Playing Pepper 2022: Tampa Bay Rays

It was a winter extended by the cold realities of a lockout, but the 2022 baseball season is rapidly approaching.  Given the vagaries of the scheduling and how rapidly everything has to happen, it would be easy to let some traditions go by the wayside.  Not in this space!  Playing Pepper returns for its 14th season with the assistant of some great bloggers and podcasters who rose to the challenge of the time crunch.  There’s a lot of things to sort out so let’s stretch, get ready and play some Pepper!  If you want to keep up with the Rays during the season, I’ve created a Twitter list using the recommendations of our contributors and some other options as well.  You can follow that here!

Tampa Bay Rays
100-62, first in the AL East, lost in the ALDS
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper
Top pitcher by bWAR: Tyler Glasnow (2.3)
Top hitter by bWAR: Brandon Lowe (4.7)

It’s a rare year when a 100 win team not only isn’t the biggest winner in baseball but is more than five games behind the second-best record.  All that aside, the Rays did what the Rays do, take a group of young players and win enough games to get into October.  Their playoff run was cut short but nobody does well betting against Tampa.  Let’s see how their fanbase views the coming season!

Contributor Site Twitter
Mat Germain Mat_Germain_
Danny Russell DRays Bay d_russ
Anthony Ateek X-Rays Spex XRaysSpex
Alex Murphy Rays The Roof RaysTheRoofTB

C70: Not including lockout issues, tell me about Tampa Bay’s offseason. What did you like about it, what didn’t you like about it, was there something you were hoping for that didn’t happen?

Mat: The biggest things I like about the #Rays offseason is that they made enough moves to improve where they absolutely needed to (SP Corey Kluber, RP Brooks Raley), and still have all the ammunition they need in their system to either address needs as they come up internally or to use those assets in trade. That’s where they differ from the Blue Jays, for example. Jays are “all in” with few MLB ready assets to use in either case – so their options are limited. What I didn’t like? Well, I thought they would aggressively address the RHB issue so that they can improve vs LHP, but I’m sure they’re can/will address that in-season. One thing I was hoping would happen but didn’t happen was Jorge Soler to be added as a DH/OF option. Guessing Rays have eyes on other options.

Danny: The Rays are picking up the 2022 season essentially where last year left off, with one key difference: DH Nelson Cruz was not retained. The Rays made a run at some free agents — including Freddie Freeman — in an attempt to replace his bat, but came up empty handed.

The rest of the roster returns with only a couple changes on the bench. UTIL Joey Wendle (an All-Star) will be replaced by prospect Taylor Walls (who is a truly elite defender), and RHH OF Jordan Luplow has been swapped for similar RHH OF Harold Remirez (who has a bit more power and a little less defense). The pitching side has a lot of injured players still injured (Tyler Glasnow, Nick Anderson, Pete Fairbanks), but swaps Collin McHugh for Brooks Raley and Michael Wacha for Corey Kluber.

Anthony: Tampa Bay started hot by extending Wander Franco then signing Corey Kluber and Brooks Raley to cheap deals. Try as they might, the lockout precluded the Rays from dealing Kevin Kiermaier or Austin Meadows — both of whom were on the block — and also whiffed on Freddie Freeman and Seiya Suzuki. But, they later acquired Harold Ramirez and added bullpen depth including right-hander Jason Adam. I liked those moves overall. Still, it would be nice to see a player like Josh Lowe get more than a cup of coffee this season, yet here we are stuck with a fairly injury-prone Kiermaier and a logjam in the outfield. All that said, the Rays look primed for another successful season.

Alex: The Rays, for the most part, haven’t really shown a lot of urgency in recent years to sign bigger name talent in the free agent window. What you’ll tend to see more, like we saw this offseason, is plenty of trades. The Joey Wendle and Austin Meadows trades immediately come to mind with that and the returns, while not great overall, have allowed younger players like Josh Lowe to make the major league roster. It would have been nice for the Rays to trade for a more solidified right-handed power bat, maybe re-signing Nelson Cruz after that trade didn’t end up working out in the end. Harold Ramirez is an intriguing right-handed bat that can definitely supply some pop and hopefully on the pitching side of things, Brooks Raley and Corey Kluber will be integral pieces of the bullpen and rotation, respectively. Kluber, in particular, could be a Cy Young candidate if he returns to pre-injury form this season.

C70: The team with the best record in the American League didn’t get past the first round of the playoffs. How frustrating is that and why do you think it won’t happen again this year?

