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The Rays’ strength has shifted from pitching to offense since the start of 2021

The pitching’s still quite good, but the Rays’ lineup isn’t the same middle-of-the-pack unit it once was.

MLB: MAY 27 Yankees at Rays Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Yankees’ adversary for his weekend series — and their biggest threat over the last year or so in the AL East — are the Tampa Bay Rays. The denizens of Tropicana Field remain one of the most savvy, if not the savviest, organizations in all of baseball.

The Rays have managed to remain competitive for the better part of the last 15 years with two distinct runs: one with four playoff appearances from 2008-13, and another one that’s ongoing and began in 2019. The Rays have made the playoffs in each of the last three campaigns and are at least in contention for a fourth straight postseason trip.

Throughout this period, the Rays have built a reputation as an aggressive team in moving their top players, even while in contention. They’re a team that’s always looking ahead and rarely loses a player for nothing. Take a look at the Blake Snell trade for instance, when in the middle of a contention window, they chose to move a frontline starter and recent Cy Young Award winner before losing him to free agency in a few years.

However, perhaps more than any other aspect, the Rays have been known for their pitching since the days when now-Dodgers president Andrew Friedman was running the show. They’ve been consistently able to find and develop above-average pitchers that have been overlooked by the majority of the league. Tampa Bay’s focus on pitching often leads many analysts to argue that their success comes from a staff that ranks among the best in baseball, and a hitting side that’s just good enough, but not the star of the show.

While even now, the Rays do continue to bolster effective pitching staffs, this perception was better represented by the previous ballclubs that found success in the late-2000s and early-2010s. This version of the Rays still carries a rather strong corps of arms with the likes of Drew Rasmussen and Jeffrey Springs having fine seasons at the rotation, not to mention the elite arm of Shane McClanahan. All of this is without Tyler Glasnow, too, who had established himself as the Rays’ ace before Tommy John surgery last season, and will now have to fight McClanahan for that denomination (plus the highly-touted Shane Baz).

Andrew Kittredge, Pete Fairbanks, and Nick Anderson are all injured, and Collin McHugh left after a fabulous 2021 season, but no problem. J.P. Feyereisen will come in and throw 21 innings without allowing a single run, and the likes of Brooks Raley, Colin Poche, Jalen Beeks, and Jason Adam will perform admirably.

The point is that the staff still is worthy of praise, but over the last few years, this offense has evolved. It may not be getting the credit it deserves, primarily due to the team’s established preponderance of pitching talent.

The 2021 Rays won 100 games and its offense ranked as follows in the AL:

  • 2nd in Runs Scored (857)
  • 3rd in HR (222)
  • 3rd in wRC+ (109)
  • 2nd in fWAR (31.7)

The offense did more than just get by. No big league team gets to 100 wins by accident, and this trend has continued in 2022. The same core is still in place, and now they get 21-year-old wunderkind Wander Franco for a full season.

Another aspect that may play a role in a general overlooking of this offense is the lack of star power. Yes, Franco and 2020 playoff hero Randy Arozarena represent young and exciting hitters, but beyond those two, the Rays’ lineup is more of a collection of above-average production rather than bolstering multiple staples. Former All-Star Austin Meadows was even shipped off because the organization felt that it could replace his production with a collection of younger, cheaper bats.

Would you care to guess how many of the Rays’ 11 primary hitters in 2022 bolster an OPS+ above 100 entering play on Saturday?

The answer is nine:

  • Manuel Margot (180)
  • Ji-Man Choi (150)
  • Yandy Díaz (129)
  • Harold Ramirez (119)
  • Randy Arozarena (118)
  • Kevin Kiermaier (116)
  • Brandon Lowe (114)
  • Wander Franco (111)
  • Brett Phillips (109)

For the purposes of context, the Yankees have six such players. Although some regression is expected for some of these Rays hitters, one could reasonably expect a big jump from the talented Franco, and as a whole, there’s no reason to expect that this lineup will be anything near a liability at the end of the season.

Maybe it’s time to readjust the common perception of the Rays from an organization that’s not only able to build elite pitching staffs but exceptional lineups as well. Even with a quick look, that wouldn’t be your impression.