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Chicago White Sox v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

Just how good were the 2021 Rays rookies?

The 2021 Rays were not quite like any Rays team we’ve seen before. For one, they set their franchise record for most wins in a single season finishing with an even one hundred. The previous record belonged to the 97-win 2008 Rays who were able to ride that momentum all the way to the World Series.

What stands out on this Rays teams is the reliance on rookies. Randy Arozarena and Wander Franco are probably the first two Rays rookies that come to mind, and for good reason. Their 2021 seasons were among the best rookie seasons ever for Tampa Bay rookie position players:

All-Time Rays Rookie WAR Leaders (Hitters)

Season Name G PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+ fWAR
Season Name G PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+ fWAR
2008 Evan Longoria 122 508 0.272 0.343 0.531 129 5.6
2018 Joey Wendle 139 545 0.300 0.354 0.435 117 3.8
2021 Randy Arozarena 141 604 0.274 0.356 0.459 128 3.3
2007 Akinori Iwamura 123 559 0.285 0.359 0.411 107 3.1
2014 Kevin Kiermaier 108 364 0.263 0.315 0.450 117 2.8
2005 Jonny Gomes 101 407 0.282 0.372 0.534 141 2.7
2019 Brandon Lowe 82 327 0.270 0.336 0.514 127 2.7
2021 Wander Franco 70 308 0.288 0.347 0.463 127 2.5

This table might take you on a trip down memory lane as there are all kinds of familiar names on here. Jonny Gomes! Akinori Iwamura! One of the interesting omissions here is 2013 Rookie of the Year winner Wil Myers, as he only amassed 2.3 WAR in that season. Regardless, it’s a fun list to be on, and that is especially true for Wander Franco, as he was able to crack it after only appearing in 70 games for Tampa Bay. Arozarena’s great rookie campaign is also illustrated here, as he falls in at number three.

While this table only includes stats from regular season games, Randy and Wander were also a tantalizing duo in the 2021 playoffs. Although their lone postseason series didn’t end in the Rays favor, those two did everything they could for Tampa Bay as Franco went 7 for 19 with 2 homeruns and 4 RBIs while Arozarena went 5 for 15 with a homerun and 3 RBIs.

Arozarena is 26 and under team control for five more seasons while the 20-year old Franco just signed an 11-year contract extension this offseason. The two of them will be a blast to watch for years to come.

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Tampa Bay Rays Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Randy and Wander weren’t the only big rookie contributors for Tampa Bay in 2021 though. The Rays also watched rookie starter Shane McClanahan turn in a very strong first full campaign.

McClanahan was drafted 31st overall by Tampa Bay in 2018 and made his debut in the 2020 postseason as a reliever. The Rays opted to try him in the 2021 rotation and it paid big dividends. Here’s where his rookie season ranks against the previous best Rays rookie pitchers:

All-Time Rays Rookie WAR Leaders (Pitchers)

Season Name W L GS IP ERA FIP fWAR
Season Name W L GS IP ERA FIP fWAR
2005 Scott Kazmir 10 9 32 186 3.77 3.76 3.6
1998 Rolando Arrojo 14 12 32 202 3.56 4.23 3.3
2009 Jeff Niemann 13 6 30 180.2 3.94 4.07 2.8
2021 Shane McClanahan 10 6 25 123.1 3.43 3.31 2.5
2012 Matt Moore 11 11 31 177.1 3.81 3.93 2.4
2018 Jose Alvarado 1 6 0 64 2.39 2.27 2.1
2011 Jeremy Hellickson 13 10 29 189 2.95 4.44 2
2012 Jake McGee 5 2 0 55.1 1.95 1.81 1.9

Jeremy Hellickson is the only Rays pitcher to win the Rookie of the Year award and there he ranks at number seven on this list. The most surprising names here may be the two relievers at the bottom of the table, Jose Alvarado and Jake McGee. They pitched significantly fewer innings than the rest of the bunch. McClanahan’s strong first season lands him at number four here.

McClanahan’s had great success in his rookie season. His 3.43 ERA ranked in the top 30 among MLB starters and his 20.1 K-BB% was in the top 25 (minimum 120 IP). He was also given the nod to start game 1 of the ALDS for Tampa Bay in which he delivered five shut out innings. It will be a fantastic ride watching the 24-year old continue to develop under the great pitching minds in this organization over the future years.

Division Series - Boston Red Sox v Tampa Bay Rays - Game One Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Not surprisingly, all three of Arozarena, Franco, and McClanahan received 2021 Rookie of the Year votes. Arozarena was the winner of the award and became the fourth player in Rays history to receive the honor, joining Evan Longoria (2008), Jeremy Hellickson (2011), and Wil Myers (2013).

Franco finished third in the voting and McClanahan received one vote as well. The full voting results:

Historical Context

Having three rookies as good as Arozarena, Franco, and McClanahan all on one team is quite rare. In fact, only three other teams in the past fifty MLB seasons have seen three different rookies put up 2.5 WAR in the same season.

MLB Teams with three or more 2.5 WAR Rookies - Past 50 Years

Team Record 2.5+ fWAR Rookies
Team Record 2.5+ fWAR Rookies
1972 Red Sox 85-70 C Carlton Fisk (6.6), SP John Curtis (3.3), SP Lynn McGlothen (2.5)
2006 Marlins 78-84 SS Hanley Ramirez (4.4), 2B Dan Uggla (4.2), SP Josh Johnson (2.6), SP Scott Olsen (2.5)
2012 Athletics 94-68 OF Yoenis Cespedes (4.0), Jarrod Parker (3.7), Tommy Milone (3.1)
2021 Rays 100-62 OF Randy Arozarena (3.3), Wander Franco (2.5), Shane McClanahan (2.5)
Source: FanGraphs Rookie Leaderboards

It’s a very small list and an impressive feat for the young group. Hall-of-famer Carlton Fisk is even mentioned here! Also, the 2006 Marlins actually had four rookies that met this threshold, but interestingly had the worst team record of this bunch.

The Rays had the best record of the group which makes their season even more remarkable. It’s fun to sit back and think about how much potential this team has building on this core. This trio isn’t even where the rookie-palooza ends either; the Rays have a number of prospects who could be next year’s rookie sensations.

Next Year’s Rookie Outlook

The Rays currently have nine players on their 40-man roster who will have rookie eligibility in 2022. In alphabetical order, the players are: Jonathan Aranda, Shane Baz, Vidal Brujan, Calvin Faucher, Josh Lowe, Brendan McKay, Rene Pinto, Ford Proctor, and Tommy Romero.

Baz is probably the player from the above group who is expected to contribute most to the 2022 Rays. Hitters who debuted last season such as Josh Lowe and Vidal Brujan should see their roles expand this season as well.

Additionally, there are players who are not currently on the 40-man roster who have the potential to impact the team this year. 23-year old relief prospect Colby White is one who comes to mind, as his fantastic season propelled him all the way to AAA after starting the season at low-A. Alongside White, other solid prospects who finished 2021 in the upper minors include 2B Xavier Edwards, SS/CF Greg Jones, 1B/3B Austin Shenton, OF Kameron Misner and SP Jayden Murray. While I wouldn’t necessarily expect these players to debut in 2022, it’s not out of the question if a big league need arises.

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