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5 questions for the Rays heading into 2021

@juanctoribio
December 31, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG -- Though 2020 was a challenging year for the sport and the world as a whole, the Rays found a way to make the season an exciting one, winning the second American League pennant in franchise history. But despite the positive memories from last season, the reality is

ST. PETERSBURG -- Though 2020 was a challenging year for the sport and the world as a whole, the Rays found a way to make the season an exciting one, winning the second American League pennant in franchise history.

But despite the positive memories from last season, the reality is the Rays fell two wins short of accomplishing their ultimate goal of winning a World Series. The Game 6 loss to the Dodgers will certainly serve as a motivating factor for the group, but there are still several uncertainties around the team heading into next season.

As the year comes to an end, let’s take a look at five questions the Rays need to answer heading into the ‘21 season.

Will the team trade Kevin Kiermaier?
With Blake Snell now in San Diego, this is the big question surrounding the Rays this offseason, and it’ll continue until Kiermaier is lacing up his cleats at Charlotte Sports Park in February.

Right now, there’s no real traction on a deal involving Kiermaier, and that’s no surprise. With George Springer and Jackie Bradley Jr. still available, most teams interested in a center fielder are locked in on the free-agent market. Once that market takes shape, it’s expected the Rays will get more calls on Kiermaier, but that doesn’t mean Tampa Bay will trade the veteran outfielder.

With Snell and Charlie Morton elsewhere, the Rays like Kiermaier’s leadership in the clubhouse, as the outfielder has been the vocal leader for a few seasons. However, if a team calls the Rays with a good haul, they will certainly listen, just like general manager Erik Neander did when it involved Snell.

While there’s interest in Kiermaier, trading him won’t be as easy as trading Snell. Kiermaier will be 31 in April, but he is still one of the premier defensive outfielders in baseball. There’s certainly value in acquiring an elite up-the-middle defender, but other clubs may ask the Rays to pick up some of Kiermaier’s remaining $23 million. Depending on the amount, that request could ultimately be a deal-breaker for the Rays, who would love to clear up a bit of a logjam in the outfield.

Are they done at catcher?
Manager Kevin Cash jokingly ruled out the possibility of coming out of retirement to be one of the Rays’ catchers this season. Luckily for the Rays and Cash, the team signed Mike Zunino to a one-year, $2 million deal this month to solidify one of its two catching spots.

In addition to bringing Zunino back, the Rays also acquired Francisco Mejía in the Snell deal and signed Joseph Odom and Kevan Smith to Minor League deals with invites to big league camp.

Neander said Mejía will continue to develop as a catcher, which appears to set up a Zunino and Mejía tandem for Opening Day. The Rays, however, could choose to remain aggressive in the free-agent and trade markets. That’s a question they’ll have to answer over the next few weeks, but the team is much better positioned at the position than they were at the beginning of the offseason.

Where does Randy Arozarena fit in next season?
As everyone watched Arozarena break just about every postseason record, it was easy to forget that he’s still considered a rookie next season and still has a lot to learn. Arozarena was on a 63-homer pace last season, an unfair expectation for next season, or any season, for that matter.

However, the Rays are going to lean heavily on Arozarena in '21, and the young star will be a big part of the Tampa Bay offense in ‘21. Arozarena will likely get most of his playing time in left field but will also serve as the team’s designated hitter in order to rotate other players in and out of the lineup.

The talent is undeniable, but the Rays still have to figure out exactly what they have in Arozarena, and they’ll get a good look next season as opposing teams will be gameplanning to try to stop him.

Are the Rays done adding pitching?
After losing Morton and Snell, the Rays will definitely be on the market to acquire a veteran starter even with the addition of Michael Wacha earlier this month. Wacha provides good leadership for the young group, but the Rays still need to get more length due to all the uncertainties surrounding its group of starting pitchers.

Neander called the 2021 season a “transitional year” for the starting rotation. The Rays will look to develop Shane McClanahan, Brendan McKay, Brent Honeywell Jr., Luis Patiño, Joe Ryan and Josh Fleming, and all of the young pitchers will get an opportunity to compete for starting jobs this spring.

While the group of young starters can end up being very successful as rookies, the Rays still need to protect themselves by adding another veteran, and it’ll be interesting to see how they choose to acquire one over the remainder of the offseason.

Will it finally be Wander’s year?
The Rays’ offense is expected to be much improved in ‘21 and it could be even better if Wander Franco, the top overall prospect per MLB Pipeline, gets a chance to make his debut next season.

The 19-year-old Franco wanted to make his Major League debut in ‘20, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. A biceps issue forced the Rays to shut down Franco in the Dominican Winter League, but the young phenom checked out fine when examined by team doctors and is expected to be at full strength for Spring Training. Franco is aiming for a debut in ‘21, and he appears poised to make that happen. But with Willy Adames at shortstop, Franco may have to slide over to third or second base in order to get consistent playing time as a rookie.

Juan Toribio covers the Dodgers for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @juanctoribio.