Arozarena was coming off a record-setting postseason run. Franco, the top overall prospect in baseball, was pounding on the door of the big leagues despite having never played a game above Class A ball.
They might not have matched their impossibly lofty expectations, but both rookies proved to be the real deal for the Rays this season. As a result, Arozarena and Franco on Monday were named finalists for this year’s American League Jackie Robinson Rookie of the Year Award. The Tampa Bay teammates are joined by Astros starting pitcher Luis Garcia as the three finalists for the award, which was voted on by members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. The winner will be revealed on Nov. 15 on MLB Network.
“It’s deserved recognition for both of them,” Rays president of baseball operations Erik Neander said at the General Managers Meetings. “Our dependence on young players is critical to our success, and to have two players like Randy and Wander that not only positively impacted the team in 2021 the way that they did but for the potential that’s ahead of them, that means a lot, and they deserved it.
“There’s a lot asked of rookies in our organization, and they were a huge reason for us winning 100 regular-season games and performed really well in, unfortunately, our abbreviated postseason play. Both dynamic talents … [and] winning players.”
Arozarena and Franco aren’t the only Rays who could bring home some hardware. Manager Kevin Cash is again a finalist for the AL Manager of the Year Award, which he won last season, after guiding the Rays to a 100-win campaign and their second straight AL East championship. Cash is up against Astros skipper Dusty Baker and the Mariners’ Scott Servais, with the winner to be revealed on MLB Network on Nov. 16.
Arozarena, 26, looked like the front-runner for 2021 AL Rookie of the Year entering this season after emerging as last postseason’s breakout star. The outfielder launched 10 homers, won AL Championship Series MVP honors and posted a 1.273 OPS during the Rays’ postseason run, setting the bar about as high as possible before his actual rookie campaign even began.
Arozarena may not have replicated that absurd power surge over 162 games, but he still looks like the front-runner after putting together an impressive all-around season. He hit 20 homers, stole 20 bases, drove in 69 runs, scored 94 runs and posted a slash line of .274/.356/.459 and a 4.1 bWAR mark that ranked second on the Rays (behind only Brandon Lowe) and led all Major League rookies. He also played solid outfield defense, totaling seven defensive runs saved in left field.
“It’s power. It’s speed. It’s a fun player to watch,” Neander said. “He’s an entertaining player. He plays the game hard and plays the game right -- and is immensely talented, too.”
Arozarena’s top competition for the award might be his 20-year-old teammate: Franco. The switch-hitting shortstop made his highly anticipated Major League debut on June 22 and immediately electrified Tropicana Field with a three-run homer in his first game. He then bounced back from a few rough weeks with a second-half showing that proved what a special talent he is.
The day after the Rays’ season ended, in fact, Cash posited that Franco might already be “the most impactful player on any team in baseball.” The only thing potentially working against him for this award is the amount of time he spent in the big leagues. He played in 70 games, compared with Arozarena’s 141 and Garcia’s 30 appearances (28 starts).
Franco slashed .288/.347/.463 with seven homers, 18 doubles, five triples, 53 runs, 39 RBIs and 3.5 bWAR. He joined Hall of Fame company during a 43-game on-base streak, tied with Frank Robinson in 1956 for the longest in AL/NL history by a player 20 years old or younger.
BBWAA members cast their votes based on regular-season performance, but Franco already looked like the Rays’ best player as he went 7-for-19 with two homers during his first taste of the postseason in Tampa Bay’s four-game loss to Boston in the AL Division Series.
“The pace at which he developed as the year went on just speaks to his potential,” Neander said. “I think it’s fair to say, by the postseason, no one was talking about his age. They were just talking about him being one of the best players on the field. And I don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon.”
Meanwhile, Cash led the Rays to the best regular season in franchise history despite the club parting ways with top starters Charlie Morton and Blake Snell last offseason, losing ace Tyler Glasnow for the season in June, sustaining a series of significant pitching injuries throughout the year and fielding a team with one of the Majors’ lowest payrolls.
Cash is universally praised by players and staff for his even-keeled demeanor in the dugout, the positive and relaxed clubhouse atmosphere he fosters, and his consistently sharp decision-making. The 43-year-old also deftly handles a deep roster, keeping players fresh and putting them in position to succeed. Tampa Bay used a franchise-record 61 players, including 38 pitchers and 18 rookies, and Cash wrote 158 different lineups in 162 games.
“Can’t imagine someone doing a better job than what he’s done here, and that’s been a constant for several years now,” Neander said. “The leadership, the buy-in -- our players, they come to play, they come to get better. That’s a reflection on him and his leadership, and the staff as well. We’re lucky to have him, and we really appreciate him. It’s nice to see him receive that recognition.”