With the offseason and Spring Training in the rearview mirror, the Tampa Bay Rays look to kick off their defense of the American League crown, when they open the three-game Opening Series against the Marlins in Miami, on Thursday.
The Marlins swept the Chicago Cubs in two games in the National League Wildcard Series, before losing to Atlanta three games to none in the NL Division Series. Meanwhile, the Rays made it a couple of steps further than Miami, as their season didn’t end until a 3-1 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game Six of the World Series. Tampa Bay lost the World Series after defeating the Toronto Blue Jays, New York Yankees, and Houston Astros in the first three rounds of the postseason. They had the best regular-season record in the AL last season and the second-best record in all of baseball.
Tampa bay was much more productive in the first half of last season as it relates to driving in runs with runners in scoring position, wOBA, and BABIP. Yet, their productivity tailed off in the second half, and especially toward the end of the 2020 campaign. Pitching, as well as an easier schedule, helped Tampa Bay in its postseason push, effectively picking up the offense when practically every hitter found themself in a slump.
Fast forward to 2021. The Rays will have a more challenging schedule early on, similar to last season. Before the All-Star Break, the Rays will face Boston or Baltimore just 12 times in the first 93 games against. As Neil Solondz (Rays Radio) put it, “That means 26 of the team’s final 69 games are against the Orioles and Red Sox. If you believe those pitching staffs are going to be challenged down the stretch, that’s an opportunity to go on a real run late. Tampa Bay also doesn’t play the Tigers until September.”
With the exception of the final series of the season, every meeting against the Yankees in ’21 will come before the trade deadline. And since the schedule is more difficult early on, the Rays will need to get off to a hot start, then keep their foot on the gas over the short term. If they can stay within striking distance, they will be in a great position to go on a run in the second half of the season. However, there is a caveat: Tampa Bay’s offense cannot afford to fizzle out down the stretch as it had last season.
While Tampa Bay lost a few pieces in the offseason, they enter the ’21 campaign with, essentially, the same offensive pieces that got them to the World Series a season ago. Brandon Lowe, who batted .269 with 14 homers and 37 RBI across 56 games, returns to lead the offense, while Yandy Díaz batted .307 last season in just 34 games. For the latter, the Rays hope to see a return of Díaz’s power stroke which was glaringly absent last season.
Not that Spring Training means a whole lot in predictive terms, however, Tampa Bay got off to a slow start to the spring, although the team rattled off five consecutive wins to end the Grapefruit League schedule with a 13-15 record. Centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier hit .435 in Grapefruit League play, while Willy Adames hit .390 with seven extra-base hits (four home runs and three doubles). Meanwhile, Austin Meadows also hit four home runs in his Spring campaign as he looks to bounce back from a Covid impacted ’20.
We’re encouraged with where we’re at right now. Realistically, we go in every spring keeping our fingers crossed and hoping that people don’t get hurt, but we’ve seen consistently guys go down.— Kevin Cash
Of note, Tampa Bay will be without first baseman Ji-Man Choi (arthroscopic knee surgery) and right fielder Brett Phillips (hamstring) at the outset of the regular season. The goal remains for Choi to return in four to five weeks. Meanwhile, Nick Anderson, who accrued six saves and performed to a 0.55 ERA last season, is out until at least the All-Star break with a torn ligament in his elbow. And while the Rays do have the depth to mitigate the injuries, players like Kevin Padlo, Vidal Brujan, Josh Lowe, Kevin Padlo, and Taylor Walls, those players have little to no big-league experience. It could be a grind for them because, after the first eight days of the season — which include a pair of off-days — they will play 30 games in the next 31 days. The question begs: can the 12 position players on the roster stay healthy?
The Miami Marlins upgraded their roster somewhat, bringing in slugging outfielder Adam Duvall, as well as some bullpen pieces. Duvall hit 16 homers with Atlanta last season, and 113 across his eight-year career. He, however, has played over 100 games in a season just three times over that stretch, and he has averaged +20 homers in just three of those seasons. Nevertheless, Duvall made an immediate impact in Spring Training, punching a team-leading four homers and 12 RBI in 44 spring at-bats. Miami posted the best Grapefruit League record at 14-5-5. Since Jonathan Villar was traded at the 2020 deadline, Jazz Chisholm, who played just 21 games and batted just .161 in his first season, is slated to take over the second base duties. Former Ray Jesus Aguilar led the team with a .277 batting average last season, while third baseman Brian Anderson topped the Marlins with 11 long balls and 38 RBI.
