Predicting the Rays' Opening Day roster

March 21st, 2021

Last week, the Rays cut 20 players from their Spring Training roster and reassigned them to Minor League camp. The reason for those moves, manager Kevin Cash explained, is that Tampa Bay is moving toward “getting the group together.”

Soon enough, the Rays will get the group together for real. The defending American League champions are less than two weeks away from their Opening Day matchup against Miami at Marlins Park on April 1.

We now know for certain that Tyler Glasnow will start that game for Tampa Bay. We have a good idea about who will round out the Rays’ rotation, to the extent that they’re expected to use a traditional rotation. And there are a lot of sure things on their roster, especially with a stable position-player group returning from last year’s team.

But a lot can change during the final weeks of Spring Training, and we’ve already seen some situations resolved over the last few weeks.

The Rays cut through a lot of conjecture by sending several of their top young players, including spring standout Shane McClanahan and No. 1 overall prospect Wander Franco, to Minor League camp. Brett Phillips’ strained hamstring took one potential roster crunch off their plate, and Cash said the Rays are preparing as if Ji-Man Choi won’t be ready for the opener as he recovers from right knee inflammation.

How will Choi’s absence affect the roster? Will the rest of the roster stay healthy? How many pitchers will the Rays carry? Can they get their starters/bulk-inning arms built up? Who will claim the final spots in the bullpen?

The answers to those questions will come in the days leading up to their season opener. For now, here’s an educated guess at what their roster could look like.

Catcher (2): ,
This one seems pretty straightforward, especially with non-roster catcher Kevan Smith sidelined by a back injury. Zunino and Mejía are the only catchers on the 40-man roster, so the jobs belong to them. The bigger question might be how they divide playing time behind the plate. Zunino could get a lot of starts early, especially as Mejía gets to know the staff, but the Rays are pleased with the progress the young switch-hitter has made in camp.

First base (2): Mike Brosseau,
This is where it gets interesting. The Rays are playing it safe with Choi, preparing for an Opening Day roster without him due to a right knee issue that flared up twice in camp and required a cortisone shot. How long he’s sidelined remains to be seen, but they are equipped to handle a temporary absence without adding another position player.

Expect the Rays to lean on the versatile Brosseau and Tsutsugo, who’s taken well to first base this spring. Yandy Díaz will also factor into the mix here whether Choi is out or not, but perhaps even more so in the early going.

Considering his righty-mashing bat, defensive versatility and well-documented flair for the dramatic, Brosseau has earned a spot, and he wants to prove he can play every day, no matter where it is. And after Tsutsugo had about the strangest imaginable introduction to life in the Majors last season, the Rays expect more from him as he gets comfortable in Year 2. Tsutsugo is slated to play first base, third base, left field and designated hitter.

Second base (1):
Lowe can and will move around the field, as he’s likely to see some time at third base and in the outfield, but there’s no sense in messing with a good thing here for now. After a rough postseason at the plate, he’s motivated to hit a lot more like he did during the regular season.

Shortstop (1):
Even as Franco showed up to Spring Training and started launching home runs over buildings, Cash went out of his way to note that the starting shortstop job for Tampa Bay still belongs to Adames. Joey Wendle and Brosseau can back up Adames here. Tampa Bay is also loaded with up-the-middle prospects, with slick-fielding Taylor Walls arguably the most MLB-ready option defensively. But like Cash has said, Adames is their shortstop.

Third base (1):
The Rays are counting on Díaz to be healthy and a big part of their lineup this season. They expect he’ll be able to combine the average and on-base ability he showed last year with the power he started tapping into in 2019, and he went about his offseason work determined to bring back the “Yandy of 2019.” The versatile Wendle, who made 18 regular-season starts at the hot corner last year, will be a factor here as well. As will Brosseau and Tsutsugo, who’s looked more athletic in camp this year.

Utility (1):
Wendle will continue to move around the infield and play above-average defense wherever he’s lined up. Keep in mind, too, that most everyone on the Rays’ roster possesses some degree of defensive versatility.

Outfield (4): , , ,
Phillips’ unfortunate injury resolved what we figured might be the Rays' most pressing roster issue, as they seemingly had one outfielder too many. Now, he’ll likely be on the 10-day IL to start the season.

Frankly, it was hard to imagine the Rays not finding a way to carve out a spot for the out-of-options Phillips. But they are still quite set with the combination of Kiermaier, the postseason hero Arozarena, Margot (who’s looked great in camp) and an encouragingly healthy Meadows manning the outfield every day, Tsutsugo rotating through left and that whole group rotating through the DH spot.

Lowe can also bounce out to the corner-outfield spots, and Cash has mentioned the possibility of sending Brosseau out there at some point this spring to provide additional coverage if it’s needed.

Starting pitchers (5): , , , ,
The Rays could have eight to 10 pitchers providing length this year rather than five horses, and frankly, they probably have more options than that.

But for now, these five are in line to be Tampa Bay’s top starting/bulk-inning/rotation options on Opening Day. Glasnow and Yarbrough have earned spots, and the Rays brought in Archer, Wacha and Hill to round out the group.

Over time, don’t be surprised to see young pitchers McClanahan, Josh Fleming, Brent Honeywell Jr., Luis Patiño and Joe Ryan join the mix. McClanahan, in particular, looked ready this spring to be part of the rotation sooner than later, and Patiño headlined the Rays’ return for Blake Snell for a reason. Brendan McKay also could get involved here whenever he’s healthy.

Relief pitchers (9): , , , , , , , ,
Once again, there are far more qualified candidates than available spots, even if they carry 14 pitchers to start the season, and we’re probably going to see a whole bunch of different pitchers in The Stable throughout the season.

Anderson, Castillo, Fairbanks and Roe seem like locks, as long as they’re healthy, given their past performance and important roles. McHugh was brought in as a versatile veteran, and he’s being stretched out this spring to work up to three or four innings.

Reed, Thompson, Fleming and Richards all fill roles. Reed is a left-hander having a strong spring. Thompson opened and got big outs in the postseason, and it’s easy to imagine him opening in front of the lefty starters or bridging the gap to the back-end arms again if he breaks camp with the club.

Fleming and Richards are length options ideally suited to step up if the Rays find themselves in need of a spot start, a second starter during a doubleheader or any other bulk innings-type work. (For example, Fleming would provide a wildly different look following Glasnow, Wacha or Archer to the mound. McHugh or Richards could function the same way if they were to essentially piggyback with Hill or Yarbrough.)

It is possible, however, that the Rays would prefer to keep Fleming on a starter’s schedule at the alternate training site to be the next man up in case of an injury. In that case, among the dark horse candidates here are hard-throwing Stetson Allie, who’s looked great this spring, and intriguing lefty Dietrich Enns.

Among the many other realistic options are Ryan Sherriff, Jeffrey Springs, Chris Mazza, Andrew Kittredge, Brian Moran, Hunter Strickland and Chris Ellis. Oliver Drake will play a part when he returns to full health around midseason, too.