What we learned about Rays in 1st half

July 14th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Adam Berry’s Rays Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

KANSAS CITY -- The Rays didn’t exactly sprint through the first-half finish line, losing seven of their last eight games heading into the All-Star break and playing just-over-.500 baseball for the last two months, with a 29-28 record since May 9.

But they won the first 13 games of the year, and 29 of their first 36, and that incredibly hot start to the season still has them in a good spot coming back from the break. They have the best record in the American League (58-35), the best run differential in the Majors (plus-149) and postseason odds ranging from 98% (FanGraphs) to 99.2% (Baseball-Reference).

“Happy with the way the guys performed in the first half. Want to see us pick up and have a good second half,” manager Kevin Cash said. “There’s certainly a lot of games left, but I feel like we’ve positioned ourselves as well as you could ask for in this division that we play in.”

There is still work to be done, however, including adding pitching before the Trade Deadline and getting out of the offensive funk they were in until Sunday’s return to form against the Braves. As well as things went, the Rays hold only a two-game lead over the Orioles (54-35) in a highly competitive AL East that won’t get any easier down the stretch.

“We can’t take our foot off the gas pedal,” reliever Jason Adam said. “We’ve got to keep pressing and do what we do every day.”

Here’s a look back at the Rays’ first half and a look ahead.

What we learned in the first half: Their lineup is deeper and more star-studded than we thought

Entering the year, everyone knew the Rays would pitch well and play good defense. That is the foundation of all the success they’ve enjoyed since 2008. But these Rays have been one of the Majors’ best offensive clubs, ranking second with 506 runs scored and fourth with a .783 OPS, which would have been impossible to predict considering the way last season ended with largely the same group of hitters.

They were especially hot the first two months of this season, when seemingly everyone in the lineup was clicking at the same time, before cooling off near the break. They have top-tier talent in Randy Arozarena, Wander Franco, Yandy Díaz and the underrated Isaac Paredes, and they have further depth in surprise standout Luke Raley, Josh Lowe, Harold Ramírez and Jose Siri, among others.

Likely Trade Deadline strategy: Buy pitching and more pitching

The Rays have the American League’s best record and third-best ERA. How much pitching could they possibly need? Plenty, as the first half showed.

They can feel great about the top three arms in the rotation -- Shane McClanahan, Zach Eflin and Tyler Glasnow -- as long as they stay healthy. And they understandably believe rookie starter Taj Bradley will continue to get better results with his terrific stuff. But they could use another mid-rotation arm after officially losing Jeffrey Springs and Drew Rasmussen for the season.

They pursued bullpen help during the first half, adding experienced relievers in Jake Diekman, Robert Stephenson and Zack Littell. Right-hander and 2021 All-Star Andrew Kittredge will soon return, a huge boost, but another high-leverage arm to bolster the group in front of Pete Fairbanks wouldn’t hurt.

Key player: Shane McClanahan

You could make an argument for Brandon Lowe, who’s back from another back injury and expected to balance the lineup with his left-handed power, or any number of other players. But the Rays’ most important player is their ace.

McClanahan (11-1, 2.53 ERA) was limited near the end of the first half due to mid-back tightness, making two abbreviated starts then skipping a turn heading into the break. Tampa Bay needs him at the top of his game when it matters most, pitching alongside Glasnow and Eflin down the stretch and then ready to go for Game 1 in the postseason.

Few players are as motivated or driven as McClanahan, and he’ll be out to prove himself in his return from the injured list.

Prospect to watch: Curtis Mead (Rays’ No. 3)

There might not be a prospect who comes up to make an immediate impact down the stretch for the Rays; Bradley is already in the rotation, hot-hitting Jonathan Aranda has graduated from prospect status, and reliever Colby White is still working his way back from injury.

But Mead has returned to Triple-A Durham after a frustrating stint on the injured list, and he reminded everyone why he rocketed up the Top 100 list by going 11-for-29 with five extra-base hits and twice as many walks (six) as strikeouts (three) in his first seven games back. The Rays have plenty of position-player depth if they’re dealt an injury in the infield, but don’t forget about Mead.