ST. PETERSBURG -- Three weeks into 2023, how are those resolutions coming along?
If the answer is not so great, just use our excuse: The new year doesn’t really start until pitchers and catchers report. With that in mind, let’s look at four new season’s resolutions the Rays can make before Spring Training begins.
1. Balance the lineup.
Last year, the Rays had a .711 OPS against left-handed pitchers and a .678 OPS against right-handers. Overall, their left-handed hitting was among the worst in baseball, with a .630 OPS that ranked 28th out of 30 teams.
Injuries to Brandon Lowe and Wander Franco played a part, but Tampa Bay’s lefty bats struggled in just about every way. Their left-handed hitters slashed a stunningly poor .198/.247/.278 against southpaws but also just .216/.293/.350 against right-handed pitchers. For the sake of comparison, the Rays’ right-handed hitters produced a .252/.318/.396 slash line against righties and a .271/.338/.419 line against lefties.
Ideally, the Rays would have added (or eventually will add) an experienced left-handed hitter while getting more, in terms of plate appearances and performance, from Lowe and the switch-hitting Franco. Without any major additions, they need other returning left-handed/switch-hitters to step up when presented with seemingly favorable matchups.
It seems reasonable to expect more against right-handed pitchers out of at least Franco, Lowe (career .858 OPS vs. RHP), Francisco Mejía (.566 OPS vs. RHP last year, down from .731 in 2021), Jonathan Aranda (.626, compared to .901 for Triple-A Durham) and Josh Lowe (.735, compared to .878 for Durham).
2. Make fewer fundamental mistakes.
If you watched often enough last season, you know.
The Rays led the Majors with 73 outs on the bases -- the league average was 47 -- and that stat doesn’t account for the 37 times they were caught stealing, the 12 times they were picked off or any outs on force plays. Aggressive baserunning is one thing, but they simply can’t give away that many outs.
Defensively, they were not a bad team last season. But they were surprisingly average, which felt like a drop-off considering their usual run-prevention foundation. They were 14th in Defensive Runs Saved, their first time outside of the top 10 in that category since 2014. They were also 16th in Outs Above Average, according to Statcast, and near the middle of the pack in errors (84) and fielding percentage (.985).
They can resolve to be better on both fronts.
3. Keep the starters healthy.
Easier said than done, obviously. This will require some restraint, managing workloads to ensure the top starting pitchers are healthy down the stretch and in October. That might mean skipping starts. It might mean cutting outings short. It might mean the occasional spot start or opener/bullpen game.
They did all that last season, putting them in good position with the foursome of Shane McClanahan, Tyler Glasnow, Jeffrey Springs and Drew Rasmussen (plus Corey Kluber) heading into the postseason. They’ll begin the season with those four and Zach Eflin in the rotation, a strong starting point, but all five have health/workload concerns to monitor.
McClanahan is coming off his first full MLB season and dealt with a late-season shoulder issue. Glasnow, back from Tommy John surgery, has never pitched more than 160 innings in a professional season. Rasmussen is a two-time Tommy John guy coming off a massive increase in innings. Springs pitched nearly 100 more innings last year than in ’21. Eflin has a history of knee injuries.
The Rays could very well have the best rotation in the American League. Even their depth is admirable, with the solid Yonny Chirinos, the promise of prospect Taj Bradley and the still-untapped upside of Luis Patiño and Josh Fleming. They just need to stay healthy.
4. Make the next wave count.
The lineup’s inconsistency overshadowed a lot of other issues, but one of the most glaring problems with last year’s team was the lack of meaningful contributions from the farm -- especially on the heels of a season when the Rays had three top AL Rookie of the Year finishers in Randy Arozarena, Franco and McClanahan.
Shane Baz’s injuries created a big hole, as he could have been a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate if healthy. And to be fair, Isaac Paredes -- not a rookie, but only 23 years old -- hit 20 homers last season. But the Rays got a combined minus-0.3 bWAR from Taylor Walls (2.5 WAR, pretty much all defensive value), Josh Lowe (0.2 WAR), Aranda (-0.2), Vidal Bruján (-0.5), Patiño (-0.8) and Fleming (-1.5), all recently well-regarded prospects.
With so few additions this offseason, it’ll be key to avoid similar growing pains with the expected debuts of top prospects Bradley, Curtis Mead and anyone else who makes the leap to the Majors.