Who will step up for Tampa Bay in 2024?

March 26th, 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 -- At the beginning and near the end of Spring Training, much of the talk about the Rays focused on who wasn’t on the field.

Tyler Glasnow and Manuel Margot were traded. Wander Franco remains under investigation, away from the team. Shane McClanahan, Drew Rasmussen, Jeffrey Springs and Shane Baz are working their way back from elbow surgery. Shortstop Taylor Walls won’t be ready for the start of the season. Then came the late-spring injuries to Taj Bradley, Josh Lowe, Jonathan Aranda and Jonny DeLuca, which forced Tampa Bay to shuffle its plans for the first month of the season.

For many teams, that would be an insurmountable loss of talent. The Rays, of course, aren’t most teams.

“I think everybody's ready. Whoever is going to fill those roles for the time being is going to fill those roles and play hard and be right on the same page as all of us,” Opening Day starter said. “You kind of saw it last year, and we had so many people step up and be that guy for us. Pretty sure it's going to happen this year.

“We're going to have a lot of players contribute to the season, and we feel confident in everyone. Everybody's on the same page, and we're just excited.”

With Opening Day on deck, let’s look at a few key questions and storylines for the Rays as they aim to secure a sixth straight trip to the postseason.

What needs to go right: Power, speed and early leads
The Rays are typically built on a foundation of pitching and defense, but their lineup stole the show last season. They hit 230 home runs (fourth most in the American League) and stole 160 bases (second most in the AL), while producing a .776 team OPS (also second in the AL). With a less proven rotation than in recent years, the Rays need a repeat of that kind of dynamic offensive performance this season. Because if they can create enough runs to secure an early lead, more often than not, their bullpen -- which looks like the team’s greatest strength -- should make it stand up. Pitching coach Kyle Snyder called this relief corps the deepest group of his tenure with Tampa Bay, and it’s hard to argue with that assertion.

Great unknown: Can the rotation hold up?
The Rays traded away Glasnow knowing they were likely to be without McClanahan all season, Baz in the early going, Springs for perhaps the first half and Rasmussen for likely a little longer than that. Now, they’re expected to miss Bradley (right pectoral strain) for the first month of the season. This was already a group with workload concerns, given some starters’ injury histories and others’ limited experience in a Major League rotation. But without any top pitching prospects banging down the door at Triple-A Durham, they need their top starters (Eflin, and ) to be durable and their young arms (Ryan Pepiot and Bradley) to take a step forward until the reinforcements (Baz, Springs and Rasmussen) arrive later in the year.

The team MVP will be…
Díaz was the Rays’ MVP last season and, in fact, one of the best players in the AL. So, this isn’t exactly a groundbreaking choice, but he has earned it. The 32-year-old won a batting title last season while smashing a career-high 22 homers and driving in a career-best 78 RBIs. He’s still an on-base machine, and he struck out only 94 times despite going to the plate 600 times in 137 games. Díaz’s focus this offseason was on readying his body to play as many games as possible, avoiding the kind of nagging injuries that affected his preparation at times last year. Tampa Bay’s leadoff-hitting first baseman is central to everything the team does, and the Rays will likely go as he goes this year.

The team Cy Young will be… Zach Eflin
Eflin finished sixth in the AL Cy Young Award voting last season after putting together a remarkably steady performance in the first season of his three-year, $40 million contract with the Rays. He emerged as a leader in the clubhouse and earned his first career Opening Day start. If Eflin merely repeats what he did last season, when he went 16-8 with a 3.50 ERA and a 7.75 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 177 2/3 innings over 31 starts, he’ll have this locked up. The key for Eflin is just staying on the mound, because the Rays need him to be the rock of their rotation in Year 2.

Bold prediction: The Rays will win a postseason series
Is this bold, or does it just feel that way because the Rays haven’t won a series in the playoffs since the 2020 AL Championship Series? Regardless, it feels like most of the public analysis of the team entering the season is a rare blend of skepticism -- over trading Glasnow, the uncertainty regarding Franco and the typical lack of household names -- and an almost blind faith in the Rays’ seemingly unfailing ability to figure it out no matter what comes their way. That machine is still humming, as there is still plenty of talent in their clubhouse, savvy on their coaching staff and ingenuity in their front office. If they can survive the AL East to reach October again, surely they can snap their postseason losing streak as well.