I'm hurt. The only way I can get myself to be less hurt is to think about the next season and our potential roster moves.
The Rays had their most successful regular season ever in 2021, but unfortunately could not get it done in the ALDS against a bitter division rival. While the Rays' average age as a team is actually near the league average, the core players are all young and on rookie deals. The Rays will return four starting pitchers who were rookies and have two position players who are leading rookie of the year candidates. Arbitration and roster crunch will lead to unexpected moves, but a deep farm system that saw 4 of its 5 stateside affiliates win league championships will keep the team stocked with young (and cheap) talent.
What is our overall roster number outlook?
We currently have 52 players rostered, with 12 players on the 60 Day IL. Eight are impending Free Agents. Players on the injured list have to be placed back on the 40 man roster after the conclusion of the World Series.
Who are Impending Free Agents?
Michael Wacha, David Robertson, Collin McHugh, Nelson Cruz, Oliver Drake, Tommy Hunter, Chaz Roe, Chris Archer.
This means at least 4 spots need to be cleared, plus additional spots to protect Rule 5 eligible players. Teams will typically release low-end relievers (or trade them, as is common with the Rays) to clear up 40 man spots.
What pitchers could be traded/outrighted to make 40 Man room?
- Louis Head, Chris Mazza, Adam Conley, Ryan Sherriff, Cody Reed, DJ Johnson, Brent Honeywell, Matt Wisler
There are good names in this group. All of them have some sort of utility or else they wouldn't even be on the roster. Adam Conley and Matt Wisler may have the highest value of those listed. Brent Honeywell is a starter with a lot of good pitchers who would be especially surprising (but not unthinkable) to move on from. I expect us to keep him, but I'll say the name for housekeeping purposes. Louis Head seems like an obvious trade candidate. Great stats in low-leverage, with us moving him much like we did with John Curtiss. Any of these name could be outrighted and put on the minor league roster if they are not signed by another team.
Which other players are likely candidates to be moved on from in the offseason?
It is hard to predict who the Rays will trade in any offseason. Expecting what comes next requires unorthodox thinking... Here are some names to look out for. We'll go in depth player-by-plaer
Tyler Glasnow - He is not likely to pitch in 2022. A September stint is possible but only in a reduced role (Extended opener like how his rehab in 2019 played out.) His arbitration salary is high and 2023 is his last season. Rays could want to cash in on his value now... or they could sign him to a team friendly extension as his value is lowered after two major injuries. An intriguing possibility is using an aforementioned September stint to increase his trade value in 2023. Or hanging on to him and shipping him off at the deadline in 2023.
Kevin Kiermaier - One of the team's best hitters from August 1st onward. Still a top defensive centerfielder. He is also the most expensive player on the roster. Brett Phillips and Josh Lowe could take his spot in 2022. A franchise with a large outfield and a need for outfielders could make a trade for him. Seattle or Detroit?
Austin Meadows/Brett Phillips - Meadows is a good bat with three more seasons of control left. Brett Phillips is a high end defender who has great numbers against righties. The Rays will almost certainly move on from one LHH Outfielder to give Josh Lowe a spot. If not Kiermaier, than one of these two. Meadows would get a good haul. Trading Phillips would just be admitting defeat on not being able to move Kiermaier's contract... or all three could be kept in the unlikely event that Meadows moves to 1B a la Jordan Luplow.
Andrew Kittridge - Trading an All-Star reliever when relief pitching is in flummox? We already did that with Castillo. Trading Kittridge now should lead to a massive haul, but he's an important piece to a bullpen that needs to stay strong.
Ryan Yarbrough/Josh Fleming - Both serve a similar role, induce weak contact against lefties. Both had rough years and lack real trade value. There are just too many rookies who have leaped them in the rotation. At least one should get moved. Either could bounce back. Fleming was very promising in 2020. Yarbs has led the team in innings pitched since 2018, with great stretches (see May to August 2019, and most of 2020.).
Any of our First Baseman: Ji-Man Choi has dealt with injuries in 2020 and 2021. Yandy Diaz is productive and can play third base but is far from an x-factor. Jordan Luplow hits the ball hard, but was only expected to serve a limited role. I feel the Rays value which side of the plate you hit from more than true positions, so this isn't a Choi vs Diaz vs Luplow debate... but if the Rays are willing to teach Luplow 1B, why not Brandon Lowe or Austin Meadows?
Misc notes: Mike Zunino has a team option for 2022. There should be no doubt that it is picked up. It maxes out at $7M for a guy who just made the All-Star game.
Who could be a part of our starting rotation in 2022?
Obvious names first.
