If potentially spurning a division rival at a vaguely reasonable price isn’t reason enough, anyone in dire need of convincing could watch all 23 innings of one run ball the Guardians pitched against the Rays in last year’s wild card series, or any of the regular season games played by the leagues 21st ranked offense. It would be dishonest not to mention that injuries decimated the roster, leading to Brandon Lowe, Wander Franco, Mike Zunino, and Kevin Kiermaier combining to play in only 247 games, but it did highlight a concern for many of their younger players; offense.
The average Rays hitter last year was 27 years old, tied with the Orioles for the fifth youngest in the league. For Jonathan Aranda and Josh Lowe, prolific minor league hitters without great power, their first real taste of major league action was a little sour. With the majority of their recent call ups having a more contact oriented approach, the Rays wound up relying heavily on struggling younger players to string hits together to score runs, with very little success.
Normally, letting younger players work through their struggles much like the Rays did in 2022 would be fine, but after a franchise best 100 wins in 2021, and a World Series appearance in 2020, having a lot of 2022 end up focused on player development is a disappointing turn of events. It also says a lot about the position the franchise is in; that despite the injuries and the struggles of their younger players they were still 3.5 games out of the division lead on September 9th.
Barring any changes before the start of the season, they’ll likely still feature Jose Siri in CF, the duo of Isaac Paredes and Jonathan Aranda at 1B, Francisco Mejia at C, with Josh Lowe (OF), Harold Ramirez (1B/OF), Taylor Walls (INF), and Vidal Brujan (INF/OF) filling in the gaps across the rest of the lineup after they combined to make over 2,200 plate appearances in 2022. Of those eight players, only Mejia and Ramirez had more than 200 plate appearances prior to last season, and from that group only Ramirez and Paredes posted a wRC+ over 100 in 2022.*Jose Siri had 147 plate appearances and a wRC+ of 53 for the Astros in 2022 before being traded to the Rays at the deadline.
The recipe for a better offense could be as simple as Taylor Walls not having 466 plate appearances and letting Aranda and Josh Lowe figure it out. A full offseason to make adjustments could work wonders for getting the latter two adjusted to major league pitching, and with regular playing time in 2023 it seems likely that they could turn into at least average hitters. Limiting the amount of times Walls steps into the batter's box is a little more difficult without another shortstop on the roster between him and Wander Franco, but barring another serious injury to Franco or Brandon Lowe, Walls shouldn’t get a ton of regular chances to swing a bat in 2023.
It’s possible that the Rays' problems could simply sort themselves out as the kids play more and get better. With as good as Paredes and Ramirez were last year, it’s not like the Rays have no good young players, to say nothing of Wander Franco in his first two seasons even with the injuries. The problem is that, without signing veteran free agents to fill in the holes, they need the younger players to be good because the guys behind them have even less major league experience. Their reliance on young players is a huge gamble, especially when considering their current title window, if you can call it that, might already be coming to a close.
With Tyler Glasnow slated to earn $5M in 2023, $25M in 2024, and unrestricted free agency awaiting him for 2025, Tampa Bay can guarantee having all five of Glasnow, Randy Arozarena, Brandon Lowe, Shane McClanahan, and Wander Franco for only two more years. Now that Lowe and Franco are hopefully fully healed from the injuries that caused them to play in only 65 and 83 games in 2022, the Rays offense should be substantially better in 2023, but without any other additions it’s worth wondering whether or not it’s good enough to compete at the top of the AL.
Rays President of Baseball Ops Erik Neander said that they would look to improve the offense this offseason and were expected to be players for some of the veteran left-handed hitters on the free agent market. After signing former Phillies starter Zach Eflin to the richest free agent deal in franchise history and trading for reliever Kevin Kelly during the Rule 5 draft, the Rays haven’t made any other additions. Now with the free agent pool all but dried up, and their coveted lefty bat nowhere to be seen, The Rays are expected to turn to the trade market for any potential changes to the lineup ahead of the 2023 season.
Enter disgruntled Pittsburgh Pirates CF and switch-hitter Bryan Reynolds.
His fit with the Rays has some immediate issues, like the already crowded outfield group or the likelihood that Ciri would remain the everyday center fielder even after his addition. Despite a 2022 season that saw some regression as a hitter and disappointment as a defender, Reynolds would likely be defensively overqualified for a corner outfielder, and a clear upgrade offensively over Manuel Margot or last year’s Josh Lowe.
Reynolds 125 wRC+ would’ve tied him with Randy Arozarena for second best on the Rays in 2022, and while it’s possible he never reaches the same level he reached in 2021, there’s a potentially big change he could make to get some of that production back. Reynolds’ chase rate increased from the previous year, going from 24.8% to 31.5% overall, with especially dramatic increases on the first pitch (15.3% to 22.1%) and when behind in the count (24.2% up to 38%). If Reynolds reigns in his approach to be less aggressive on pitches outside of the zone, he could see his walk and strikeout rates more in line with their ‘21 figures, and help him return to being a great hitter instead of merely a good one.
Assuming the Rays are interested despite the dip in performance last year, what would it take to acquire him? After the Daulton Varsho deal between the Blue Jays and Diamondbacks, the starting point for a trade would likely be Josh Lowe or Manuel Margot, and Rays top pitching prospect Taj Bradley. That’s a big price tag for someone that reportedly wants to leave, especially for a team that’s gotten mixed results on offense from its most recent prospects and lacks the top end pitching depth that’s been the norm for past prospect classes.
Would the Rays be willing to trade Taj Bradley before he debuts, and someone as talented as Lowe after just 200 big league plate appearances for a player that could very well only be there for three years? Conversely, is trading a player who might become as good as Reynolds was last year in addition to a prospect in line for a 2023 call up to a deep rotation or loaded bullpen really that big of a cost for a team that otherwise seems ready to try for another deep postseason run?
The other key factor for the Rays, as always, is money. Reynolds is due for two more arbitration raises before becoming a free agent in 2026, Tyler Glasnow is due $25 million in 2024, Shane McClanahan is potentially Super 2 eligible in 2024, and Randy Arozarena is already Super 2 qualified. Keeping the current group together could become very expensive very fast, and that’s before factoring in Wander Franco’s increasing yearly salary or the extensions they’ve already given to Jeffrey Springs, Pete Fairbanks, and Yandy Diaz.
Accounting for all of these, the Rays could see their payroll vacate out of its perpetual bottom five spot in the league even without a new deal for Reynolds. While it’s easy to say "Oh sure, like the Rays are going to sign Reynolds to a big deal AND pay Glasnow $25M next year," after making a real run at Freddie Freeman in free agency two years ago it’s not that outlandish to believe that the Ray’s could wind up out of the cellar in committed salary if they feel the situation is right.
That’s really the biggest question for Tampa Bay here; is it worth it? Is Reynolds really that much better than the combination of Margot and Josh Lowe to warrant all they’d have to give up? Do they view themselves as being one piece away from championship contention now that Franco and Brandon Lowe are healthy again? Is there somewhere else they feel like they could get a more valuable upgrade without paying that steep of a price?
Nothing in life is guaranteed; player development is rarely linear, and even your best hand can’t guarantee a win. The Rays hit it big on a very talented group of players, and have the opportunity to leverage part of their bright future for an even brighter present. Even though the cost would be high, with the clock potentially ticking on their current core, and the mixed results from their most recent prospect class, maybe the real question should be if the Rays can afford not to take that kind of risk.