Which returning Rays are set for a leap in 2024?

January 30th, 2024

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.

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays entered last winter in pursuit of a veteran left-handed hitter to bolster their lineup. They entered Spring Training without one. But they still had Josh Lowe.

Lowe reported to camp with opportunities ahead of him. To win a job. To earn more playing time. To be the left-handed bat the Rays couldn’t find elsewhere. As camp opened, president of baseball operations Erik Neander joked, “Our job security would be better if [Lowe] did that. So, go Josh!”

Off he went. After struggling in his introduction to the Majors in 2022, Lowe played like a star in the making last year. The 25-year-old outfielder hit .292/.335/.500 with 20 homers, 83 RBIs, 32 stolen bases and 3.7 WAR in 135 games.

As the Rays have reshaped their roster this offseason, they’ve created similar opportunities for a handful of younger players. Several of them were intriguing additions acquired for more veteran players, like Ryan Pepiot and Jonny DeLuca (for Tyler Glasnow and Manuel Margot), Richie Palacios (for Andrew Kittredge) and José Caballero (for Luke Raley).

But there are also several young returning players who will be given a chance to take the next step this year, as Lowe did last season. Here are four to keep in mind with Spring Training just two weeks away.

Bradley’s initial opportunity came earlier than expected last season, and he kept coming back and stuck around to make 21 starts as injuries ravaged the Rays’ rotation. He wound up with a 5.59 ERA, 23 homers allowed in 104 2/3 innings and a lot of blue on his Baseball Savant page.

But there’s still a lot to like about the former top prospect. For one, Bradley will only be 23 years old this season. As hard as he got hit, his electric fastball averaged 96.1 mph, while his developing changeup produced a 41% whiff rate and his curveball was an effective pitch.

Manager Kevin Cash said they expect “a much more comfortable version of Taj” this year. He and Pepiot should have an opportunity to settle into the rotation behind Zach Eflin, Aaron Civale and Zack Littell.

C René Pinto
First, the obligatory reminder: Pinto is the only catcher on the 40-man roster. Cash said at the Winter Meetings that Pinto “is going to get a lot of reps,” specifically noting the “tremendous job” he did defensively as reflected by pitchers’ praise for him. 

Pinto’s pitch-blocking was an obvious concern, but he graded out well in other areas, including pop time, arm strength and pitch-framing. Offensively, his low on-base percentages and high strikeout rates could be further exposed in an expanded role, but some of that could be offset by his power, as he hit 15 homers in only 265 plate appearances between Triple-A Durham and the Majors last year. 

The lack of depth is still concerning, especially given the physical toll catching can take. But with strong defense and 20-homer power, could Pinto capitalize on an opportunity to prove himself?

Late last September, Cash said Aranda has “checked every possible box offensively in Triple-A and would like to see that start to translate here at the big league level.” He should get another chance to make it happen this year. 

Set to turn 26 in May, Aranda has slashed just .212/.311/.345 with four homers in 190 MLB plate appearances. Last year, he simply looked overpowered by big league fastballs. It’s a far cry from his performance in Triple-A, where he’s slashed .328/.421/.565 with 43 homers in 199 games. 

With Raley traded, there should be more left-handed at-bats available for Aranda. He can work his way into the lineup as the DH or as a backup to Yandy Díaz at first, Brandon Lowe at second and Isaac Paredes at third. Aranda will go as far as his bat takes him.

It’s difficult to envision a consistent path to playing time for Mead as the Rays’ roster is currently constructed. Díaz, Brandon Lowe and Paredes are set around the infield, and unless there’s another trade in the works, Harold Ramírez seems to be in line for any right-handed DH work. 

But Mead, who turned 23 in October, is the club’s No. 3 prospect for a reason. He’s crushed the ball wherever he’s played, putting together a .302/.376/.514 slash line in the Minors. He held his own in the Majors between bookend 1-for-12 stretches last season, and he is determined to take the leap this year. 

Take it from Cash, who spoke with Mead shortly after the season ended: “That is one hungry, motivated player. … Curtis is driven to be really, really good, and he is going to do everything he can.”