enough, I called Patino & Mejia as the likely returns in a December tweet).

Anthony: I won’t lie, it was difficult seeing Snell leave. In all fairness though, it’s difficult to see any player move elsewhere when they have been with one team for their entire career. But as difficult as it was, the return for Snell definitely softened the blow. Luis Patiño and Francisco Mejía (most notably) could positively impact the Rays in 2021, with Mejía projected to slash .245 BA/.301 OBP/.423 SLG across 271 plate appearances. If the tandem of Mike Zunino and Mejía live up to the projections, we may be looking at a backstop platoon that could pop 22 home runs and drive in 66 runs, which is far more productive than any other Tampa Bay catching platoon of the last few seasons. Snell meant a lot to the Rays, however, it would be shortsighted to give him sole credit for the Rays’ World Series appearance last season. And given that Tampa Bay has the top farm system in baseball, someone undoubtedly will be able to fill his shoes and offer them more efficient innings and better ‘time through the order’ splits. 

C70: Chris Archer is back in the place where he’s had his greatest success. Can he recapture that magic?

Danny: TOS (thoracic outlet syndrome) does not have a great track record for recovery, but a couple players have returned better off — most notably Alex Cobb — and that’s his biggest hurdle. The Rays will always look to let a pitcher naturally develop into their best selves instead of forcing a methodology on them. That’s great for Archer.

Mat: Yes. In fact, I don’t think he could have landed in a better place. The Rays are experts at rehabbing pitchers (see Nathan Eovaldi & Jonny Venters) and know Archer’s stuff best of all. They’re also very patient, with enough depth to ease him to innings as the season goes on. He’ll likely always start, but could likely begin with 2-3 inning starts, ramped up over time as able. Really believe that come playoff time, Archer will be a Yankee killing machine as he has been through his entire career – and that’s all Rays truly need from him. 

Anthony: Will 32-year-old Chris Archer be the same as 25-27-year-old Chris Archer? Likely not. After all, he lost a few ticks off his heater in recent years while his flirtation with a two-seamer and sinker in Pittsburgh proved to be disastrous. However, Archer ditched both of those offerings, developed what looks to be a quality changeup, and has looked great in Spring Training — allowing just one run across 6-2/3 innings while striking out five and walking one. His velocity has also ticked up in his most recent outings, with his fastball hitting 95 on Wednesday. But, don’t just take my word for it, Rays skipper Kevin Cash has been very complimentary of Archer’s stuff this Spring, saying,

“His slider, his off-speed stuff has been outstanding all spring and the changeup has been really good too,” said Cash. “I know that he’s worked on that and I think everybody’s feeling pretty good that it’s going to be a nice pitch to, not just to show but to use and to balance, offset with the fastball/slider combination.”

If he can avoid the third time through the order penalty, which has plagued him over his career, and outperform his projections, this could prove to be yet another in a long line of successful reclamation projects for Tampa Bay.

C70: Former Cardinal Ryan Sherriff returned to the big leagues last year after surgery. How did he look and will he have a significant role in the Rays’ bullpen?

Danny: Ryan Sherriff’s continued existence on the Rays roster baffles me, given that the Rays traded away a better pitcher in Aaron Slegers before cutting or trading him. His value is as a second lefty in the bullpen, and that is easily replaceable by a non-roster invite or another signing like Rich Hill. If we are at a point where Sherriff is playing a significant role in the Rays bullpen something has gone terribly wrong or the dude has become something no one expects.

Mat: Haven’t see much of him in spring, but he really did look effective in 2020 and settled in nicely. With Cody Reed returning and looking good, and the Rays adding LHP Jeffrey Springs and Chris Mazza at a high cost, and LHP Brian Moran looking GREAT early on (2021’s Aaron Loup?), it’s possible his spot becomes a question mark as Spring Training ends. Not sure he makes the cut tbh, and his having 3 options likely means a Durham start.

Anthony: Aside from the humor of having a Sherriff and the Outlaw, Kevin Kiermaier, on the same roster, Ryan Sherriff fared well for the Rays last season, allowing no runs across 9-2/3 innings. The .200 BABIP tends to belie those numbers though, as the southpaw was the recipient of good luck. He’s shown well this Spring, however, given that he is one of a handful of relievers battling it out for one or two bullpen spots, what role he may play this season isn’t immediately obvious. 

C70: What is your expectation for this team this coming season?

Danny: Shoot for 90 wins and see what happens. The Rays have clearly decided this is a transition year, thanks to the deep farm system that will be sending many players to the majors in the very near future. Because of that, what this team is in September could be wildly different from today.

Mat: In truth, I like this team more than the 2020 version.  I know it’s controversial, but let me explain.

So far in Spring, we’ve seen Luis Patino work past 99 MPH and get more vertical break than ever on his pitches. We’ve seen Shane McClanahan hit 101 MPH and Rays voicing that he’ll be a starter going forward. Shane Baz was electric, working at 97.5 MPH and hitting 99 MPH. And Joe Ryan‘s fastball has proven to be the real deal with better secondaries than expected. That list doesn’t include pitchers that all have great stats vs AL East teams – particularly the Jays and Yankees (Rays face Yankees 13 times before June 4th). Michael Wacha may be most under rated imo, and can help stabilize the rotation after Tyler Glasnow and Ryan Yarbrough. Not only did he manage career high in K/9 in 2020, but he also managed a career low BB/9. Imo, having a better defensive team that shifts correctly more often will be a boon for a GB pitcher like Wacha. The proof? Look at how well Rays fare with Yarbrough on the mound, a pitcher who’s also extremely under rated. Add a wily vet all youngsters can lean on in Rich Hill, a great swing guy in Collin McHugh, and wild cards in Brendan McKay and Brent Honeywell, and I have to say that no team can match the breadth of MLB ready pitching Rays have to work with in 2021.

