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This Rays pitching staff will test your faith

John Romano | Projections are not as high in 2021, but that doesn’t mean the Rays are doomed. They’ve fooled us before and can do it again.
Rich Hill has an impressive 43-22 record with a 2.92 ERA in the past six seasons with four different teams. But Hill, who turns 41 next week, has also been limited to an average of 16 starts a season during that time.
Rich Hill has an impressive 43-22 record with a 2.92 ERA in the past six seasons with four different teams. But Hill, who turns 41 next week, has also been limited to an average of 16 starts a season during that time. [ WILL VRAGOVIC | Tampa Bay Rays ]
Published Mar. 5
Updated Mar. 5

PORT CHARLOTTE — All in all, the computers are not impressed. One year after leading the American League in wins and reaching Game 6 of the World Series, two of baseball’s top analytical websites have the Rays falling below the cherished 90-win level.

Baseball Prospectus suggests Tampa Bay will win 86 or 87 games and barely squeak into the wild-card picture. Fangraphs sees even darker days ahead, with the Rays falling to 83 wins and fourth place in the American League East.

Even if you’re not into the analytical stuff, the oddsmakers in Las Vegas have also soured on the 2021 roster. The sportsbook at the MGM, which reflects betting trends, has the over/under for wins at 86.5 for Tampa Bay, with five AL teams doing better.

Sounds kind of grim, right? Like the window of opportunity closing while you were still enjoying the October breeze.

“I guess I can understand and appreciate different perspectives. What was our pace last year, 40-20? That’s a 107-win pace. I don’t think it’s fair to put any number like that out there,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “It’s almost like the guy who hits 30 home runs, 35 home runs. Well, that’s unfair to say he’s going to hit 30-35 HRs again. That’s really tough to do.

“I’m good — I think we’re all good — with whatever projections any magazine, any website puts out there. I think internally we have (our own) thought process. Forget the numbers; we feel we’re a very good team. And good teams find a way to get better.”

There is a classic Peanuts comic strip with Schroeder reciting a litany of negative numbers the gang’s baseball team had compiled during the season. Finally, Charlie Brown turns to him and says:

“Tell your statistics to shut up!”

Essentially, that’s what Cash is saying. Just more politely.

Look, there are legitimate reasons to suggest the Rays are not as reliable as a contender going into 2021. For instance, among the 175 innings thrown by Rays pitchers last postseason, more than 40 percent are no longer available. When you’re facing 162 games in the next six months, that’s a huge chunk of work to come up with on a limited payroll.

And the computer models are justifiably skeptical of Tampa Bay’s rent-a-rotation replacement plan. Between them, Chris Archer, Rich Hill and Michael Wacha might replicate what Blake Snell and Charlie Morton did in 2019-20, but they also have a lot of notations on their medical charts.

At this point, the projections from Baseball Prospectus suggest the Rays will allow more runs than in any season since 2009. So, yeah, you can probably count on fewer well-pitched games than you’ve come to expect.

But — and here’s where the advanced metrics might fall short — the Rays could utilize younger players more than ever before. While Tampa Bay has been notoriously patient when it comes to bringing players to the majors, there are some factors that could change things in 2021.

First of all, Tampa Bay’s farm system is stacked. And a lot of those minor leaguers have been around for a few years, which means the Rays have been forced to move them to the 40-man roster to keep other teams from gobbling them up in the Rule 5 draft.

With the roster stretched so taut, the Rays may be more willing to dip into their farm system if they’re in contention. They’re not going to have as much flexibility in adding a veteran Triple-A player to the 40-man roster as in years past, so you might see Vidal Brujan or Luis Patino or Josh Lowe or Shane McClanahan sooner than expected. Wander Franco may even be on the table, even though he’s not yet on the 40-man roster.

It wouldn’t be the first time that Tampa Bay’s algorithms outperformed the projections at Baseball Prospectus. The Rays won eight more games than the website forecast in 2020, which was the most of any team. In fact, over the last five years, Baseball Prospectus has undervalued Tampa Bay by a median of seven wins per season, most of any team in the majors.

The point is, you should not feel guilty if you’ve got a sinking feeling about Tampa Bay’s chances of repeating in the AL East, let alone reaching the World Series again. On the surface, the pitching staff just isn’t as strong.

But history suggests the Rays know a thing or two about beating the odds.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.