Mat: As we saw with the Dodgers and their lengthy playoff run before finally “winning it all”, it’s not a perfect science to chase World Series wins. You can plan – and in their case you can outspend everyone – and still come up short. I think last year was particularly frustrating because the Rays threw all caution to the wind when it comes to use of their SP, and you could tell it completely overwhelmed them. Had they hung onto Charlie Morton, for example, the entire playoffs could have been flipped – but we’ll never know. Tough that ~$5M came between that & Rays getting deeper into the playoffs. Having said that, Wander Franco was elite in the series and he’ll be joined by Randy Arozarena who’s a playoff beast. If Brandon Lowe could figure out his playoff woes, Rays could be extremely dangerous in a ’22 playoff series. What I hang hopes on most this year, however, is the maturing for the young SP group they have, Kluber who can lead them into the playoffs (if healthy), and what I think could be the most dominant pen in MLB this year. 

Danny: The series against the Red Sox danced on a knife’s edge. I’ll take that over blow out losses any year. 

Anthony: It was incredibly frustrating to see the Rays exit the postseason in the Division Series, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles. Tampa Bay still has a very young core of players that have experienced success at every level of the minor leagues, as well as in the big leagues. Tampa Bay has played October baseball in each of the last three seasons, and there really isn’t any reason to believe they wouldn’t make it again in 2022. If anything, it only made Wander Franco and the boys even hungrier.

Alex: Don’t even get me started on what happened during the ALDS. Everything seemed like it was a lock once Jordan Luplow hit that grand slam in the first inning of Game 2. Another role player with a big time moment for the Rays…until everything went south and of course, the play that will not be named. The Rays hit a roadblock and met their match in the Red Sox. There’s nothing you can do about that, but what can be done is the fortification of a lineup that will include full seasons of Wander Franco and Josh Lowe, the reigning AL Rookie of the Year in Randy Arozarena, an AL MVP candidate in Brandon Lowe and plenty more offensive firepower. On the pitching side of things, the Rays get back Yonny Chirinos, Ryan Yarbrough with more velo, Jalen Beeks, Jeffrey Springs Colin Poche and more relief arms. If losing Tyler Glasnow last season eventually led to 100 wins, the return of many arms back from the IL should bring with it a lot of good things to come.

C70: Wander Franco finally made his debut. Was it everything you hoped it would be and what does he do in Year 2?

Mat: It definitely was everything I was hoping for – I just wish he could have started the season with the Rays. The talent was definitely there, but with the lost minors season I get it was hard to let him skip AA AND AAA. The deal he received from the Rays for 11 years thereafter really says it all, though. Here’s a kid that walked onto a team in the AL East & led their lineup to 100 wins from the 2-hole at 20 years old while playing outstandingly defensively. What I’d expect for year two is a significant increase in his isolated power output, and more aggressiveness stealing bases. If I had to put numbers on it, a ~25 HR & ~20 SB season with well above average line is what I’d say he could put up.

Danny: He’s a generational talent, it’s hard to ask for more. Franco holding his own at short stop was a pleasant surprise, as I anticipated the Rays to move him to third base promptly upon his arrival. That still might be his ultimate destination, but for now he’s over achieving what I expected, which is impressive for one of baseball’s best talents.

Anthony: Franco lived up to the hype, and he is slated for more of the same in 2022. Steamer has him projected for a .286 BA/.345 OBP/.476 SLG/.821 OPS across 644 plate appearances with a .350 wOBA and a 5.2 fWAR, which is actually a bit better than his rookie campaign.

Alex: Wander is god as far as I am concerned…besides Brandon Lowe of course because he’s the best player in baseball (completely unbiased opinion of course). He was more than I expected as a rookie and will be that much better in his second season without a doubt. When you’re mentioned in the same sentence as Frank Robinson and Mickey Mantle as a rookie, you’re doing something right. Nothing more needs to be said.

C70: Which prospect are you most excited for and when should they make their major league debut?

Mat: The prospect I’m most excited for is Josh Lowe who has a dynamic MLB ready bat & elite ability to play all three OF positions. The Rays have always put a major emphasis on defensive abilities over all others, so when they can land that AND add it comes with a plus offensive profile it’s a serious boost to their lineup. Once he settles in, I’m fully expect his ceiling to be very similar to Kyle Tucker‘s in Houston but with a 25 to 35 SB profile added.

Danny: I’m very interested to see when OF Josh Lowe is introduced to the MLB level. Right now he’s blocked by a six-man deep outfield at the major league level, so it might take some trades or injuries for it to happen. It may even have to wait until next year, when Kevin Kiermaier and Manuel Margot become free agents. 

