As Kevin Kiermaier put it earlier this spring, the Rays’ “backbone” is pitching and defense. They are built on run prevention, the focal point of the franchise’s on-field identity, since ditching the Devil Rays-era green, and the key ingredient of their recent success.
But Tampa Bay’s longest-tenured player offered a reminder that the Rays are about more than just preventing runs. They think they can score plenty this year, too.
“We feed off our pitchers, and we like making plays out there, but don't sleep on what we can do offensively as a unit,” Kiermaier said. “Because we did what we did last year, and that doesn't happen by just pitching and defense.”
Indeed, the Rays ranked sixth in the American League and 12th in the Majors last season with 289 runs scored. Nobody is expecting them to start out-slugging their division rival Yankees or Blue Jays, but they believe they can hold their own offensively -- more than people might anticipate from a pitching-and-defense team.
Here are five reasons to believe they’re right.
1) They were better than you remember last year
First impressions are important, but in this case, the Rays’ most recent impression is doing them no favors. When last we saw them in the postseason, they collectively slashed just .211/.289/.404 while striking out in more than 30% of their plate appearances. That’s not the same level at which they performed in the regular season, when their 110 wRC+ was the eighth-best mark in the Majors.
Are they going to finish the season as one of the Majors’ top offensive teams? Likely not. But it’s probably not fair to act as if their lineup is some sort of glaring weakness, either, based strictly on what they showed last October against high-quality pitching, with a number of key hitters rushing back from injuries and some untimely slumps mixed in for good measure.
“Anybody is capable of getting hot at any time, and I think that we do have a dangerous and dynamic offense with guys that can hit for power, speed guys, average guys,” infielder Joey Wendle said. “I think generally the attention is on pitching and defense, and kind of how our team is built around that, but I'm excited to see what we can do offensively as well and I definitely think we can win games that way.”
2) Depth on and off the roster
The idea of playing matchups and maximizing each player’s strengths is as essential to the Rays’ DNA as pitching and defense. Even with injuries to Ji-Man Choi and Brett Phillips, the Rays have a flexible group that manager Kevin Cash can mold into lineups specifically designed to attack opposing pitchers on a nightly basis.
“The special thing about this team is that each day there seems to be a new hero or someone doing something special, picking someone else up,” right fielder Austin Meadows said. “And that's what makes a team pretty special. If we're all healthy, we have a ton of potential there. I have a feeling it’s going to be a special year offensively.”
3) A full season of Randy Arozarena
Remember what he did last September? Could you have possibly missed the show he put on last October? Arozarena doesn’t have to be the hitter he was then -- that would be an unfair standard to set for anyone, much less a rookie -- but he is clearly going to be a big presence in the top third of Tampa Bay’s lineup every day.
“I feel physically good, just like I did last year. And every time I go up to the plate, all I think about is making hard contact,” Arozarena said last week through interpreter Manny Navarro. “I don't think about hitting the home runs. If they come out and I hit it at the right angle, then you know, if it comes out a home run, then great. But I just try to make hard contact.”
4) A healthy Meadows and a healthy Yandy Díaz
Meadows came into camp looking more like he did in 2019, when he slashed .291/.364/.558 with 33 homers in 138 games. He’s checked a lot of boxes this spring, too, turning on inside fastballs that he simply couldn’t reach last year, when his season was derailed by COVID-19. As long as he’s healthy, Meadows is going to be a threat near the top of the lineup along with Arozarena.
Díaz spent last season limited by injuries and in “survival mode” at the plate, Cash said, getting on base and taking hits where he could get them at the expense of the home-run power he displayed in 2019. It’s easy to see now that Díaz is in better shape at third base, where he’s made athletic plays with ease, but it should show up at the plate as well.
5) A motivated Brandon Lowe
Lowe spent the offseason facing high-octane stuff from pitching machines, searching for ways to maintain consistency and keep his slumps short, “rather than the entire postseason,” he said. This spring, he’s dropped a couple bunts with an eye on beating the shift.
For all the work he’s put in, you might think Lowe is coming off a disappointing season. Just the opposite. Lowe was the Rays’ most valuable player a year ago, and his career numbers indicate that a 30-homer, 100-RBI season is well within reach if he plays a full season. He’d certainly take that.
“Yeah, let’s hope it’s close to everyone’s calculations,” Lowe said last month. “That would be nice.”