There’s danger in determining much from the first few games of a season, but this seems clear: The Rays are still all about their pitching.
It was good in their first two games, and they beat the Marlins. It wasn’t in their next two, and they got beat up.
The Rays are confident, despite the early returns, there will be another path to victory this season. That their offense will be improved enough to lessen the burden on the pitchers, to increase the usual slim margin they operate within, even to carry them on some days.
“I think our strength is the pitching, but people, they’re kind of sleeping on us on the offensive side,” shortstop Willy Adames said. “That’s really exciting, because I know the guys are really good and I know what they are capable of doing.”
Though the Rays kept the same group they finished last season with, adding only backup catcher Francisco Mejia (in place of Michael Perez), they are confident they can be more productive.
In winning an American League-most 40 games, they ranked fifth among the 15 teams with 4.82 runs per game, sixth in OPS at .753 (with a high walk rate offsetting a majors-most 608 strikeouts), seventh in homers with 80, 12th in average at .238.
“I think this offense can be a lot of fun to watch,” infielder Brandon Lowe said. “Hopefully, we’ll be talking about the hitters a little bit more this year than the pitchers.”
Here are five reasons why they feel that way:
5. The masked men
The Rays value what their catchers do behind the plate, working with the pitchers, more than at it. But getting more offensive production seems likely, if for no other reason than how little they got last season from the trio of Mike Zunino, Perez and Kevan Smith. As a group, Rays catchers were 14th in average (.176) and total bases (60), 13th in OPS (.594), and tied for 11th in homers (6) and strikeouts (71).
Zunino, who hits homers and strikes out, missed half of the abbreviated season with injury. Mejia should be an upgrade over Perez, who had the most at-bats of Rays catchers, and a .475 OPS, fourth-lowest of the 331 big-leaguers to make at least 90 plate appearances last season.
4. Be well, be better
In terms of injury and illness, 2020 was rough on the Rays. That included three key members of the lineup — Ji-Man Choi, Yandy Diaz and Austin Meadows — missing extensive time. As much as the Rays pride themselves on depth, that trio’s absence created a major dent in the lineup.
Both Meadows and Diaz did extensive winter work to get in better shape, and the spring and early reviews were good. Choi, however, will miss at least the first month recovering from right knee surgery. Returning to a 162-game schedule will provide physical challenges for all teams; how many top hitters the Rays keep healthy will be key.
3. Tsutsugo going up?
The player who could have the largest swing statistically, and thus potentially the biggest impact on the team’s offense, is Yoshi Tsutsugo — especially given his increased role filling in for Choi at first base.
The former All-Star in Japan had a miserable first year in the majors. He struggled with the increased velocity and higher percentage of pitchers who throw hard, hit .197, struck out 50 times in 185 plate appearances and was benched in the playoffs. Offseason adjustments and an encouraging spring had the Rays optimistic, and they’ve made a point to boost his confidence when possible, including batting him leadoff, though he didn’t get his first hit until Monday and through four games was 1-for-13.
2. Lowe, as in wow
Brandon Lowe is starting his fourth big-league season but has yet to play in more than 82 games in any of them. He was called up in August 2018, missed half of 2019 with injury, then was limited like everyone else last year.
Throw out the 0-for-19 streak from his first six big-league games, and his 2018-20 numbers over a full season project quite impressively, especially for a second baseman: .270 with 34 homers and 105 RBIs. Anything close, and he’ll be winning more team MVP awards.
1. Hey, Arozarena ...
No, the breakout star of the 2020 postseason isn’t going to match his record-smashing production over the Rays’ 20-game run. If he did, we’d have a bigger story, as his numbers extrapolate to 235 hits, 113 RBIs and 81 — 81! — homers. But the Rays are confident his skills, experience and ability to adjust as pitchers try different ways to get him out will allow him to continue to be an impact player in the lineup.
“Everything that Randy showed us last year, I think he kind of picked right up where he kind of left off,” Cash said. “Just that feeling in the box when he walks up to the plate, the work that he put in in the cages with (hitting coaches Ozzie Timmons and Chad Mottola). So I feel like he’s in a good spot.”
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