Shane McClanahan - Duh. A bad Game 4 on short rest aside, he was the ace of the staff from the day Glasnow got injured. Literally. Since June 15, he had a 3.01 ERA (with a matching 3.03 FIP) in 89.2 IP. He's the projected #1 for 2022.
Shane Baz - Duh. We may play games with his service time to start the year (we'll see how the next CBA affects that) but Baz has punched a ticket to the top half of the rotation in 2022. Growing pains are not impossible (we saw those in his last start of the season and his playoff start) but he's here.
Drew Rasmussen - He started the year as a reliever. He had an incredible stretch in his 8 starts in the rotation, a 1.46 ERA in 37 IP. He needs to feature the curveball or the changeup more to get deeper into games, but expectations should be high.
Luis Patino - Patino was very inconsistent throughout the year, but he was only 21. The fact that he had high points at all should be commended and demonstrate his incredible upside. He also looked impressive in some bullpen stints, which concerns me that the Front Office will get some crazy ideas... but his promise as a starter should get him a spot in the rotation. When the 2022 season is finished, Patino could easily be our best starter.
These four young pitchers should headline one of the best rotations in baseball in 2022. They all demonstrated incredible promise and ended the regular season strong. They are the primary reason why a repeat as AL East Champions should not just be hoped for, but expected. Since the majority of our potential pitchers are so young, it's not hard to expect a 6 man rotation for at least extended portions of the season.
Less obvious names
Ryan Yarborough/Josh Fleming - The organization reassured Josh Fleming that his long term projection was as a starter, and he'll be in that role if he can return to 2020 form. However, being able to touch 95 MPH out of the bullpen means the Front Office will have that possibility on the table. Yarborough has led the team in innings pitched since 2018. I could see him being moved to the bullpen to start the year and injuries getting him a job back, at least for a moment.
Yonny Chirinos - Chirinos was one of the saddest losses to injury for the team in the past two years. He is an extremely productive ground ball pitcher. Getting him back and at the form he has pitched his whole career would be impossible to deny him a spot in the rotation (potentially giving us a 5 Deep Rotation that would rival any staff in baseball.) The concern is if he can come back to that form after TJS. With Colin McHugh leaving in free agency, Chirinos could also fill in that multi-inning reliever role to pair with Kittridge. Expect him to get opportunities to get his job back first.
Brent Honeywell Jr - He still has that screwball. Once the most promising pitcher in the organization, even over names like Blake Snell, injuries have derailed Honeywell's career thus far. He was finally healthy in 2021, but spent most of the year in Durham seeming just a bit off. His final month of the season was only average, and he saw extended use as a reliever. But he has a deep 5 pitch mix with good command. I think everyone would like the story of him finally getting a spot in our rotation.
Tommy Romero - Some fans were upset to lose Joe Ryan in the Nelson Cruz deal, but the younger Romero was promoted to Durham as a result and put up eerily similar numbers. 70 Ks in 62 IP, and a 3.18 ERA. There may be some Top 100 buzz around him. He will likely get some work at the MLB level in 2022 as a reserve/injury replacement (or even the 27th man in a double header)
Tobias Myers - The reward of the Tim Beckham trade. He had a nightmare start in Durham but settled down impressively. He won't be at Top 100 prospect, but he will be among the first available from Durham.
Buy low candidate? - With the youth and depth the organization has, it is hard to imagine the Rays seeking out starting pitching in the offseason. With four names with extremely high upside all making the MLB minimum, a dealing any of them in a package for a big name seems too risky and too expensive. Archer and Wacha are possible reunion candidates through Spring Training, and the Rays love reclamation projects (look at non-tenders during Arbitration season).
What names could we expect to see in the bullpen?
There are fewer grains of sand on the sugar sand beaches of Pinellas County than there are potential players to pitch out of the bullpen for the Rays in 2022. Let's focus more in-depth on some names we didn't hear in 2021.
Expect big things from Andrew Kittridge, Ryan Thompson, JT Chargios, Jeffrey Springs, JP Feyereisen, and Peter Fairbanks if they aren't sold high during the roster crunch. Adam Conley, Dietrich Enns, and Matt Wisler showed promise but could find themselves on the bubble. I also believe Nick Anderson will see a 2022 bounce back.
Yonny Chirinos - If there are any hiccups with his return as a starter, Chirinos could serve as a replacement for Colin McHugh as a two-inning weapon. However, he is primarily a ground ball pitcher, which could potentially profile too similarly to Ryan Thompson (another good name that should be back).
