Do the Rays have enough offense entering '23?

January 14th, 2023

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 -- Here we are in mid-January, a month away from the start of Spring Training, running back the same point we did in October. And November. And December. And last July, for that matter.

The Rays still need to upgrade their lineup.

It’s just become more and more difficult to see how they’ll do that.

The Rays haven’t acquired any Major League hitters this offseason, and there aren’t a lot of options remaining after the rest of MLB’s early winter spending spree. Think about some of the free agents who might have fit their acknowledged need for a veteran left-handed hitter…

Michael Brantley (seemingly the best fit) is an Astro. Brandon Belt (the next-best fit) is a Blue Jay. Michael Conforto is a Giant. Josh Bell is a Guardian. Cody Bellinger is a Cub. Joey Gallo is a Twin. Anthony Rizzo remains a Yankee. Joc Pederson a Giant. Matt Carpenter is a Padre. And Andrew Benintendi took a big deal from the White Sox.

The offseason’s not over yet, but the pool of left-handed bats has basically dried up and the Rays haven’t landed any of their targets.

There are a handful of solid right-handed-hitting veterans available, most notably Trey Mancini, but they’d likely be redundant on Tampa Bay’s roster. They’re set up the middle, and there are already plenty of right-handed hitters in the corner outfield/DH/first base mix: Randy Arozarena, Manuel Margot, Yandy Díaz, Harold Ramírez, Isaac Paredes and, eventually, prospect Curtis Mead.

Maybe they could swing a deal for someone like Oakland’s Seth Brown, a left-handed hitter with power. There could be a lower-profile lefty bat out there who’d work as a platoon player, the way Ramírez fit into the roster last spring. But there have been surprisingly few notable trades this offseason, and asking prices for controllable players are said to be high with fewer rebuilding teams looking to offload talent.

As elite as Tampa Bay’s pitching staff is shaping up to be, the lineup probably just needs to be good enough, not great. President of baseball operations Erik Neander raised that point when the Rays introduced starter Zach Eflin, their only MLB free-agent addition so far: They only need to win by one run.

So, where does that leave them? One guess on how the lineup could look if the season began today…

Bench: C Francisco Mejía, INF Taylor Walls, plus two of: INF/OF Vidal Bruján, OF Josh Lowe, INF Jonathan Aranda or 1B/OF Luke Raley

That is not a bad lineup. You could do a lot worse than that top of the order, a balanced mix of on-base ability, contact, power and speed. But it is a group with flaws.

It’s too right-handed. It lacks power and veteran presence. It’s not that deep. That bench would provide defense but no proven bats. Overall, it’s largely the same group that ranked 11th in the American League in runs last season and disappeared in October.

The Rays are likely to improve somewhat on last year’s performance despite all that, as long as Franco and Brandon Lowe stay healthy. Franco could be their best player, and Lowe should be their most consistent power threat. Regularly having those two in the lineup would go a long way.

They’re also clearly still counting on some of the former prospects who fizzled last year: Josh Lowe, Bruján, Walls, Aranda, et al. As a left-handed-hitting outfielder with power and speed, the hypothetical All-Star version of Lowe would answer a lot of their questions.

Development isn’t a linear process. That means all, some or none of those players could break out this year, no matter how ready they looked with Durham or how overmatched they looked in the Majors. The Rays traded Joey Wendle and Austin Meadows before last season, thinking Walls and Josh Lowe were ready to replace them; neither one hit, and Lowe spent most of the season in Triple-A.

There’s still time before Opening Day to figure something out. The Rays will continue to look for upgrades. They could give the young guys a chance and, if they don’t click, be more aggressive at the Trade Deadline. Maybe Paredes takes another step forward while both Ramírez and Margot return to last season’s pre-injury form, creating a deeper lineup.

The best-case scenario is that their top hitters stay healthy, their pitching is as excellent as advertised, and they win a lot of close games. If not, we could be having this same conversation all year.