Underdogs or not, Rays have '22 title in sights

Budding superstar Franco at the center of Tampa Bay's hopes for new season

April 4th, 2022

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. – Maybe, at some point, the Rays won’t be perceived as the underdogs anymore. After all, they are coming off three consecutive trips to the postseason, two straight seasons as the best team in the American League and a franchise-best 100-win campaign. The core of that team is back, Wander Franco will be up for his first full season, and Tampa Bay’s deep farm system still pushes out talent like few others.

And yet here the Rays are, motivated as ever and still having to prove themselves in some corners. Fangraphs’ projections have them finishing fourth in the American League East, at 86-76. Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projection system also has them fourth, at 85-77. A USA Today panel of voters was more optimistic at 91-71, second to the Blue Jays.

It’s not like the Rays needed more motivation. Their six-game loss to the Dodgers in the 2020 World Series helped inspire their record-setting run through last year’s regular season. Similarly, their four-game defeat against the Red Sox in the AL Division Series lit a fire under the Rays when they reported to Spring Training this year.

“I don't know what the projections or anything like that say. Doesn't matter,” veteran center fielder Kevin Kiermaier said. “If we can be consistent and stay healthy, we're dangerous. We've been like that, and I don't think we're the underdogs anymore. There still might be people who don't expect a whole lot from us saying like, ‘OK, I don’t know if this team can maintain this.’ But I think those people are wrong. The winning way is going to continue here. There's just too much talent.”

This year, the goal is the same as it was last season: the franchise’s first World Series championship.

What needs to go right?
Last year provided a pretty good blueprint. The Rays’ position players remained healthy, for the most part, and put together the best offensive season in franchise history. They played their usual brand of strong defense, especially behind the plate and in the outfield. Their pitching depth and deft deployment helped them overcome a ton of injuries and some shaky work from parts of their rotation. And they played well within the division, posting winning records against all four divisional opponents – including an 18-1 mark against the Orioles.

This season might play out a little different in some areas. Maybe Tampa Bay's offense will be just as productive, even if it’s not quite as high-scoring. But the pitching staff figures to pick up some of the slack, as the rotation contains greater upside than a year ago and the bullpen is just confoundingly loaded with quality options. It’s almost cliché now to say the Rays will just find a way, but with their talent and depth, they’ve proven capable of overcoming just about anything that can go wrong to make it all right by the end of the season.

Great unknown
The Rays’ biggest question mark, for now, is how their rotation will hold up this season. Ryan Yarbrough will provide valuable innings all season, and they’re hoping for a tick up in his performance with his rediscovered velocity. Corey Kluber was brought in to be the steady veteran presence, but he’s battled injuries in recent years. But a lot of Tampa Bay's hopes reside with the young quartet of Shane McClanahan, Drew Rasmussen, Luis Patiño and top prospect Shane Baz. They’ve thrown a combined 322 2/3 innings in the Majors, which speaks to their inexperience and potential workload limitations this year. But they also have as much raw ability as any rotation in baseball.

Team MVP will be…
Brandon Lowe has been the best player on the AL’s best team each of the last two years, and nobody would be surprised if he keeps that title this season. But what Franco did last season, totaling 3.5 WAR in only 70 games, was just a glimpse of the 21-year-old’s enormous potential. If he’s a switch-hitting everyday shortstop batting near the top of the order and producing like he did down the stretch last season, we won’t just be talking about the best player on the Rays. We’ll be talking about one of the best players in baseball, period.

Team Cy Young will be…
McClanahan emerged as the Rays’ ace last June, right after Tyler Glasnow sustained a season-ending injury. The rookie lefty recorded a 3.01 ERA with 99 strikeouts in 89 2/3 innings over his final 17 regular-season starts, working at least five innings while allowing three runs or fewer in 15 of those outings, and pitched five scoreless innings in Game 1 of the ALDS before his season ended with a frustrating relief appearance in Game 4. Now, the 24-year-old is Tampa Bay's Opening Day starter.

Bold prediction: Wander Franco will become the youngest MVP in MLB history
The day after their season ended last October, manager Kevin Cash said this of Franco: “I think you could make the argument that he’s the most impactful player on any team in baseball.” The Rays backed up their belief in him by signing Franco to the biggest contract in franchise history. This might seem conservative in a few months, but we’ll also say Franco will post at least 7 bWAR, becoming the 13th player to do so at age 21 or younger. The others? Pretty good company: Mike Trout (twice), Rogers Hornsby, Alex Rodriguez, Rickey Henderson, Al Kaline, Eddie Mathews, Cesar Cedeno, Jimmie Foxx, Andruw Jones, Mel Ott, Ken Griffey Jr. and Carlos Correa.