After a lockout delayed the start of spring training, Opening Day is nearly here, Tampa Bay Rays fans!
Due to the initial season postponement and a shortened spring training, the league has agreed to expand rosters from 26 to 28 through the end of April, opening two more spots on the Opening Day roster for all thirty Major League clubs.
For a team such as the Rays, who love to mix-and-match, this opens a myriad of options and adds them to Kevin Cash's disposal. The Rays, and their unconventional methods, won 100 games for the first-time in franchise history in 2021 and look to improve on that mark in the upcoming 2022 season.
It was perhaps the noisiest offseason in Rays franchise history heading into the lockout, as the Rays extended phenom Wander Franco to the richest deal in franchise history, worth up to $223MM over the next 12 seasons, as well as inking multi-time American League Cy Young recipient Corey Kluber to a one-year pact. Other major moves for the team during the offseason include bringing in relievers Jason Adam and Brooks Raley and trading infield prospect Esteban Quiroz to the Cubs for Harold Ramirez.
The Rays lineup is, at least by my Opening Day projections, set-up as usual (or unusual, to the casual fan) for the Rays. With three left-handed outfielders (Phillips, Meadows, Kiermaier) and three right-handed outfielders (Ramirez, Margot, Arozarena), a lefty first baseman (Choi) and a righty first-baseman who has third basemen range should he need to stay in the lineup (Diaz) as well as three players who can play everywhere on the diamond (Walls, Franco, B. Lowe) should the need arise, the Rays can set the lineup a variety of ways tailored to the specific arm that the opposing team starts. The team is also very defensive-oriented, with Meadows and Choi the only two players on the roster that aren't graded favorably with a glove.
Meanwhile, catchers Mike Zunino and Francisco Mejia have the task of calling the shots with a diverse and rather eclectic group of arms, all of whom present devastating breaking balls mixed with nasty heat at different arm slots and release points to keep the opposition honest. The Rays have a surplus of filthy relievers, thus leaving off somewhat established arms for the Rays such as Jeff Springs may seem like glaring omissions, yet they've had poor spring outings in a competitive field.
With Peter Fairbanks out to begin the year, 2021 All-Star Andrew Kittredge seems to be the top member of the stable, rounding out a deadly arm-barn. Yet, his role will most likely continue to be undefined, as the Rays peculiar methods of closer-by-committee, openers, using their best relievers in early high-leverage spots and overall attitude of the game being important in every inning has become the calling card of Kevin Cash, who's the only manager in the history of the junior circuit to win consecutive Manager of the Year awards. Alongside the additions of Raley and Adam, the Rays bullpen is bolstered by a returning Colin Poche, who missed all of 2021 recovering from Tommy John Surgery but has looked sharp in his Spring Training outings thus far. Full seasons of JT Chargois (acquired midseason from Seattle in 2021 for Diego Castillo), JP Feyereisen (acquired from Milwaukee in the Willy Adames deal) and Matt Wisler (acquired last June from San Francisco) only makes the Opening Day bullpen more formidable than last years. I project the Rays to open with ten relievers, including three lefties. Luis Patino, due to his late Spring start, I project to open the year in the bullpen as they stretch him out more in the season's opening month.
Get Lowe'd, St. Pete, as the Rays lineup promises to dominant once again. It's always an onerous task to attempt tackling any game's lineup construction for the Rays, as the team runs a different lineup every game, however, I did my best here to give it a shot. The hitters on the roster are almost all-but guaranteed, barring an injury prior to Opening Day festivities, so it essentially boils down to which players get the start and where in the lineup they start against Baltimore. Shane McClanahan has already been tabbed the Opening Day starter to begin his sophomore campaign, with Corey Kluber on-deck for the second game, making the rotation order a lot less daunting of a task for me. But, we'll get there eventually.
Designated Hitter, batting leadoff, Austin Meadows. Meadows led off only nine times in 2021, but is familiar with the role, hitting first more than any other lineup position over his MLB career with the Pirates and Rays. The 2019 All-Star was the DH 60 times last year and hit 27 total homeruns on the season, six shy of his career high set in the aforementioned 2019 season.
Left Fielder, batting second, Randy Arozarena. Arozarena is fresh off of a successful rookie campaign where he captured the American League Rookie of the Year award, joining Evan Longoria in 2008, Jeremy Hellickson in 2011 and Wil Myers in 2013. Randy posted a four-win 2021, with his first 20-20 season and a very nice RBI total in his first season following a record-setting 2020 postseason.
Shortstop, batting third, Wander Franco. The Boy Wander looks to follow up an impressive rookie campaign where in 70 games he hit to a 129 OPS+, performing 29% better than an average ballplayer at only 20, and pacing the mark for most consecutive games on-base for a player under the legal drinking age. With gaudy patience, impressive pop and incredible bat-to-ball skills, Franco is already one of the league's top superstars years away from his prime and promises to be a staple in Tampa sports for the foreseeable future.