The Rays are 10-1 in their last 11 games against Miami
Over the next three days, Kevin Cash will turn to Tyler Glasnow (5-1, 4.08 ERA), Ryan Yarbrough (0-4, 4.05 ERA), and the tandem of Rich Hill (2-2, 3.03 ERA) and Chris Archer (60-80, 3.86 ERA). Don Mattingly will counter with Sandy Alcantara (3-2, 3.00 ERA), Pablo López (6-4, 3.61 ERA), and a pitcher to be named before the series finale. Note: all of the pitcher’s numbers (above) are from the 2020 season with the exception of Archer’s, which are his career numbers.
Tyler Glasnow struck out 10 while scattering three hits and two walks and a wild pitch over five innings against the Twins on Saturday. The right-hander worked up to 79 pitches in his final tuneup of the Spring and put up what may have been the most dominant of his four Grapefruit League turns. Glasnow finished Spring Training with a 3.86 K/BB across 14-2/3 frames and has added a cut-slider to an already highly effective arsenal, laying the foundation for what could be his best season yet.
Sandy Alcantara tossed five scoreless frames in a Wednesday start against the Mets, scattering three hits while striking out nine and walking none. Alcantara’s control and command were both on point in that outing, as he fired off 70% of his pitches for strikes and allowed one flyout against three groundouts. Alcantara pitched well this spring, allowing four unearned runs to go with a 2.38 K/BB and a .163 batting average allowed across more than 12 innings. The right-hander is 1-1 with a 5.40 ERA in two career starts against the Rays. In 2020, Alcantara relied primarily on a 97 mph four-seam fastball, a 97 mph sinker, and an 88 mph slider, while also mixing in a 91 mph changeup and an 82 mph curveball. Key Matchups: Willy Adames (1-2), Yoshi Tsutsugo (1-3)
Ryan Yarbrough allowed two earned runs on three hits across 5-1/3 innings in his final spring outing against Atlanta. He struck out four and hit a batter. Yarbrough accomplished his solid line against Atlanta’s regulars, turning in a much better performance than when he faced them a week earlier. The left-hander finished Grapefruit League play having allowed two runs or fewer in three of his four turns and posted an impressive 5.5 K/BB across 13-2/3 innings.
Pablo Lopez had a solid spring, posting a 2.63 ERA and 9 K/BB across 13-2/3 frames, as the 25-year-old is looking to take another step forward. Last season he posted a 3.61 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, and a 24.1% strikeout rate. Lopez is 1-2 with a 4.24 ERA in three career starts against the Rays. Last season, Lopez relied primarily on a 94 mph four-seam fastball, an 88 mph changeup, and a 94 mph sinker, while also mixing in a 91 mph cutter and a 79 mph curveball. Key Matchups: Yandy Díaz (1-3, RBI), Kevin Kiermaier (1-4, 2 RBI), Austin Meadows (1-4, 2B), Yoshi Tsutsugo (2-2, HR, RBI), Joey Wendle (4-8, 2B, HR, RBI)
Rich Hill allowed three earned runs on five hits, two walks, and a hit batsman during an outing last Monday, although he came away pleased after seeing an uptick in his fastball velocity. He also got some whiffs on his curveball during his five-frame outing. The left-hander and Archer are likely to be separated and make conventional starts in their second turns through the rotation. Hill is 2-1 with a 4.67 ERA in three career starts against the Marlins.
Chris Archer allowed an earned run on a solo homer and also issued a walk over 3-1/3 innings in a win over the Twins last Wednesday. He struck out two. Archer worked up to 51 pitches (31 strikes, 61% strike rate) during that turn. The right-hander’s velocity hit 95 mph, and Archer reportedly came away satisfied with the performance of his changeup. Afterward, he threw 75 pitches in an intrasquad game on Monday. Rays skipper Kevin Cash spoke highly of Archer’s performance this spring, saying the team is “thrilled” with his work throughout the spring (1.35 ERA across 6-2/3 innings). Archer is 1-1 with a 3.19 ERA in five career starts against Miami.
— Kevin Cash announced that five players — infielders Kevin Padlo and Taylor Walls, catcher Joe Odom, and pitchers Chris Mazza and David Hess. — have been added to the taxi squad. Teams can carry five taxi squad players including a catcher.
Per Solondz, “during the first 10 days of the season, changes only can occur if there are injuries or someone is sidelined due to COVID-related reasons. Padlo, Walls, and Mazza are all on the 40-man roster.”