Legends On Deck

Can the Rays Reach the World Series Again?

The Tampa Bay Rays won the American League pennant in 2020 for the second time in franchise history. They won the AL Pennant in 2008, before losing to the Philadelphia Phillies in a seven- game World Series.

The Rays have steadily risen as one of the best teams in the American League over the last few seasons, making the post-season in 2019 and winning the AL pennant in 2020.

Some key losses and interesting additions over the off-season will continue to make the Rays an interesting team to watch in 2021.

If there’s any question left about who won the 2018 Rays-Pirates trade, look no further than the 2021 Rays roster.

Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows, whom Tampa Bay received from Pittsburgh, continue to play a critical role in the team’s success. The roster also includes Chris Archer, the main piece of the deal the Rays sent to Pittsburgh.

Unfortunately for the Pirates, they missed the post-season in 2018. But the Rays reached the post-season in 2019 and allthe way to the World Series in 2020.

Changes on the Mound

The Rays lost their ace Blake Snell (traded to Padres) and fellow veteran starter Charlie Morton  (signed with Braves) during the off-season. That put an obvious strain on their starting rotation.

They are going to rely more heavily on Tyler Glasnow, who’s looked incredibly strong in Grapefruit League play. Ryan Yarbrough also returns to the rotation and is expected to fill the No. 2 spot in the rotation.

The Rays signed three veteran starters to fill the voids left by Snell and Morton. This includes the return of Archer and the acquisitions of Rich Hill and Michael Wacha. Archer struggled in 2019 and missed the 2020 season due to injury but signed a one-year deal with the Rays worth $6.5 million.

Hill, now 40, signed a one-year deal for $2.5 million and Michael Wacha signed a one-year deal for $3 million.

Both Hill and Wacha bring post-season experience to a team defending the AL pennant. If two of these three acquisitions produce a quality season for the Rays, it will help stabilize their losses.

The bullpen largely remains intact, with the Diego Castillo, Pete Fairbanks and Nick Anderson trio that was so effective last season. Ryan Thompson also remains with the Rays.

The Rays also landed veteran starter-reliever Collin McHugh, coming off a strong six years with the Astros.

The Rays added Luis Patino, the fifth-ranked RHP and 19th overall prospect (according to MLB Pipeline), in the Snell deal with the Padres. He’s looked promising thus far in Grapefruit League play.

So has hard-throwing LHP Shane McClanahan, the Rays’ first-round pick in 2018 out of USF. He and LHP Brendan McKay both find their way on the top prospects lists. How these pitchers impact the 2021 season remains to be seen.

Stability on the Field and at the Plate

The good news for the Rays is their everyday lineup will look nearly identical to the World Series team. They re-signed veteran catcher Mike Zunino to a one-year deal. The outfield includes Kiermaier, Margot and the emerging superstar, Randy Arozarena. He’s the guy who tore through the postseason with 10 HR, 14 RBI and hit .377/.442/.831.

A healthy Austin Meadows will likely DH and mix into the outfield. The infield remains stable as well with Choi at first, Lowe at second, Adams at short and Wendle at third. They can continue to grow as a unit, with Wander Franco getting ready in Triple-A.  Mix in the postseason hero and fellow Oakland University alumni, Mike Brosseau, who plays a utility role.  (Since I originally wrote this article, Ji-Man Choi went down with a knee injury.  He’s expected to miss Opening Day, but should return soon after.)

That bodes well for the defending AL Champs, as they look to reclaim the AL East title.

Can the Rays Repeat?

Tampa Bay became the “Region of Champions” in 2020-2021. The Lightning won the Stanley Cup, the Buccaneers won the Super Bowl and the Rays found their way to the World Series.

In many ways, the Rays are well-positioned to compete once again. The stability of the everyday lineup and the bullpen should be the cornerstones. Not to mention AL Manager of the Year Kevin Cash.

The path to the World Series may go right through the AL East. The Yankees have arguably under-performed the last couple seasons and are probably on the cusp of another dominant era. The Blue Jays are loaded with young, second-generation talent like Guerrero, Biggio and Bichette. They’ve added a major bat by signing George Springer and a potential All-Star in Marcus Semien.

Those two teams will be major obstacles to Tampa Bay’s chances of retaining the division crown.

The Rays will have to perform at a 2020 level to find their way back to the postseason. Most predictions have the Rays returning to post-season play as a Wild Card team. But if they find their way into the mix again this October, don’t count them out.

**This article appeared in the IBWAA “Here’s the Pitch” newsletter on March 20.  Picture courtesy of the Tampa Bay Times.**

Brian Koss
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