Jalen Beeks - We tried to use him in a similar role as McHugh and Kittridge, though with an even higher workload. It ended poorly and he was injured as a result. He was impressive out of the pen over stretches in 2019 and throughout 2020 before the injury. With a return to form and smarter usage, he could be that left-handed weapon to mirror Andrew Kittridge.
Colin Poche - Another lefty. He has not pitched since 2019, and his stat line was extremely unimpressive at first glance. A 4.70 ERA out of the pen over 51.2 IP... but he had a 3.13 ERA and strike out 42 in his last 31.2 IP. Baseball Savant loved him, with a 92 percentile xERA and a 91 percentile xSLG. He was one of the bigger pieces from the Steven Souza trade. He'll get opportunities, but maybe will start with a rehab stint.
Calvin Faucher - Who? The guy who had a 7 ERA with the Twins AA team before being thrown in a trade with Nelson Cruz? Well, Faucher managed to resurrect his career with a dominant showing to start his time in the Rays organization. 4 ERs in 25 IP between Montgomery and Durham. His primary weapon has typically been a slider before coming to the Rays, though it's hard to find information on any adjustments he made since the trade.
Phoenix Sanders and Kenny Rosenberg - Big strikeout numbers in Durham. Sanders struck out 80 and walked just 11 in 64 IP. Rosenberg was a lefty long-reliever who was more likely to pitch 3 innings in an appearance than only 1 inning. Rosenburg struck out 43 while also walking 11 over 30.2 IP, and had a promising 2.35 ERA.
But ultimately anyone could end up pitching innings out of the pen for the Rays in 2022. The organization has shown it will look everywhere for options and predicting who will be the next great reliever for the Rays is a fools errand.
With all of this talk of pitching, what is our outlook for position players in 2022?
I do not expect Mike Zunino to replicate his awesome power numbers from 2021. He's always had the raw power and I'm not calling it a fluke... but a big year like that is almost certain to calm down. He still should be an important contributor in 2022 with timely hard hits and good defense.
Conversely, I could see Francisco Mejia improve as a hitter and a defender. A team has never shown the faith in him as a catcher like the Rays have, with Cleveland flirting with him as an outfielder and the Padres burying him on the depth chart. He is one of the best secondary options at catcher in the major leagues.
Rene Pinto was on the playoff taxi squad as the emergency #3 catcher. His hitting numbers in the minors should have earned him a September call-up, but limited spots and strong catching in front of him prevented him from getting that opportunity. He has typically hit above average in his minor league career, but slashed .299/.327/.532 in Durham. He even spent time as the Bulls' DH. He should get at least a cup of coffee in the majors next year.
Ford Proctor is one of my favorite prospects. He is a shortstop... who plays catcher. That is insane positional flexibility. And if he has the arm to play shortstop, he can throw 90+ from the mound too, right? (joking of course... maybe.) He was a productive if unspectacular hitter in Montgomery in 2021 and should get the promotion to Durham. His positional flexibility could get him MLB time as a truly unique utility player.
While some names could be moved in the outfield, the truly radical changes to the team's makeup will come in the infield. The Rays have demonstrated that they view their roster more in terms of which side of the plate a player hits from more than their raw position... The Rays like athletic defenders who can play multiple positions, so why be so concrete with positions that can change when players won't change which side of the plate they hit from?
Could Austin Meadow or Brandon Lowe move to First Base?
Meadows and Lowe are better hitters than Ji-Man Choi, himself a good hitter who just hasn't been at peak form since 2019 due to injuries. The question becomes "Is Ji-Man Choi worth keeping over Vidal Brujan or Josh Lowe?" Those players are better defenders at 2B and OF than Lowe and Meadows respectively, which could push them into Choi's spot.
Could hard-hitting Jordan Luplow push OBP specialist Yandy Diaz off the roster?
Yandy Diaz's value is his ability to get on base and hit to all fields. He has raw power that his swing just doesn't take full advantage of. His defense is a liability at the hot corner, but he plays a good defensive first base. Diaz is a good player who most teams could find a spot for. Luplow has a long history of barreling the ball more often and could end up being cheaper. These two can co-exist (especially in a world without Cruz to be a dedicated DH), but the search for more roster spots to squeeze out production in the lineup could make either one of these players a roster crunch casualty. Diaz's high-floor/low-ceiling profile could make him a trade candidate.
Is Wander Franco going to move from shortstop in 2022?
