While their American League rivals are in different stages of the competitive cycle, all-in or rebuilding or somewhere in between, the Rays’ goal is sustainability. They believe that their best chance to bring home the championship they fell two wins short of last year is by giving themselves as many opportunities as possible and, thus, reaching the postseason as often as possible.
So Tampa Bay’s objective, as general manager Erik Neander simplified it last month, is this: Be really good for a long time, without interruption.
Some observers might expect a step back for the Rays this season after they stormed through the AL East and reached the World Series last season, mostly because they’re moving forward without front-line starters Blake Snell and Charlie Morton. But Tampa Bay still has a deep and talented roster backed up by the best farm system in baseball, a group headlined by young players who are ready -- or nearly ready -- for the Majors.
“Based on the overall talent that’s currently on our Major League club, as well as the talent we have throughout our system, we believe really strongly we’re well positioned to be competitive and sustain this level of competitiveness that we’ve had here for the foreseeable future -- and that we have players on hand that are prepared to step up and assume greater roles as we go along,” Neander said shortly after trading Snell to the Padres for four young players.
Need proof there’s another wave on the way? Take a look at MLB Pipeline’s new Top 100 Prospects list, which was released Thursday night. The Rays are represented more than any other team, with eight prospects ranging from 19-year-old shortstop Wander Franco, who remains No. 1 overall, to 21-year-old right-hander Shane Baz, who checks in at No. 90.
What stands out about that group, as much as their ability, is their proximity to the big leagues. Look up and down the list and you’ll see something in common: projected MLB estimated arrival times of 2021-22. In several cases, the Rays' top prospects are already in the Majors.
McKay pitched for the Rays in 2019 and Patiño for the Padres last season. McClanahan made his Major League debut out of the bullpen during the 2020 postseason. Perhaps you recall Arozarena laying waste to seemingly every pitch he saw from last September through his historic October.
Arozarena is already an important part of the roster and will have a starting spot in Tampa Bay’s lineup on Opening Day. The three pitchers with previous MLB experience are expected to compete for jobs in Spring Training and figure to contribute throughout the season, given the club's open rotation spots. And they could have company at Tropicana Field soon.
Franco, MLB Pipeline’s top prospect for the second straight year, should be ready to bring his dynamic switch-hitting bat to the Majors this year after taking a spot on the Rays’ 2020 postseason taxi squad. Whether he breaks in at shortstop or somewhere else in the infield, there’s little doubt among evaluators that he’s going to be a difference-maker at the plate.
Brujan, who reached Double-A at age 21 in 2019 and worked out last season at the alternate training site, could also reach the Majors later this year. He spent time on the taxi squad last year as well and has the best speed in the farm system, which at the very least would be useful late in critical games. Overall, though, he looks like a top-of-the-order hitter with a long-term future in the middle infield.
The 21-year-old Edwards might be another year away, but he also profiles as an everyday middle infielder who could hit at the top of the order. And Baz, the third top prospect acquired from Pittsburgh in the Chris Archer trade, is tentatively projected by MLB Pipeline to break into the big leagues by 2022 as well.
What does that, combined with the talent already on the roster and the depth in their system, foretell for the Rays’ future? They hope it means they can make another run to the postseason this year, even without Snell and Morton.
They hope it means they can reach the playoffs next year, too, even as they continue to make moves with one eye on the present and the other on the future. And the year after that. And the year after that. And so on for a long time, without interruption, as a self-sustaining contender.
“Our goal is to win, and at the end of the day, it’s to win a World Series. It’s our philosophy, it’s our belief that the best way for us to achieve that goal is to construct playoff-caliber teams year-in, year-out -- for every team that we put out there to have a shot and avoid the valleys, to not take any years off,” Neander said in December. “It does require a challenging balancing act between the team that’s immediately in front of us and those that we envision the next several years.”