Second Baseman, batting cleanup, Brandon Lowe. In December, I penned that Lowe may be the game's most underrated superstar. In 2021, his 39 homeruns finished fifth in the AL and paced the Rays as the sweet-swinging lefty slugger has posted a 136 OPS+ in his first four MLB seasons, the highest ever through the first four campaigns for a second baseman, edging late Hall of Famer Joe Morgan's 128 OPS+ for the top spot. While his struggles are well-documented, the drink won't stir in Tampa Bay without Lowe and his historically incredible pace.
Third Basemen, rounding out the heart of the order, Yandy Diaz. Diaz could once again see ample time at first base this season, but I pencil him in here as Diaz continues to torment opposing pitchers with his patience and bat-to-ball skills. As I wrote here, if Diaz can find the barrel of the bat more and raise his flyball rates, he has the potential for a mammoth breakout season.
First Baseman, batting sixth, Ji-Man Choi. Choi is one of the biggest fan favorites in the city of St. Petersburg, with his infectious personality and his evident lust for life. Choi had a down 2021 season, but in four seasons with the Rays has been a nice late lineup threat, with a 121 OPS+ and .803 OPS. The Ji-Man looks to continue bringing Choi to the world, and Rays lineup, in 2022.
Catcher, batting seventh, Mike Zunino. The Rays have had an endless black-hole through the years at catcher, only comparable to the black-hole of head coaches the Bucs had between Jon Gruden and Bruce Arians. While Zunino originally seemed like another spoke in the wheel, a 33-homer breakout season at age 30 has solidified his role as a starter going forward. Zunino, known for his 'light-tower power' and consistent defense, was an All-Star for the first-time in 2021.
Right Fielder, batting eighth, Manuel Margot. Manny Margot is one of two defensive-first outfielders sitting at the bottom of my Opening Day order, with the outfielder projected to have an abysmal .694 OPS in 2022 by Baseball Reference. However, Margot's had a stellar Spring Training and looks to make the most of the opportunity yet again.
Center Fielder, batting last, Kevin Kiermaier. Kevin Kiermaier in the lineup is a formality, yet it's hard to consider where he should be placed. The three-time Gold Glover is arguably the best defensive outfielder of his era, yet his bat leaves a lot desired when assessing his contract. Kiermaier has a .720 lifetime OPS, so while he isn't the most accomplished hitter on the club, he isn't the worst either. Kiermaier's lack of power is made up for by the incredible speed, yet his lack of walks and a glaring hole in his bat tends to make the speed irrelevant. If Kiermaier could put it together, he has the tools to be a nice secondary leadoff guy.
Bench: OF Brett Phillips, OF Harold Ramirez, INF Taylor Walls, C Francisco Mejia. Walls looks to hold down the fort in the Joey Wendle role, following the trade that sent Wendle to South Beach. Walls was below average at the plate last year, but still posted a 1.5 WAR due to scintillating defense across the infield. Phillips and Ramirez add outfield depth, with Phillips being one of the more fun players in the league. Mejia was a top prospect for Cleveland five years ago, but posted the highest OPS+ of his career in 2021, showing some of the promise many had once seen.
The pitching is less clear, as Luis Patino, who would be the number four starter, didn't start getting reps in until there were less than two weeks before Opening Day. With his arm not fully stretched, I'd open the year with swingman Josh Fleming in the rotation. Fleming, a southpaw entering his age 26 season, hasn't been great at the Major League level but wouldn't be one of the worst late-rotation options in the league. McClanahan, who made his debut in the 2020 World Series, had a 115 OPS+ last year and alongside Kluber, are already confirmed as the number one and number two starter. Ryan Yabrough and Drew Rasmussen are rotation locks.
As mentioned previously throughout, Patino, Raley, Poche, Wisler, Chargois, Adam and Kittredge in my Opening Day bullpen is JP Feyereisen, a 29-year-old right hander who posted a 2.74 ERA in 55 outings in 2021. Jalen Beeks will also be returning to the mound for the first time since August of 2020, undergoing procedural Tommy John. Chris Mazza rounds out the bullpen, despite not being the sharpest of relievers, to give the Rays multi-inning options. As for the rest of the pitching staff, Nick Anderson, who was placed on the 60-day IL as the corresponding move for the Harold Ramirez acquisition, will begin the season on the injured list, alongside arms such as Peter Fairbanks and Yonny Chirinos. These are three of the biggest pieces the Rays have on their staff, but the depth should more than cover it.
Rotation: Shane McClanahan (L), Corey Kluber (R), Ryan Yabrough (R), Josh Fleming (L), Drew Rasmussen (R).
RH relief options: Matthew Wisler, JT Chargois, Andrew Kittredge, Luis Patino, Chris Mazza, JP Feyereisen, Jason Adam.
LH relief options: Jalen Beeks, Brooks Raley, Colin Poche.
You can watch the Rays play Baltimore on Opening Day on April 8th, as they play Baltimore at 3:10 on Bally Sports: Sun.