Rays focus on renewed expectations in '21

March 26th, 2021

In the early days of Spring Training, the Rays fielded many questions about the 2020 season. They were often asked to look back on Mike Brosseau’s home run off Aroldis Chapman, Manuel Margot’s tumbling catch in San Diego, Brett Phillips’ heroics in Game 4 of the World Series and, of course, the record-setting October of Randy Arozarena.

The reigning American League champions proudly relived those memories and plenty more. They discussed the disappointment of falling short against the Dodgers in Game 6 of the World Series and the difficulty of losing starters Charlie Morton and Blake Snell. They talked about it all as part of a bigger-picture progression, from the 2019 AL Division Series to the 2020 World Series to whatever comes next.

And then, at some point, they stopped talking so much about last season. The Rays’ focus now is on what they can accomplish this year.

“I think everybody in the locker room, new and old, we know what happened last year. We understand where we were at and how close we were to coming home with the championship. And there's not a person that wants to look back and look back on Game 6 and relive that experience,” second baseman Brandon Lowe said. “We've been there. We had the experience. Flush it. We're looking forward to this year and getting back in that same situation, with a different outcome.”

The Rays still have some decisions to finalize and a long road ahead, but let’s first look back on some of their key storylines from this Spring Training.

Best developments
There have been several. Opening Day starter Tyler Glasnow has felt good about the development of his slider, a third pitch between his fastball and curveball. Michael Wacha has looked particularly sharp, making good use of his entire arsenal. New acquisitions Wacha, Chris Archer, Rich Hill and Collin McHugh have had a positive impact in the clubhouse. Josh Fleming looks ready to help the rotation again, and starting pitching prospects Shane McClanahan and Luis Patiño showed their electric stuff. Lefty Cody Reed was healthy and on top of his game from the start, giving the Rays a quality left-handed option in an already-loaded bullpen.

Austin Meadows and Yandy Díaz showed up to camp looking as healthy as ever, which should go a long way for the Rays lineup. Margot appeared to be more comfortable in the clubhouse and at the plate during his second spring with the Rays. Tampa Bay’s coaching staff has been encouraged by the way Francisco Mejía has caught on in his first camp with the team. Yoshi Tsutsugo has taken well to first base, giving him another path to playing time.

Additionally, some under-the-radar prospects showed up quite well after not getting to play in the Minors last season. Ryan Boldt showed power at the plate and, above all, good health. Tristan Gray and Miles Mastrobuoni played all over the field and displayed some pop of their own, standing out in a crowded field of heralded prospects.

Unfortunate events
The Rays are very open with their players that they won’t be judged based on Spring Training performance, so it’s hardly worth it for fans to get distressed by any small-sample-size slumps if the front office isn’t worried. The point of Spring Training is to get ready for the season. That makes health one of the most important storylines, and the club has been hit hard on that front.

Most significantly, high-leverage reliever Nick Anderson was diagnosed with a partially torn ligament in his right elbow exactly a week before Opening Day. He could be out for a large portion of the season, taking away one of the Rays’ top bullpen arms and forcing them to dig into their depth before the official start of a long season that will challenge pitching staffs around the league.

Phillips is expected to miss some time at the start of the season with a strained left hamstring, an injury the Rays can manage due to their depth in the outfield. They’re also expecting to begin the season without first baseman Ji-Man Choi, who was twice set back during camp by right knee inflammation that required a pair of cortisone shots.

Choi figures to be a key part of Tampa Bay’s lineup as the club’s left-handed-hitting first baseman, so the Rays will feel the impact of his injury. Again, they have the personnel to cover it with Brosseau, Díaz and Tsutsugo expected to fill in at first base, but it’s not ideal to have that depth tested right out of the gate.

Player who opened eyes
The Rays are typically quite confident in their evaluations and projections for players, so it’s unlikely that anyone has completely changed the club’s perception of their ability. But McClanahan certainly turned a lot of heads within the industry with a dominant showing before he was optioned to Minor League camp. The lefty, who made his debut in the 2020 postseason, overpowered hitters with a triple-digit fastball that touched 102 mph and three other legitimate offerings. McClanahan struck out each of the last seven hitters he faced in Spring Training, including striking out the side twice against the Red Sox in two innings of work.

It’s not like there were any doubts about McClanahan’s potential. He is MLB Pipeline’s No. 84 prospect for a reason, and the Rays were impressed enough by him last year to send him to the mound in October. But he made a strong argument for his upside as a starting pitcher by pounding the strike zone with a deep and powerful arsenal, and it’s easy to imagine him making an impact in the Rays’ rotation sooner rather than later.

Wow moment
When we look back on this Spring Training years from now, we’ll probably first remember top prospect Wander Franco’s impossibly majestic home run against the Pirates on March 3. (Maybe, by that point in the future when we look back on this spring, that ball will have landed.) It was an incredible sight to behold, obviously, but also a tantalizing look at the 20-year-old’s immense potential at the plate.

“He’s just so good. He’s got a lot of talent,” said Meadows, who also hit his share of impressive-looking homers this spring, during an interview with FOX Sports Sun. “It’s fun to watch him play, so hopefully we’ll see him up in Tampa soon.”

In case you missed it
The emotional high point of the spring likely came on March 22, when Brent Honeywell Jr. took the mound to pitch in a game against another team for the first time in 1,281 days.

Speaking of emotional high points, it was interesting to see 25-year-old Willy Adames serve as a mentor to the Rays’ group of young middle infield prospects and hear from teammates about how he has emerged as a leader in Tampa Bay’s clubhouse.

Finally, this spring brought many reminders of the Rays’ unique standing as the defending AL champions who also happen to have the best farm system in baseball. One came on March 19, when MLB Pipeline revealed that Tampa Bay has the game’s top-ranked Minor League system. There’s a lot of talent already on the roster, there’s plenty more on the way, and this spring was a chance to see both groups take the field at the same time.