Franco played better than expected at shortstop in 2021. 6 DRS in 543 innings is quality defense, but even that pales in comparison to Taylor Walls' gold-glove caliber 10 DRS in 378 innings. Franco made his MLB debut at Third Base, which seems to be what position he was initially planned to play long-term. Walls' anemic bat and injuries opened the door for Franco to stick at shortstop for the rest of 2021. Franco will definitely continue to log innings at shortstop in 2022, but Walls' value is maximized as a team's primary shortstop in a way that helps the team the most overall. Walls can force Franco (the obvious new face of the franchise) over to playing third base most days, but only if Walls can improve his bat to league average.
What about Joey Wendle?
Wendle's hitting was disappointing in the second half of the season. Compare the slash line of .275/.336./.450 that got him into the all-star game, versus slashing .254/.299/.388 line after the midsummer classic. Wendle is primarily known for his quality defense at any infield position, primarily Third Base. He has 2022 and 2023 before his arbitration status is up, would the All-Star selection artificially increase his salary? Could an improved Taylor Walls make Wendle expendable? Even with the weak second half slash line, Wendle seems to be a consistent cog with dependable defense. The front office would have to be confident in Walls' growth as a hitter, and for other left-handed infield options to be MLB ready, for a move to be made.
Can Mike Brosseau get back to the MLB?
Bross had a very unlucky 2021 season. He provided defensive value, but his hitting numbers were a far cry from his impressive 2020 season. He is a name to watch in Spring Training. He could (though this is unlikely) be aggressively Designated for Assignment to gain a 40 man spot, and then brought back on the roster when players are put back on the Injured List. The Rays would risk another team taking a chance on him returning to form.
Could the Rays make an early move with Manuel Margot?
Margot will be a free agent in 2023. Margot is another defense first player, this time featuring a right-handed bat. 13 DRS at all three outfield spots and a .753 OPS against lefties shows his role on the team. The Rays lack immediate options for right-handed hitters in the outfield. Garrett Whitley, once a top draft pick hampered by numerous serious injuries, may have been the only right-handed-hitting outfielder in Durham to end 2021. Margot is already making $3.4M, a pittance for most teams but a higher figure amongst the Rays undervalued roster. The Rays would need to find a legitimate long-term option to justify moving on from Margot in 2022. This may also be the spot an outside upgrade would be most likely.
Can I tell you the obvious?
Randy Arozerena is our best outfielder. The outfield overall will be stacked with left-handed bats, though some aforementioned movement is possible. The left-handed options will contain at least three of Kevin Kiermaier, Austin Meadows, Josh Lowe, and Brett Phillips.
Is a reunion with Nelson Cruz possible?
Yes, but it seems unlikely. It would have to come at a discount. He also hit very poorly (by his standards) in Tropicana Field. He will be 42 years old and also could just want to enjoy retirement. The Rays could just want the freedom from not having a dedicated DH and hope continued growth from young players makes up for Cruz's absence.
Are there any position player prospects we should look out for?
Two unranked left-handed hitters in Durham could get brief MLB stints in 2022. 1B Dalton Kelly hit 27 home runs and OF Nathan Lukes slashed .303/352/.456 in 85 games. Both are also older minor leaguers, so results may vary.
Current Top 100 prospect Xavier Edwards should be promoted to Durham to start 2022. Greg Jones struggled after being promoted to AA Montgomery late in the year, so he will likely stay there for the early portion of the season. Currently unranked Curtis Mead could find himself in the Top 100 (My prediction is that he will be a top 100 player when ratings are released next spring.) Mead played most of his season in A+ Bowling Green before dominating in a brief 4 game stint at Durham. He is part of the 6 prospect contingent representing the Rays in the Arizona Fall League. He has not played in AA, but could skip the level and return back to AAA to start 2022.
Vidal Brujan and Josh Lowe have already appeared in MLB games. Both figure to be part of the team's future. Brujan is a switch hitter, but almost all of his success since becoming a professional has been from the left-side of the plate. His OPS as a right-handed hitter was .679, and even that was a high water mark for his career. He is a good contact bat and a speedy base-stealer. He showed new found power at plate this season. Lowe is exciting for his combination of power, base stealing, and defense. Both players played the outfield, but Brujan's primary position is second base. If Brujan can show he's the real deal, he could push Brandon Lowe to first base and Ji-Man Choi off the roster.
The Rays are The Rays. All of this can be wrong. This team can't afford to be predictable. We've moved on from even very cheap and very talented players sooner in moves that made us all confused. The young pitching should take the next step and the bullpen should be restocked and protect by young pitchers being able to take on a bigger workload. The offense may need some creative moves to stay among the top of the AL.
Overall, while I am bitterly disappointed with how the season ended, this team only got younger and hungrier from the one that went to the World Series in 2020. Let's finally kick the door down in 2022.