With MLB's postseason still knocking teams off, Bally Sports is reviewing the performance of each club with a look at what happened in 2021 and what could happen next season.
Our next Exit Interview is with the Tampa Bay Rays.
What went right
• The Rays won a franchise-record 100 games, taking the American League East for the fourth time in club history. They put three players — catcher Mike Zunino, infielder Joey Wendle and right-hander Andrew Kittredge — on the AL All-Star team. They have three of the top candidates for AL Rookie of the Year: Randy Arozarena, Wander Franco and Shane McClanahan.
• Arozarena didn’t keep up his 2020 postseason pace, obviously, but he was terrific in his first full major league season, batting .274/.356/.459 with a .350 weighted on-base average, 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases (which doesn’t include a steal of home in the playoffs against the Red Sox).
• McClanahan was invaluable as a lefty starter, putting up a 3.43 ERA with 143 strikeouts in 123 1/3 innings.
• Franco’s midseason addition from the minors helped put the Rays in another gear. The 20-year--old's most obvious contribution was a 43-game on-base streak that matched the longest for a player his age since Frank Robinson in 1956.
• Kittredge and Collin McHugh were dynamite as two-inning guys, posting a 1.61 ERA with 151 strikeouts in 145 2/3 combined innings. It’s too bad the Rays couldn’t assemble an 18-person pitching staff (because they would).
• Zunino hit 33 homers and slugged .559 in 375 plate appearances for a .202 isolated power, ranking best in the major leagues among players who played as much as he did. He has a $4 million team option for 2022.
• The Rays landed four of the top 30 players overall in outs above average — outfielders Manuel Margot, Kevin Kiermaier and Brett Phillips and infielder Joey Wendle.
• The Willy Adames trade worked out for everyone, with the Rays getting Drew Rasmussen and J.P. Feyereisen from the Brewers to help bolster the pitching staff. Rasmussen especially looks like an important piece for 2021 in the rotation after posting a 1.93 ERA in 10 starts.
What went wrong
• They failed to return to the World Series in back-to-back seasons, falling in the AL Division Series to the Red Sox in four games.
• Right-hander Tyler Glasnow made just 14 starts before going on the injured list with an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery. The Rays still cruised to the AL East title, but Glasnow’s absence obviously was felt in the playoffs.
• Among those who pitched at least 100 innings — Michael Wacha, Ryan Yarbrough, Josh Fleming and McClanahan — only the latter finished with an ERA below 5.00. This didn’t hurt them during the regular season, but the Rays definitely lacked quality innings in the postseason from pitchers capable of getting more than four or five outs per appearance.
• The Nelson Cruz trade fell short of expectations. Cruz hit .226/.283/.442 with 13 home runs in 55 games, perhaps showing for the first time a sign of getting older. In the playoffs, he went 3-for-17 with a home run in four games. He also hit .211/.270/.333 with just three homers in 25 games at Tropicana Field, a ballpark that has that effect on a lot of players. Cruz, 41, is a free agent.
Second baseman Brandon Lowe posted the highest fWAR (5.2) after batting .247/.340/.523 with 39 home runs, 99 RBIs, 97 runs scored, and a .363 wOBA. He was seventh in the majors among qualified batters with .277 isolated power.
Franco should expect to be highly competitive in AL Rookie of the Year voting after batting .288/.347/.463 with a .348 wOBA and a 12 percent K% — the eighth lowest in MLB among any player who had at least 300 plate appearances. In four postseason games, he hit .368/.368/.789 with two home runs.
Reasons for optimism
• The infamous/celebrated trade from 2018 with the Pittsburgh Pirates brought more fruit, with right-hander Shane Baz dominating in the minors and posting a 2.03 ERA with 18 strikeouts in three starts during the regular season. Baz wasn’t quite as successful in his postseason appearances, but he showed a lot of promise to be an important member of the staff next year.
• Franco won’t be held back in the minors for half the season in 2022. Baz and Rasmussen will have starting opportunities from the get-go. Other top prospects, like Vidal Bruján and Josh Lowe, will have a chance to make the team out of spring training.
What needs work
• Glasnow, who is arbitration eligible, is unlikely to pitch until 2023.
• McHugh and David Robertson (a late-season addition who pitched well in relief) are among Rays free agents.
• The Rays ranked 28th in innings pitched from their starters. It was by design, and it was a big reason they won 100 games. To that extent, their strategy worked perfectly. But it’s not an infallible way of doing things, and it’s physically hard on the personnel — not to mention the front office in finding enough pitchers to make it through a season. Modifications would seem to be in order that result in the Rays getting more innings from fewer pitchers in 2022. It would help them actually win a World Series, too.
• The Rays announced their intention to split future home schedules between Tropicana Field and Montreal — as in the city in Quebec, Canada. It’s a move to get new stadiums in both areas eventually. In the short term, it’s going to be really strange — and possibly alienating for Florida residents who frequent games at the Trop.
Watch for more MLB Exit Interviews as the dominoes fall in the playoffs. Check out our earlier MLB Exit Interviews below.