Rays know they've 'got a great thing going'

Disappointing finish to '21 won't be end of story for deep, youthful club

October 12th, 2021

BOSTON -- A first-round elimination wasn't how the Rays imagined their 2021 postseason experience going. But despite the outcome, center fielder Kevin Kiermaier couldn’t focus on anything but the bright future.

“It just wasn't our time, but the winning way, it's going to continue here,” Kiermaier said. “There's just too much talent in our organization. Who knows what's going to happen moving forward, but we've got a great thing going here.”

On the heels of a 2020 season in which they were sent home by the Dodgers after Game 6 of the World Series, the Rays had their sights set on bringing a title to Tampa Bay. Instead, they faced the shocking upset of getting eliminated from the postseason in Game 4 of the American League Division Series with a 6-5 walk-off loss to the Red Sox on Monday night at Fenway Park.

But maybe this is just another stepping stone.

The Rays are young. The team had four rookie hurlers pitch during their four postseason games, each with just a half a season (or much less) of experience. Their shortstop played in only 70 regular-season games. This playoff experience was quick, abrupt and disappointing, but there are still plenty of reasons to believe this club is building a solid foundation for the foreseeable future.

Why? Well, not much more than the name “” really needs to be said. Pairing him with -- who also just wrapped up his rookie season -- makes for a duo that should keep everyone believing in the future of this club. After Arozarena not only handled but thrived in the spotlight in the 2020 postseason, it was hard to believe that anyone could follow in those footsteps. Somehow, the 20-year-old Franco did just that.

Franco debuted in June as MLB’s top prospect, according to MLB Pipeline. Although he had sky-high expectations, he lived up to (if not exceeded) all of them. In the regular season, he hit .288 with an .810 OPS (129 OPS+), 18 doubles, five triples, seven homers and 39 RBIs in just 70 contests.

Franco seamlessly transitioned into the postseason, becoming the youngest player in MLB history to log multihit efforts in each of his first three playoff games. He then became the fifth player to homer in back-to-back postseason games at age 20 or younger with a two-run blast in the sixth inning Monday, joining Rafael Devers (2017), Miguel Cabrera (2003), Andruw Jones (1996) and Mickey Mantle (1952).

“I've been impressed with Wander from the day he got here,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “He carries himself like a seven-, eight-year veteran player. He doesn't have seven, eight months in the big leagues. It's fortunate for us that we have him. It's a good feeling when he's walking up to the plate every night.”

The Rays have been known for their run prevention for the past few years, but that narrative changed this season with their explosive offense carrying the team. However, there are reasons to believe the pitching staff could be the team’s strong suit once again in 2022. , , and will likely be the young starting core this franchise will rely on for the next handful of seasons.

We saw what getting a taste of the postseason did for McClanahan. He debuted in the 2020 ALDS before also making appearances in the AL Championship Series and World Series. He struggled, posting an 8.31 ERA in those four outings, but that experience proved to be invaluable when he returned this year to make 25 starts for Tampa Bay, pitching to a 3.43 ERA before tossing a solid five scoreless frames in Game 1 of the ALDS against Boston. It ended on a sour note: He came out of the bullpen on short rest in Game 4 and allowed five runs, but everything leading up to that moment proved he took tremendous strides this season.

“He's gonna be here for a very long time,” Rays backstop Mike Zunino said. “And he's got to continue to put his head down and keep working, and he's gonna help this team a lot down the road.”

Baz, Rasmussen and Patiño could benefit from this postseason experience the same way McClanahan did last year. And if they do, Tampa Bay would have a solid pitching core to pair with a lineup that scored the second-most runs in the Majors in 2021.

But can they continue to sustain this pace of constantly having new players to turn to? For a team that graduated the top prospect in baseball to the big leagues and moved up McClanahan and Patiño -- both former Top 100 prospects -- it would be easy to assume the farm system is depleted. That’s far from Tampa Bay’s reality.

As of MLB Pipeline’s most recent ranking of each Minor League system, the Rays still rank sixth and boast five players in the Top 100. The club has free agents in Nelson Cruz, Collin McHugh, Michael Wacha, David Robertson, Chris Archer and Chaz Roe. Zunino has a club option that will most likely be picked up. So Tampa Bay will have to work through some decisions this winter.

Regardless of the offseason moves, the farm system appears to be loaded with never-ending talent once again. And maybe the Rays will find some space to see what guys like outfielder Josh Lowe -- MLB's No. 73 prospect and Tampa Bay's Minor League Player of the Year this season -- and infielder/outfielder Vidal Bruján (MLB No. 21) have to offer.

This ending to a 100-win season was a gut punch for the Rays, who had sky-high expectations. But the foundation they’ve built indicates that they’ll not only bounce back in 2022, but maybe find a way to return even better.

“We’re gonna be here a long time,” reliever J.P. Feyereisen said. “I mean, you look at the guys we have in this clubhouse and the young pups that we got, we got some dogs here, and it’s gonna be a lot of fun.”