Tampa Bay Rays: Warding off doom-mongers in 2021

Randy Arozarena

I have been a Rays fan for over a decade. Every offseason is a carbon copy of the last. No matter how well the previous season has gone the Rays are constantly written off, constantly overlooked and yet almost every year they defy the odds. I know the old routine and this year it’s Groundhog Day again – at least there’s some bit of normality to this year!

This year feels a bit different though. This year, the Rays are in the offseason as reigning American League champions and, so far, they have lost more than they have gained. Charlie Morton, Hunter Renfroe, Mike Zunino and Michael Perez were all non-tendered immediately after Game Six of the World Series and while Zunino has resigned, the others have gone to Atlanta, Boston and Pittsburgh respectively. These all seem like not-insignificant losses – particularly Morton but none of these left as big a hole as Blake Snell who is on his way to SoCal.

Losing two major pieces of a league winning rotation is not what a lot of people expected this offseason and it has been met with the usual doom-mongering but let’s look at this a little bit closer. The pick-up of Michael Wacha coming off a down year with the Mets after success in St. Louis is such a Rays signing. While the Iowa native is not a like-for-like replacement for either Morton or Snell, he is a lock for the rotation and under the wizardry of pitching coach Kyle Snyder, it’s looking good for a bounce-back year.

The only other two certainties for the rotation are Tyler Glasnow and Ryan Yarbrough, the former set for the No.1 spot barring any sensational moves. Yonny Chirinos is still at least a year away from a return from Tommy John surgery and it looks like Jalen Beeks is in the same boat. Sound the panic alarms right? Right?

Josh Fleming stepped up big time for a guy who only had four Triple-A appearances and looks set to nail down a rotation spot after a 5-0, 2.37 ERA following his August call-up.

Shane McClanahan airdropped straight into a World Series and didn’t look out of place. One of the Rays’ top pitching prospects may need a bit of seasoning in the minors but looks just about ready to step into a Major League rotation. Speaking of prospects, Brent Honeywell almost looks ready to put his near four years of injury hell behind him and make his Rays debut. Two-way prospect Brendan McKay will likely be unavailable at the beginning of the year as he recovers from shoulder surgery but looks primed to return to some point in 2021.

The bullpen last year was a huge part of what took them all the way to Game Six of the World Series and, despite Jose Alvarado‘s move to the city of brotherly love and Colin Poché’s TJ surgery, Nick Anderson, Diego Castillo, Pete Fairbanks et al, plus the addition of Luis Patiño in the Snell deal means it looks another dominant fireballing pen in 2021.

With all of this pitching you’d be forgiven for thinking that any offensive production would just be an added bonus but Tampa Bay has plenty of bat-wielding menaces. There are, however, some question marks. A couple of weeks ago, the Rays had no catchers with Major League experience and now with Zunino re-signing, Francisco Mejia arriving from San Diego and talks with Kevan Smith nearing a completion, behind the dish is sorted.

Nate Lowe‘s trade to Texas means that first base appears to be Ji-Man Choi‘s to lose and the middle infield looks set with Brandon Lowe and Willy Adames despite the thirst for Wander Franco. The Rays’ top prospect was in the 2020 player pool but the 19-year-old hasn’t played above High-A. A mix of Yoshi Tsutsugo and Joey Wendle will man the hot corner and/or DH but the usual mixing and matching looks set to continue. Let’s not forget too about cult heroes Yandy ‘biceps’ Diaz and Mike Brosseau.

People spoke again about how much of a loss Hunter Renfroe was but, despite hitting a couple of long booming home runs, the former Padre only hit .156 and that is not the sort of production needed after he was swapped for Tommy Pham. A certain postseason performance from Randy Arozarena combined with a fully fit Austin Meadows and the glove mastery of Kevin Kiermaier (another trade candidate) plus the likes of Manuel Margot and World Series Game Four hero Brett Phillips means Renfroe was disposable.

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Pretty much every year since I have followed this team they make at least one trade that makes you initially exclaim ‘WHAT?!’ but after a cup of tea and a think about it, it all makes sense. One thinks of David Price to Detroit in 2014 and Evan Longoria to San Francisco 2017 and we don’t need to mention the return for Chris Archer from the Pirates in 2018.

There is always method to the Rays’ so-called madness and to me this trade is no different. Even when the return does not always bare fruit initially, one needs to sometimes look beyond the initial return and in this case Tampa Bay has offloaded over $30 million in salary to San Diego and, while Snell is undoubtedly an elite pitcher, the conveyor belt of pitchers that Kevin Cash has at his disposable makes this trade and salary dump possible and frees up money to potentially use on reinforcements to take them over that final hurdle for a first World Series title.

So, basically what I’m saying is that although the Rays currently have a few questions surrounding the team this season, the only difference is that they are going into the new season as league champions and I have no doubts all of these questions will be answered by Opening Day. I have seen it all before and I just have to sit back and smile as this club continues to defy expectations and ward off the doom-mongers.

Mark Strange is a guest writer for Bat Flips and Nerds. You can follow him on Twitter @RealMarkStrange

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