Baseball is back, baby. It may just be Spring Training, but we’re getting the first glimpse of the 2021 Tampa Bay Rays squad and we might even get some answers to the plethora of questions surrounding the regular-season roster. Let’s take a look through some of the biggest question marks for the Rays as we ramp up to Opening Day.
Making Room in the Infield
A lot of the outfield is already set (though I wouldn’t be shocked to see rookie Josh Lowe make his MLB debut sometime this season), so the biggest questions surround the infield. As much as Brandon Lowe and Willy Adames have earned their everyday roles at second and short, respectively, the 2021 Tampa Bay Rays have a serious problem: where will their star prospects play?
I know, I know, it’s not the worst problem to have, but getting some real playing time for the top two prospects is going to be tricky. Ranking in at #50 on MLB’s top 100 prospects is second baseman Vidal Bruján, who at the age of 23 is about ready to make his official debut. Bruján was added to the 40-man roster at the end of 2020 but never made an appearance.
He has little left to prove in the minors. The switch hitter is speedy with a good eye for contact, blasting through A and Double-A in 2019 through 99 total games, racking up nearly 50 stolen bases while slashing .277/.346/.389. The power is more prevalent as a lefty but is likely to increase as he continues to develop though he’s unlikely to ever be a true slugger. He’s been taking reps at second, short, and even center field to bolster his chances to find his way onto the 2021 Tampa Bay Rays squad, but as long as Lowe remains a Ray, an everyday role for Bruján seems unlikely.
Coming after Adames’ spot is the undisputed best prospect in baseball, shortstop Wander Franco, who turned just 20 years of age last week. There’s little to say about Franco that hasn’t already been said, but as soon as the young phenom gets the official call up (most likely this season), drop what you’re doing and come watch. He does everything incredibly well, with the only knock against him being his power, which will likely come as he ages and develops. Oh, and it’s not like he doesn’t have power:
He’s a superstar in the making, but Adames at shortstop makes playing time tough for Franco tough to come by. Rest assured, when he gets called up he’s going to play every day, whether it’s at third (where he might end up long-term), shortstop (rumors about an Adames trade have been circulating for months, and a deal would free up a spot for both Franco and potentially even Bruján), or even outfield or DH. However it happens, getting Franco’s bat in the lineup at some point during the season is an absolute must for the 2021 Tampa Bay Rays.
Aside from these two heralded prospects, there’s a neverending battle for both corner infield spots. Currently, Ji-Man Choi and Yandy Díaz likely have the best arguments for first and third, respectively, but Mike Brosseau and Joey Wendle are going to continue to make their case to management that they aren’t just platoon or utility bats. Yoshi Tsutsugo, who didn’t make as much of a splash coming to the U.S. from Japan last season as the Rays had hoped, is also a candidate for both spots.
If you get an opportunity to check out Bruján or Franco get some at-bats during Spring Training, you’ll be getting a glimpse of the future of the Rays infield. Meanwhile, the war for the corner infield spots will likely rage on through Spring Training and into the regular season, though I suspect the preseason will provide valuable intelligence on how the Rays plan to formulate their lineup on Opening Day and beyond.
Free Agent Starters?
After trading away Blake Snell and letting Charlie Morton walk, the 2021 Tampa Bay Rays rotation is thin, to say the least. Tyler Glasnow and Ryan Yarbrough have two spots locked up but after them it gets murky. With some devastating injuries keeping several pitchers out for some or all of 2021, the Rays had to look to free agency for pitching, where they signed several veteran pitchers on cheap one-year deals.
Several of these pitchers are likely to make their case for a starting role. Rich Hill, who turns 41 this week, pitched to the tune of a 3.03 ERA last season in an injury-shortened season with the Twins. Chris Archer is working his way back from thoracic outlet syndrome surgery and while expectations should be tempered, he’s expected to make his first appearance soon. Michael Wacha signed a three-million-dollar deal for 2021 and has flashed serious potential despite struggling the last few seasons (including a grisly 6.62 ERA in 34 innings with the Mets last year). The Rays have a good track record with pitchers, and if any of these pitchers pan out it’ll end up a steal for the 2021 Tampa Bay Rays, who are expected to maintain their notoriously low payroll.
While Spring Training shouldn’t prompt overreactions, it inevitably will—and starting spots will be a topic of much speculation, fueled by the preseason performances of the aforementioned free agent signings.
The 2021 Tampa Bay Rays have a stacked farm and it sure isn’t limited to position players. Half of the Rays’ eight prospects in the MLB top 100 are pitchers and Spring Training will serve as a public audition. Knowing the Rays, a traditional five-man rotation seems unlikely—after a shortened 2020, the whole league will be cautiously managing pitcher workloads and we’re likely to see several teams employ a six-man rotation.
The Rays’ creative approach to pitching leads me to believe they will be one of those teams, alongside other limiting methods like openers and bullpen days. As such, speculating over the fringy starting spots seems pointless, as the fifth or sixth starter is likely to be a revolving door and many of the below prospects are likely to get at least a shot.
But what is Spring Training if not a time for rampant speculation? As such, I’ll be closely watching Luis Patiño, the Rays’ big get in the Snell trade, currently ranked as the #2 Rays prospect (19th overall). The 21-year-old has electric stuff, led by an upper-90s fastball and complemented by an above-average slider and changeup. He could end up in the bullpen long term but this 2021 Tampa Bay Rays team is desperate for starters and if he can improve his control, he could be ace-quality for the Rays.
Two-way player Brendan McKay is still rehabbing from a shoulder surgery but is expected to begin throwing this month. In the meantime, he’s likely to get some at-bats during Spring Training. The Rays still see him as a pitcher, however, so unless he blows through preseason pitching don’t expect to glean much from him in March.
Shane Baz is one of the team’s top pitching prospects but is unlikely to make his debut with the 2021 Tampa Bay Rays. Nevertheless, he’s worth watching during Spring Training. Baz is a hard-throwing righty with a four-seamer in the mid-high 90s and a wicked slider. He’s still working on his third pitch (changeup) and looking for a fourth; Baz will need a solid third and even fourth pitch in his arsenal to work out as a starter, otherwise, he’s likely to end up a very good reliever. Control is his biggest issue, so keep an eye on that during Spring Training as he gets to face MLB hitters who will punish him for a lack of command.
I’ll also be watching prospects Shane McClanahan (who got his first taste of major league play when the Rays put him through a trial-by-fire in the 2020 postseason) and Brent Honeywell Jr. (who hasn’t pitched since 2017 due to injury) as they angle for roster spots. Josh Fleming, who was solid in his limited debut last season as a starter, will make his case as a solid innings-eater.
On Opening Day, these pitchers could find themselves anywhere from the rotation to the minors. The 2021 Tampa Bay Rays roster is nebulous and the Rays are likely to be cautious with everyone, especially pitchers. But Spring Training is a great chance for these young guns to showcase their skills against MLB hitters and they could find themselves pitching their way onto the roster or even into the rotation.
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