Friday, March 19, 2021

Tampa Bay Rays 2021 Season Preview

 


       We had all figured out that the Rays are able to fix players by some sort of sorcery called analytics before, but 2020 confirmed it to the rest of the world. The Rays seemed to hit on every single player, then ran away with the AL East division, before going all the way to the World Series. The final game of the season is when people started asking questions about their methods, when Blake Snell was pulled early, leading to a team loss. Then again people were confused when Snell was shipped off to San Diego soon after. But, Tampa Bay has proved in the past that they shouldn't be questioned, so we will see if that stands for 2021.

Offseason additions: RHP Chris Archer, LHP Rich Hill, RHP Michael Wacha, C Francisco Mejia, LHP Jeffrey Springs, RHP Chris Mazza, RHP Hunter Strickland, RHP David Hess.

Offseason subtractions: LHP Blake Snell, RHP Charlie Morton, OF Hunter Renfroe, LHP Aaron Loup, RHP John Curtiss, RHP Aaron Slegers, LHP Jose Alvarado, C Michael Perez, 1B Nate Lowe.


Trade Deadline 2020 summary

Acquired: OF Brett Phillips, LHP Cody Reed, RHP Edgar Garcia.

Traded: 1B Jose Martinez, SS Lucius Fox, IF Daniel Robertson.

2020 record: 40-20

2020 placement: 1st

2020 WAR leader (batter): Brandon Lowe

2020 WAR leader (pitcher): Ryan Yarbrough


Starting Pitchers

As Snell and Charlie Morton moved to San Diego and Atlanta, Tyler Glasnow was left alone to be the ace of the rotation, with a few question marks around his teammates. Glasnow has amazing stuff, but was not able to put it all together in 2020, as he had a 4.08 ERA before struggling in the postseason. Still, Glasnow had 91 strikeouts in 57.1 innings, with a 3.28 xERA and a .189 xBA against. He can touch 100 mph on his fastball, and batters went 10-for-83 with 58 strikeouts against Glasnow's curveball, which had a high 2939 rpm average spin rate. The only other returning member of the Rays expected to be in the rotation is Ryan Yarbrough. A left hander who had a 3.56 ERA with 44 strikeouts in 55.2 innings, Yarbrough is elite at forcing soft contact. Batters had an average exit velocity of just 82.6 mph with a 25.1 hard hit percentage against him in 2020. With the Rays being a high-velocity team, Yarbrough's fastest pitch averaged just 87 miles per hour. Making his way down to Tampa Bay is 41 year old Rich Hill, who is actually underrated thanks to his age. The Rays will be Hill's 10th team, after he spent 2020 in Minnesota. Since turning his career around in 2015, Hill has been a strikeout pitcher, but only had 31 in 38.2 innings last year. He had a 3.03 ERA but a 5.10 xERA. Hill's 10.9 BB rate was his worst in the Hill Success Era™. Hill had a 29.9 hard hit percentage against. Chris Archer returns to the Rays, where he spent his first seven seasons as the team's ace, before being traded in a lopsided deal for Glasnow, Austin Meadows and Shane Baz. Archer was falling off when the Rays traded him, before jumping off a cliff in Pittsburgh. He missed 2020 with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, but he had a 5.19 ERA with 143 strikeouts in 119.2 innings in 2019. Archer also had a career worst 4.1 BB/9, with a 5.45 xERA and a .472 xSLG against. Another project for the Rays' pitching staff is Michael Wacha, the former all-star who last had an xERA under 4.00 in 2017. Wacha was a Met in 2020, and had a 6.62 ERA with 37 strikeouts in 34 innings. But, he had a 4.61 xERA, while walking just 4.5 percent of batters. While his fastball had a .400 average against, Wacha's changeup is a plus-pitch. The low-spin change had a .199 xBA against with a 40.8 percent whiff rate, finishing off 24 of Wacha's strikeouts. Luis Patino likely will not make the Rays, but he was the headliner in the Snell trade. He struck out 21 batters in 17.1 innings out of the bullpen for San Diego last year. Another rotation option is Shane McClanahan, who debuted in the playoffs and struck out seven batters while allowing one baserunner in three Spring Training innings. Yonny Chirinos has been a key rotation contributor for the past few years, but he will miss the season with Tommy John surgery.

