Playing Pepper 2023: Tampa Bay Rays

If there is one thing baseball is good at, it’s tradition.  (OK, so that point could be debated with the changes over the last few years.)  Tradition around here states that the beginning of the season means that it’s time for Playing Pepper!  This is the fifteenth season–a decade and a half!–of the series that helps you get ready for the season by going around the league and talking with people that live and die with their teams.  Bloggers, former bloggers, podcasters, we’ve got them all as we take a tour of MLB and play some pepper!  If you get inspired to make some predictions during this series, this contest is open to fans of all teams so enter today!

Tampa Bay Rays
86-76, third in the AL East, lost in the Wild Card series
Website | Twitter | Twitter List
Last year’s Pepper
Top pitcher by fWAR: Shane McClanahan (3.5)
Top hitter by fWAR: Yandy Diaz (3.8)

The Rays are the little engine that could.  Even with remarkably low payroll, a terrible stadium, and significant attendance issues, they still find a way to succeed.  Last year was the fourth straight year they’ve seen the playoffs, something many bigger payroll teams couldn’t say.  However, it’s fair to wonder if that engine has enough power to get over the mountain as three of the last four years have seen a quick October exit.  (The fourth, to be fair, was a World Series loss.)  How much coal does this engine have? Let’s see what our Tampa friends say!

Contributor Site Twitter
Mat Germain Mat_Germain_
Anthony Ateek X-Rays Spex XRaysSpex
Alex Murphy Rays the Roof RaysTheRoofTB

C70: The Rays are never going to be big players in free agency but they did make some moves this winter. What were your thoughts on those and how is the team looking going into 2023?

Mat: Rays have recently focused much of their draft efforts on hitters and have simultaneously dealt a lot of pitching while having some top arm prospects get injured (ex: Shane Baz, Jacob Lopez, Ian Seymour, Cole Wilcox), so they needed to shore up an area teams always need to shore up – pitching. In this case, spending more than they ever had before on Zach Eflin made a ton of sense, and assuming they’ll side step the $25M owed to Tyler Glasnow in 2024, he’s the perfect leader to have in rotation alongside Shane McClanahan, Jeffrey Springs, Drew Rasmussen, Taj Bradley and Shane Baz. That kind of SP depth can take them very far over next few years as they continue to develop P depth or use it to acquire deadline talents.

Anthony: I really like how the team is looking heading into Opening Day. While it’s true that Tampa Bay didn’t make an indelible mark on free agency this past off-season, the team was able to lock up a handful of players via contract extensions and it netted right-hander Zach Eflin, signing the hurler to a three-year, $40 million contract. That tells me not only are the Rays confident in the current core of players for the upcoming season, but they’re confident in that core through 2026. On top of that, with the exception of a few players, the team is something that it wasn’t last season — healthy. A healthy Rays team is akin to one that has been bolstered by players acquired via free agency. 

Alex: This offseason felt like a typical one for the Rays, but one with much less transactional stuff going on. Less trades than normal and just the one significant free agent signing in Zach Eflin, the largest free agent signing in franchise history at that. For what the front office addressed to begin the offseason, noting offense was a notable concern, to not really doing anything and seemingly hoping and praying on minor league guys to pan out and MLB players to be fully healthy, those promises now look empty. Definitely much more disappointing than what it seemed heading into the offseason.

C70: Tyler Glasnow has had a couple of rough years dealing with injury. Is he fully healthy and what can he give the team this season?

Mat: The obvious answer here is no, he’s not fully healthy yet, but the early season oblique issue could be a blessing in disguise in that it won’t demand a full season of pitching from the TJ returnee. It helps manage IP without needing to manage IP, and could, in theory, make him better able to handle playoff workload should Rays earn that spot once again. 

Anthony: Tyler Glasnow was injured while throwing to hitters during a live batting practice session on February 27 and hasn’t thrown a ball since — which tracks with the 6-to-8-week timeline attached to his recovery process — while he receives treatment on the injury. He is expected to be reevaluated soon. If there is a silver lining, it’s that Glasnow’s injury is unrelated to his surgically repaired right elbow. What’s more, given that the right-hander hasn’t thrown more than 88 innings since 2018, he would have been on some sort of innings limit. With the minimal workload in mind, it’s probable that the coaching staff would have kept a watchful eye on his inning count this season. When he returns, figure at some point in April, he should be able to go out there and give the team an upper 90s fastball, a nasty low 90s slider, and a hammer curveball.

Alex: Glasnow is going to be coming back at the end of April/early May it seems like, and hopefully following his surgery and most recent rehab, he’ll be good to go, but the recurring injuries are cause for concern without a doubt.

C70: What do you think the strength of this team is going to be?

Mat: Oddly enough, and for the first time since Erik Neander took the reigns of this team, continuity is present. In a “Cardinals way” style change, Rays have decided to bet on the players they have in-house instead of being aggressive on free agent & trade markets. It’s extremely notable since the ceiling of these players is extremely intriguing.

Wander Franco has elite ceiling everyone knows of, but too often people overlook how young Isaac Paredes is & how extremely high his ceiling truly is. Here’s a note on Paredes: in ’22, for players 23 yrs old or younger w/300+ PA, rank by ISO 1) Paredes .230, 2) Julio Rodriguez .225, 3) Oneil Cruz .218, 4) Michael Harris II .217, 5) Juan Soto .210. Only 2 of these players had SO% under 24%, and they are Paredes with a 17.6 SO%, and Soto with a 14.5 SO%. That is extremely notable.