Anthony: While Shane Baz made his debut last season and is shelved for the first few weeks of the 2022 season, I still cannot wait to see what he can bring for the better part of an entire season. His stuff is electric, and his curveball and slider are almost un-hittable and, frankly, unfair. The two-headed beast that is Shane McClanahan and Shane Baz should make for some exciting and entertaining outings on the mound. 

Alex: Josh Lowe, while already making his debut last season, is poised to factor into the starting lineup quite often and is Austin Meadows with similar power, more speed, and 10x better fielding ability. He’s going to be an absolute stud for this team. On the pitching side, look for Shane Baz to really shine in his actual rookie season, throwing 98 on the mound with some serious breaking stuff. He’s going to be the best piece out of the Chris Archer deal without a doubt and could be a Cy Young candidate in a few years’ time.

C70: How do you see 2022 shaking out for this team? What’s your expectation of where they finish?

Mat: I’m expecting 2022 to be one of the most competitive ever in AL East. All 4 top teams have a chance for the playoffs, and the Blue Jays in particular have made significant financial commitments. Imo, their Achilles heel might be lack of MLB ready SP depth which could sting if any of their top 5 SP goes down to injury. RedSox have a more solid rotation than people think, but as with Jays, they’re very thin. What they did add, however, was Trevor Story on a long-term deal – which means they can deal some INF prospects for pitching if needed in-season. Yankees, imo, have serious rotation volatility that can have them land just over 100 wins or just below 90 wins. Having leaned hard on their pen in ’21, there’s a chance it could need a revamp in ’22 & that can also lead to volatility. I do think they got a lot more athletic & addressed their biggest issue in the offseason by improving their catching duo – which should, in theory, help their entire P staff improve.

All that in mind, I believe Rays will need to win a lot of the tight games they’re in to repeat at the top of the division, and they’re going to need some of their young guys to step up. In particular, a big season from Luis Patino & Taylor Walls could really amp up this team’s chances at once again exceeding expectations. It’s also expected that Rays will add if and when needed, and since there was no rule 5 this year they have more ammunition than expected to use in a big trade(s). I’m seeing enough positives & continuity on this team as well as the most dominant middle of the field team in MLB, which tells me another 98+ win season could be in the cards. If I was forced to pick 1 number of wins, I’d go with 102.

Danny: I have my suspicions the starting rotation will not be ready to shoulder 162 games. Three starters have never thrown 100 innings, and the Opening Day starter’s career max is 123 innings. If the pitching holds, they’re AL East champions again. If it doesn’t…

Anthony: The new CBA and extended playoffs could make for a very interesting season, especially in the AL East. Three teams from that division made the postseason in 2021, and four out of the five AL East teams could, conceivably, be playing after October 5 in ‘22. Steamer has the Rays, Yankees, and Blue Jays battling it out for the top spot in the division, projecting each team to end the season within a game of one another. Talk about the potential for another stressful, yet fun, season! What the heck, I’ll go out on a limb and say the Rays will eke out the top spot in the division.

Alex: I choose to not make predictions as the one actual prediction I got right was how the 2020 playoffs ended up, with me correctly predicting that the Rays would beat the Yankees and Astros on their way to the World Series only to lose to the Dodgers in six games. I vowed to never do the same again, but I will say that this Rays team can make a deep run and should be a playoff team. Expect them to finish amongst the best in the AL with similar win totals to recent seasons. They’ll be there in the end for the race for their third-straight AL East title with Toronto, New York and Boston.

C70: Besides yourself and the team account, give me up to three good Rays Twitter accounts to follow.

Mat: @RaysMetrics, @RaysTheRoofTB. @TriciaWhitaker 

Danny: @neilsolondz, @raysmetrics, @homein22

Anthony: @RaysColoGlasses (Rays Colored Glasses), @DRaysBay, and @RaysMetrics are great Twitter accounts and are very informative. Notable mention goes out to @StadiumShadow for all things Rays’ Stadium Saga oriented. Noah, an investigative journalist by trade, runs the Shadow of the Stadium blog (and the aforementioned Twitter account) and does a fantastic job taking local politicians — some of whom dabble in rampant corruption — and members of the media to task for mishandling the Rays stadium search. He also happens to be right most of the time. You know you’re doing something right when you get under the skin of as many people as he does.

Alex: Three accounts that you should be following in the world of the Rays besides us (@RaysTheRoofTB across social media platforms) and the team account include our very own Elijah Flewellen (@Flewellen727) who is part of the Rays The Roof team; Greg Harvey (@BetweenTheNums) a future USF alum who creates fantastic interactive graphs of stats for various different sports and teams; and Rays Metrics (@RaysMetrics), a fantastic account run by Cole Mitchem who has incredible knowledge of the Rays minor league system and quantifies play as well as anyone out there!

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