Relief Pitchers

Nick Anderson had a really bad postseason, and was the guy who blew game six of the World Series. That really ruined what was an amazing season for Anderson, who put in a bid for the league's best relief pitcher. He struck out 26 batters while only walking three in 16.1 innings, saving six games and allowing just one earned run (0.55 ERA). Batters had a .140 xBA and a .348 xSLG. Both Anderson's fastball and curveball, his two pitches, had an average against under .100. Big righty Pete Fairbanks had his Rays success transformation last year, striking out 39 in 26.2 innings with a 2.70 ERA. Fairbanks throws a fastball that averaged 97.4 mph in 2020, and he allowed just a .296 xSLG against. His slider had a 42.7 percent whiff rate, with 5.4 inches of vertical movement above average. Closing out last year's big three is Diego Castillo, the smallest but the heaviest of the trio. Castillo split closing duties with Anderson, and had a 1.66 ERA with 23 strikeouts in 21.2 innings, for what was a career low (but still pretty good) 25.8 strikeout percentage. Armed with a wipeout slider, Castillo had an average exit velocity against of just 84.4 mph, while limited batters to a .177 xBA, a .273 xSLG and a 27.8 hard hit percentage. A small concern for him may be a career worst walk rate, which was inflated up to 12.4 percent last year. Chaz Roe was effective in 2019, but an elbow injury limited him to 10 games last year. In 2019, Roe struck out 65 in 51 innings with a 3.31 FIP. Roe's primary pitch is a slider, which has a ton of movement. The pitch had 3.7 inches above average of vertical movement, and 15.1 inches above average horizontally. He also had a 28.2 hard hit percentage against in 2019. Collin McHugh opted-out of the 2020 season after an injury, but he was really good over six seasons in Houston. McHugh struck out 82 batters in 74.2 innings for the Astros in 2019, but he had a 4.70 ERA. Batters had just a 30.3 hard hit percentage against McHugh. His slider struck out 61 batters with a 2825 rpm spin rate. 2017 5th round pick Josh Fleming debuted out of the rotation last year, but the veteran additions will likely send him to the 'pen. Fleming had a 2.78 ERA with a 1.082 WHIP and a 3.33 xERA in 32.1 innings. Fleming is a sinkerballer with no pitches averaging over 2000 rpm, but the sinker works, as his groundball rate was nearly 65 percent last year. Ryan Thompson was a Rule-5 pick in 2018, but did not make his MLB debut until 2020. Thompson is a submariner who struck out 23 with a 4.44 ERA in 26.1 innings. But, he had a 3.28 xERA, while batters had a .190 xBA against his slider. Thompson's main pitch is a sinker, which batters hit .375 against. Lefty Jeffrey Springs comes from Boston, where he had a 7.08 ERA last year, but he also struck out 28 batters in 20.1 innings. He throws a changeup about a quarter of the time, and the pitch nearly had a 53 percent whiff rate. Acquired with Springs was Chris Mazza, who limited batters to an 86.4 mph average exit velocity, but they had a .294 xBA. He struck out 29 batters in 30 innings while opening for Boston last year. Trevor Richards had a 1.93 ERA at the tail end of the 2019 season, but had a 5.91 ERA in 32 innings in 2020. He can start games and be a long relief option. 

Catchers

The Rays are sticking with Mike Zunino for 2021, and despite his raw power, Zunino is one of the league's worst hitters. In 118 games over the past two seasons, he has hit 13 home runs with a .161 average and a .556 OPS. He has a strong arm behind the plate, but Zunino's 44 K% and .146 xBA in 2020 are not going to cut it. Francisco Mejia was once a top catching prospect in the league, and he was just acquired in the Snell trade. Mejia had a .754 OPS in 79 MLB games in 2019, with a 1.157 OPS in 18 AAA games. He played in just 17 MLB games in 2020, and went 3-for-39. Third catcher Kevan Smith has a disadvantage by not being on the 40-man roster. He had an .830 OPS in 17 games for Tampa Bay last year. 