In a similar way, Josh Lowe had a very strong July in MLB, but Rays took a shot on David Peralta and asked Josh to continue developing in AAA. He used that time to put up one of the best hitting performances in AAA for 2nd half of ’22. Luke Raley revamped his approach at the plate and is showing very intriguing results this Spring as a result, and Jose Siri seems poised to take another step forward, potentially going as far as becoming a 20/20 player in CF.

With knowledge that pitching staff is so capable and was already elite based on ’22 performances and how Rays can develop pen talents, the strength of ’23 truly is, imo, the continuity and bet on their own Rays realized was required. It allows for better appreciation of what they have in-house before the trade deadline, when they can decide how heavily to invest in this season & next. Also important, it tells players the team won’t give up on them so quickly that they need to perform or be gone – a level pressure that can hinder performance.

Anthony: Simply put, the Rays’ strength is in what it always is in — pitching.

Alex: Pitching is going to be the strength of this team as it was last season, but to rely as heavily on pitching as the Rays did last season without a competent enough offense behind them was the sole reason why they scored just one run in 24 postseason innings against the Guardians. 

C70: There always seems to be young talent in Tampa Bay. What rookie (or player with limited major league time) will make the most impact this year?

Mat: On the hitting side of things, that person is Curtis Mead. More seasoned than most players his age because he’s spent numerous winters leading Adelaide in ABL, he’s the kind of bat Rays tried to acquire on the market over the last 2 trade deadlines. They believe in him so much that they were rumored to be close to extending him without his ever taking an MLB AB. That speaks volumes about his potential and pending impact. Should some of the players noted above take steps forward, and Mead add the punch at bottom of lineup Rays need to lengthen lineup, opposing pitchers will have a very hard time navigating their lineup.

On pitching side, the two of note are Taj Bradley and Colby White. If and when Taj gets an opportunity to pitch with the Rays this season, he’ll allow for continued strong performances & length from their SP. Keeping him in Durham for start of season & through most of June makes sense for contract control purposes, but if needed prior to that date he is considered MLB ready. White is returning from injury that took him out of action for all of ’22, but his ceiling as a high leverage RP is notable. Pete Fairbanks has had his share of health issues, so White could be pressed into a high leverage role by end season if he performs as is expected over the first few months of the season.

Anthony: Curtis Mead and Taj Bradley impressed Rays manager Kevin Cash in Spring Training, and it would be conceivable for them to, at the very least, come up for a cup of coffee this season. Yet, knowing the Rays, that will be dependent upon injuries. Beyond that, Josh Lowe is primed for a bounce-back season after an up-and-down 2022 campaign. Look for Wander Franco to put up solid numbers in 2023. Franco is projected by Steamer to perform to a solid .287 BA/.349 OBP/.448 SLG/.797 OPS/.346 wOBA slash line across 144 games, with a 132 wRC+, after appearing in just 83 games a season ago. Franco entered Spring Training healthy and lean, and the Rays are better for it.

Alex: From Tristan Gray to Josh Lowe, Jonathan Aranda and Curtis Mead, there always seems to be a number of young players ready to go for the Rays and this season is no different. Taj Bradley being part of that group from the pitching side of things is an exciting prospect to watch, but considering Lowe will be on the Opening Day roster and Aranda will most likely be called up early on, those two are the players to watch right now, especially Lowe after his 2022 struggles.

C70: What’s the best case, worst case, and most likely scenario on how 2023 plays out?

Mat: Best case scenario: Brandon Lowe & Wander Franco prove healthy entire season, Tyler Glasnow returns to form, remainder remain healthy overall and continue to grow into mature higher performing players. With higher expectations from bats in CF, 1B, 3B and DH in ’23, if they can be slightly above average in run production, their elite pitching staff can take them to 98+ wins.

Worst case scenario: Injuries continue to occur to core players, sapping the energy out of the team and forcing Rays to make some uncomfortable moves come deadline time – focusing more on ’24 than ’23. Most crushing would be injuries to pitchers they’ve recently signed to extensions (Glasnow, Eflin, Springs), since it would take away expected performances while giving them limited resources to address those holes in rotation.

Most likely scenario: Balanced schedule, continuity, and overall depth of talents allow Rays to ride through tumultuous season with surprising strength,, allowing them to take the reigns on leading the AL East and assuring them a spot on the couch as they watch two Wild Card teams battle for a chance to face Rays in the playoffs. Yankees are already faced with some significant injuries to their pitching staff – something that currently has me placing them in 3rd place in division. Jays lineup is much weaker than it was in ’22, but they loaded up more SP & RP & defensive support, so imo they’re in solid 2nd place for now. How many wins it’ll take to earn the division in ’23 is tough to assess, but for now I’ll throw a dart on 97 wins with expectations that Glasnow being mostly healthy from June onwards & Wander Franco taking a leap forward could help take them higher.

Anthony: The best-case scenario would be for Tampa Bay to win it all, while the worst-case scenario would be for the team to miss the playoffs entirely. The most likely scenario would be for the Rays to reach the postseason for a franchise-high fifth year in a row, then see where they can go from there.

Alex: Making a run for the division is the best-case scenario, which seems more and more likely as problems arise for other AL East teams. Worst-case scenario is of course missing the postseason, but another run at an AL Wild Card spot seems like the most realistic of any scenario.

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