ST. PETERSBURG – When the Rays traded Blake Snell to the Padres over the winter and let Charlie Morton go via free agency – two mainstays of the 2020 edition that went 40-20 and then made it through Series Game 6 World Cup — many predicted Tampa Bay would take a step back this year.
However, the 2021 Rays — with the fifth-lowest payroll in the major leagues to start the year, according to Spotrac — gave us a lesson we should have learned a long time ago: The quality of the Tampa Bay organization should never be underestimated, or the managerial strategy of Matt Silverman, Erik Neander and the other “brains” at Tropicana Field.
If the champion Dodgers (managed from management by former Tampa Bay GG Andrew Freidman) are the kings of depth in the NL, the Rays are in the AL. The Kevin Cash-led troop used a total of 61 players in the just-concluded regular season, including 38 pitchers, heading for the first 100-win season in club history. East Monarchs of the American League for the second year in a row and participating in its third straight postseason, Tampa Bay is preparing to face the Red Sox starting Thursday in the American League Division Series.
WELL DISTRIBUTED OFFENSIVE PRODUCTION
Only the Astros scored more major league runs during the regular season than the Rays (857), who had 10 hitters producing double figures in home runs, including two over 30 and two more over at least 20.
In fact, Tampa Bay is one of the biggest examples of the “three unavoidable results” of an at-bat in recent years: home run, strikeout or walk. The 2021 Rays finished in fourth place (along with the Yankees) in the American League in homers with 222, traded the third-most walks on the circuit with 585, and were the third most “struck out” team in the Major Leagues with 1,542.
The results of this offensive attack cannot be criticized much, but the strikeout factor will have to be watched if Tampa Bay runs into an elite pitching that limits the long hit.
Nearly 40 pitchers hit the shooting mound for Tampa Bay this year. And to no one’s surprise, the Rays led the American League in team ERA with 3.67. A pioneer of the opener a few years ago, the St. Petersburg squad had the best collective ERA on the Young Circuit from its relievers this season with 3.24 and the most strikeouts from its bullpen in the majors at 739. .
Andrew Kittredge, Pete Fairbanks and Collin McHugh represent a “terrible trio” as relievers for Tampa Bay, but now names like Colombian Luis Patiño, Ryan Yarbrough and Michael Wacha could be added to a deep group that also includes Matt Wisler, David Robertson (once a Yankees star) and JT Chargois.
Be very careful if the Rays have the lead starting in the fifth with starters like rookies Shane McClanahan and Shane Baz (scheduled to start Games 1 and 2 vs. Boston, respectively), plus Drew Rasmussen.
The Rays offensive attack has a lot of Latin American power. Cubans Randy Arozarena (20 HR, 20 stolen bases) and Yandy Díaz (13 HR) are now joined by the Dominicans Wander Franco (record streak of 43 straight games on base, OPS + of 129) and Nelson Cruz (a total of 32 HR on 2021), in addition to Manuel Margot and Francisco Mejía, also from Quito.
Franco, baseball’s No. 1 prospect on the MLB Pipeline list until promoted earlier this year, did not disappoint at all. For his part, Cruz had just a .725 OPS in 55 games for Tampa Bay, but he has extensive playoff experience and brings significant leadership. Not to mention the records Arozarena set in the 2020 postseason and Diaz’s important hits in the 2019 playoffs against Oakland and Houston.
On the other hand, Patiño is shaping up to be a valuable piece from the bullpen, now with the opportunity to hit 100% with the fastball for an inning or two.