Then we add a PHENOM in SHB Wander Franco (likely come June, can head to any of 2B/SS/3B), two more switch hitting options in Vidal Brujan (2B/SS/CF/LF) and Taylor Walls (1B/2B/SS/3B), as well as Josh Lowe (LF/CF/RF) to the depth they have to work with player wise. Kevin Padlo (1B/3B/LF/RF) has also looked great in Spring and has mammoth power. These guys, who cover all positions and do so with plus defensive abilities, are going to back up the best defensive team in MLB that is looking more threatening overall at the plate. Austin Meadows looks to be in his best shape ever and could beat his 2019 output, Brandon Lowe is through his Sophomore slump year and looking to build on impressive early career, and Randy Arozarena hits between the two most times, getting to prove 2020 wasn’t a fluke. Yandy Diaz is slimmer and could improve if healthy, but the guy I’d point to having a breakout year at the plate is Manuel Margot. His playoffs were a revelation, his aggressive swings really paid dividends instead of only looking to make contact, and he’s looked outstanding this Spring.

Then we look at the pen led by Pete Fairbanks, Diego Castillo and Nick Anderson. They’re all great, but it’s the return of Chaz Roe that’s most important this year as he’ll help share the load in high leverage situations so that Rays can ensure lighter loads. It’s also highly likely that Josh Fleming works in the pen initially, providing a LHP swing guy – working opposite Collin McHugh who can do same on right side. Reed, Springs, and Ryan Thompson are all also likely to make the cut, with Oliver Drake eventually rejoining the pen in-season. Stetson Allie has also joined the list of impressive Spring performances, hitting 99 MPH and showing off the work he put in with Glasnow & Jameson Taillon this offseason was worthwhile. Long story short, it’s likely to be a very solid pen.

Knowing that Kevin Cash & Kyle Snyder are the absolute best at overcoming hurdles and figuring out ways to win, I truly believe the Rays are an AL East winning team that once again will go deep into the playoffs. Doubters may eat their words, and we’ll enjoy another World Series Game 4 like game at some point, which is great for all of baseball!!

One more thing I’d like to point out: every position player is between 25-30 yrs old this year (at the moment), making for a VERY cohesive group, all mature & working towards or within their prime, and all with significant playoff experience that should help them succeed in tough spots this season. Similar playoff experience also exists in the pitching staff, albeit with a much wider range of ages. Calling for 96 to 103 wins overall, Arozarena winning AL ROY, Meadows getting some MVP votes, and Glasnow getting some Cy votes.

Anthony: I’ll put it this way, Baseball Prospectus projects the Rays to reach the postseason thanks to a second-place finish behind the Yankees, and an 87-75 record. I personally feel they are a better team than the projected record and PECOTA traditionally had a +/- six-game margin of error, so here’s to hope for a 93-69 finish to the season. 

C70: Overall, what sort of grade would you give this organization and why?

Danny: B — After reaching the World Series, instead of returning free agents and improving areas of weakness as the Dodgers have done, the Rays have dealt from their strengths to make the team easier to pull apart when the need arises. It’s still a decent team, but it’s not a juggernaut… yet. The Rays seem to have a plan, whether it’s a good one remains to be seen.

Mat: I’d like to pre-empt my grade with an example of the Rays style genius moves. Facing 40-man roster crunch, Rays were forced to part with Nate Lowe. They ended up moving him and Jake Guenther and Carl Chester to the Texas Rangers in return for three current top 30 Rays prospects (indicates their talents) Heriberto Hernandez, INF Osleivis Basabe and OF Alexander Ovalles. Not only are all three much more athletic and high ceilinged than what they dealt away (imo), but their controllable & non rule 5 for a longer period of time. Facing a lack of 1B depth as a result of the trade, Rays then moved more 40-man clogging talents in Jose Alvarado & John Curtiss in return for Dillon Paulson and Evan Edwards – two highly intriguing 1B prospects that likely begin in AA & A+ respectively. That forward thinking approach to filling the entire system with as much talent as possible is just flat out brilliant and will ensure Rays affiliates are winning at every level.

As a result, I’m going to give them a pre-emptive A- grade. The reason? Lack of extension. Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow should both be extended, because I expect both could have MVP & Cy like performances in 2021, making them much more expensive to sign thereafter. They still have time to do it, and if they do, I’d up that grade to an A+.

Anthony: In all honesty, I’d give the Rays a B. Did they address every area of need? No. Did they make unpopular trades? Yes. But in so doing, Tampa Bay was able to acquire two top-end pitchers — the aforementioned Patiño and Cole Wilcox — and an offensive catcher in Mejía for Snell; they dealt Nate Lowe to Texas for three prospects and replaced Charlie Morton (and to a large extent Snell) with Archer, left-hander Rich Hill, and right-handers Michael Wacha and Collin McHugh. To that point, Archer, Hill, Wacha, and McHugh will make a combined $13.8-Million — $1.2-Million under what Atlanta handed out for Morton.

The Rays will undoubtedly miss Snell and Morton, yet they’ll figure out a way to get the most out of their reclamation projects … and they still have the best farm system in baseball which they’ll lean on for depth this season.

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