Pitchers and catchers are now reporting but there is always time to make a few more 2021 Rays predictions for the Opening Day roster. With free agents still available, don’t be surprised to see the Rays make some additional moves before the end of Spring Training—but don’t expect any high-profile signings from one of the stingiest payrolls in the league, either. Based on the current situation, let’s take a look at what the Rays lineup might look like on Opening Day.
2021 Rays Predictions: Infield
The Rays’ infield in 2021 should look pretty similar to 2020. After some impressive performances last year, the Rays should have as close to “everyday” players as they’re going to get.
Brandon Lowe will be back at the keystone after a strong 2020 campaign cemented his everyday role and proved to the league his breakout 2019 season was no fluke. Lowe was the second-best offensive second baseman in baseball last year, slashing .269/.362/.554 to help Tampa Bay capture the AL Pennant.
Willy Adames should start the season at shortstop, where he provides solid defensive contribution at a demanding position paired with the average offense (career 105 OPS+). Adames went ice cold at the plate in the postseason but was an important part of the offense throughout the season, slashing .259/.332/.481 during the 2021 regular season.
With the departure of Nate Lowe in a trade to the Rangers, Ji-Man Choi likely has the everyday job locked up at first base. With some drastic splits (career .835 OPS vs. righties, compared to a career .569 OPS vs. lefties), we anticipate Choi will occasionally sit against southpaw starters. Choi, however, is a former switch hitter and even batted right-handed ten times against lefties last season, striking out seven times but also connecting for a now-legendary homer:
A healthy Yandy Díaz is likely to be the primary starter at the hot corner. Díaz has been effective at the plate and shown continual improvement, bumping up his OPS+ each season to finish at 131 last season, despite losing power. He has unfortunately struggled to stay healthy and played in only 34 games last year.
Mike Zunino is back on a one-year, $3 million deal and will likely be behind the plate on Opening Day. Look for Francisco Mejía—acquired from the Padres in the Blake Snell trade—to get some playing time as well. Mejía is a former top-catching prospect, but the switch-hitter has struggled with major-league pitching. Despite putting together a solid 2019 campaign with a .754 OPS through nearly 250 plate appearances, Mejía was downright awful in 2020 for the Padres, finishing the season with a .077/.143/.179 slash line. The Rays will likely give Mejía plenty of opportunities, though, as Zunino has a combined .650 OPS over the past three seasons.
Of course, when taking a stab at any 2021 Rays predictions, one only needs to look back at the 2020 season to see how fluid the above “every day” roles will be. Undoubtedly, the Rays will prove to be one of the most flexible rosters in the league, with platoon bats and rest days.
Expect Mike Brosseau, who got consistent time at first, second, and third base, to make an appearance against lefties. Brosseau—who has an even 120 career PA each against RHP and LHP—absolutely mashes left-handers, posting a career .313/.350/.589 against southpaws. Whether it’s a pinch-hitting appearance against a lefty reliever or giving one of the infielders a day off against a lefty starter, expect Brosseau to get some significant at-bats throughout the season. He could settle into a regular platoon role with Choi at first.
Joey Wendle is likely to show up frequently in the lineup as well. Wendle took over the hot corner when Díaz went down and put up a respectable 116 OPS+ over 184 PA. He’s not an offensive juggernaut—and struggles against lefties—but he’s a solid utility infielder who can step up in the case of injury, logging consistent time at second, short, and third last season.
The Rays have a crowded outfield and it wouldn’t be wild to make a few 2021 Rays predictions that involve some additional movement before the season starts. As it currently stands, three-time Gold Glove Kevin Kiermaier is set for the lion’s share of starts in center field, with Manuel Margot as the primary backup center field and otherwise defensively-minded utility outfielder. Kiermaier is known primarily for his glovework and could be enticing for a contender with defensive woes, but he hasn’t posted an OPS over .700 since 2017 and, while not necessarily detrimental, is a non-factor in the lineup—though he can be a force on the basepaths, averaging over 20 stolen bases per 162 games.
Flanking Kiermaier, we’re likely to see 2020 breakout star Randy Arozarena (with his rookie status still intact, if you’re looking to make some guesses about 2021 AL Rookie of the Year contenders) alongside 2019 breakout Austin Meadows, who slashed .291/.364/.558 on his way to an All-Star appearance in his first real season of consistent playing time. Meadows dealt with injuries last year and was never able to truly get going, but should come into the season healthy and ready to pick up where he left off at the end of 2019.
Both of these offensive studs are likely to get some consistent time at DH as well, giving some opportunities to Brett Phillips—a glove-first 23-year-old acquired midseason from the Royals—and Yoshi Tsutsugo, the 29-year-old NPB star slugger who struggled in his first taste of MLB action last season. Neither are offensive powerhouses (though Tsutsugo could show off some impressive power prowess as he gets more acclimated to MLB pitching) but Phillips’ strong outfield defense and Tsutsugo’s versatility (he split time between third base and left field last season) are valuable and should afford them consistent—if limited—playing time.
2021 Rays Predictions: The Next Generation
I’ve written previously about some exciting prospects who could get their first taste of the major leagues this season; with the best farm system in the league, the Rays always have some breakout candidates waiting in the wings. This season is no different, so just for fun, I’ll throw out a couple of wilds, overly crazy 2021 Rays predictions about the next slew of potential stars for the Rays.
Shortstop Wander Franco, second baseman Vidal Bruján, and outfielder Josh Lowe are all likely to make their debut sometime in 2021. It’s certainly unlikely any of them make the Opening Day roster, but as we rev up to start Spring Training, it’s certainly not impossible for one of them—likely Lowe, if I were to guess—to impress enough during the spring to earn a roster spot. With the DH, the Rays are afforded significant lineup flexibility, and having a fourth outfielder with some real offensive potential could be an asset.
Franco is extremely unlikely to be on the roster on Opening Day thanks to contracting control concerns, but the 23-year-old Bruján could get a shot if his Spring Training is sufficiently impressive. His way to consistent playing time is blocked by the established Adames/Lowe middle infield, but he’s been getting reps at shortstop, second, and center field and he could have enough positional flexibility to make it worthwhile.
None of these scenarios are likely, especially with the Rays’ stingy payroll making team control of these prospects particularly valuable. But who knows—there have been rumblings of a Willy Adames trade which would open up space for Bruján (and eventually Franco) to have an everyday role. If we know anything, it’s that making 2021 Rays predictions is as difficult as making 2020 ones.
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