Infielders

While he was a switch-hitter at a point early in the season, Ji-Man Choi was worse offensively. He hit just three home runs in 42 games, with a .741 OPS. Choi walked 13.8 percent of the time, but he had just a .190 xBA and a .298 xSLG. A knee injury could keep Choi out of the Opening Day lineup, but he should be the first baseman when he comes back. Brandon Lowe was an all-star in 2019, but he broke his leg before playing in the game, which cost him most of the rest of the season. Lowe did not regress once fully healed in 2020, as he hit 14 home runs with a .916 OPS and a team-leading 2.4 WAR. Lowe also had an elite barrel percentage of 17.5%, and he had a .547 xSLG. He crushed fastball, with a .641 slugging and a 94.7 mph average exit velocity against heaters. Entering his 4th year at age 25 is Willy Adames, who may not be the starting shortstop for long, with Wander Franco coming soon. He had a career season in 2020, hitting eight home runs with an .813 OPS. However, he struck out 36.1 percent of the time, with -4 outs above average. While he has just 12 stolen bases in his career, Adames has above average speed, with a sprint speed of 28.2 ft/s. The Rays need Yandy Diaz to be healthy and performing, after he played in just 34 games last year. Diaz had a top ten percentile exit velocity in 2019, but he had just an 88.3 mph exit velocity. He had a .307 average last year, while walking 16.7 percent of the time, and striking out just 12.3 percent of batters. However, Diaz had just a .320 xSLG. If Diaz gets injured again, Joey Wendle should start at third base. He stole eight bases with a .777 OPS in 2020, but he had just an 86.7 mph average exit velocity. Wendle had three outs above average, and four at second base. Another potential backup third baseman is Mike Brosseau, who could start at first base if Choi is not ready to go. The undrafted utility infielder hit five home runs in 36 games with a .936 OPS. Brosseau had a 90.9 mph average exit velocity, but did strikeout 31.6 percent of the time. He is also a good defender, with four outs above average while playing all three bases and both corner outfielders. Yoshi Tsutsugo was a star in Japan before signing a three year, $21 million deal with Tampa Bay. Tsutsugo, who plays third base and left field, hit eight home runs, but also had a .197 average and a .708 OPS. His OPS could have been much worse, if not for a 14.1 walk rate. 

Outfielders

The breakout star of the playoffs was undoubtedly Randy Arozarena, who was recalled at the trade deadline and hit seven home runs with four stolen bases and a 1.022 OPS. Arozarena won ALCS MVP, while hitting 10 home runs in the postseason altogether, and he had an OPS over 1.000 in all four series. Arozarena also has great speed that went under-the-radar thanks to his power. His average sprint speed was 28.8 ft/s. Kevin Kiermaier is entering his 9th season in Tampa Bay, which is really impressive considering the change the team has had since then. Kiermaier may be traded soon, as he had just a .683 OPS in 49 games. He stole eight bases, and had a career high walk rate (12.6%) and strikeout rate (26.4%). Kiermaier still has elite speed, with a 29.3 ft/s sprint speed, while having six outs above average. Austin Meadows can be the starting right fielder, while also being a part of the DH rotation. After hitting 33 home runs in 2019, Meadows had just four in 36 games, with a .667 OPS. Meadows had a .177 xBA and a 32.9 strikeout rate. The Rays need Meadows to get back to his 2019 form. Manuel Margot is ready to be Kiermaier's replacement, but for now he will have to mostly play right field. Margot stole 12 bases with a .679 OPS, while striking out just 15.7 percent of the time. Margot had 15 outs above average in 2019, and he has two in 47 games last year, both in center field. Brett Phillips had a massive playoff hit, but he seems to be the odd-man out for now. Phillips went 3-for-20 for Tampa Bay last year, and that walk-off hit in the World Series was his only of the postseason. Tsutsugo and Brosseau also bring outfield depth. 

Projected Rotation
Tyler Glasnow (R)
Ryan Yarbrough (L)
Rich Hill (L)
Chris Archer (R)
Michael Wacha (R)

Projected Bullpen
Nick Anderson (R)
Pete Fairbanks (R)
Diego Castillo (R)
Chaz Roe (R)
Collin McHugh (R)
Josh Fleming (L)
Jeffrey Springs (L)
Ryan Thompson (R)

Projected Lineup
DH Austin Meadows (L)
3B Yandy Diaz (R)
2B Brandon Lowe (L)
LF Randy Arozarena (R)
1B Ji-Man Choi (L)
SS Willy Adames (R)
CF Kevin Kiermaier (L)
RF Manuel Margot (R)
C Mike Zunino (R)

Projected Bench
C Francisco Mejia (S)
IF Mike Brosseau (R)
IF Joey Wendle (L)
3B/LF Yoshi Tsutsugo (L)


While trading Snell and losing Morton in free agency really makes the rotation a question, the Rays' front office and coaching staff has earned the benefit of the doubt. The bullpen is really good, and while the lineup is not elite, it is still above-average. The Rays may have fallen below the Yankees on the totem pole in the offseason, but they are definitely still a playoff team. 

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