ST. PETERSBURG — There will be ongoing discussion over whether the Rays’ 2021 season was a success based on winning a franchise-best 100 regular-season games or a failure based on losing three of four in the first-round American League Division Series.
But there is no debating it was the start of something special, as rookie shortstop Wander Franco made a smashing debut.
Franco, promoted in late June, hit .288 with seven homers, 39 RBIs and an .810 OPS in 70 games, striking out 37 times and walking 24. More impressive, in 55 games after his acclimation period and the All-Star break, he hit .314 with five homers, 32 RBIs, an .872 OPS and had nearly as many walks (19) as strikeouts (22).
Adding to that, he relished his first turn on the postseason stage with hits in all four games, including two homers, posting a .368 average (7-for-19) and 1.158 OPS.
“I think you could make the argument that he’s the most impactful player on any team in baseball,” manager Kevin Cash said. “Certainly for us. Our team was really good, we got better when he came. He lengthened our lineup. He made our defense better. He worked really hard on his defense to make his defense better, and it made our overall defense better. He is a game-changing player. It’s going to be fun to watch for a long time.”
Lowe as in woe
Over the last three regular seasons, Brandon Lowe has been one of the Rays’ best offensive players, hitting .258 with 70 homers, 187 RBIs and an .869 OPS in 287 games with a 29-percent strikeout rate.
Over the last three postseasons, Lowe has been one of the Rays’ worst, hitting .115 with five homers, nine RBIs and a .423 OPS in 29 games with a 39-percent strikeout rate. That includes 0-for-18 with nine strikeouts this year.
Baseball operations president Erik Neander said there is no obvious answer.
“It’s a great question, and it’s a fair question,” he said. “I’m sure it’s one that (Lowe) really wrestles with. I think that’s the reality of it. I don’t know. I understand that it would be nice if there were an answer. He’d be the first one to chase it down, and (we) would love nothing more than to help with that.”
Neander said this year it seemed that after Lowe hit several balls hard but had nothing to show for it in the opener, the quality of his at-bats “probably deteriorated a little bit relative to his standards.”
Neander said Lowe has progressed enough as a hitter over the last few years that he was reluctant to lump the postseason performances together. He also noted Lowe’s usual streakiness. “It’s such a mental game,” Neander said. “It’s a feel game. It’s a confidence game. You saw, when he gets something going his way, all it takes is one and then look out, you might have a monthlong stretch where it doesn’t stop.”
Down to business
Neander said the Rays will take a few days before getting an earlier start on offseason business, which will include a significant amount of 40-man roster shuffling as they have eight pitchers to be reinstated from the 60-day injured list, seven free agents and a majors-most-matching 19 players eligible for arbitration, some of whom will be traded or non-tendered. One item of business after the World Series will be what is expected to be an easy decision to pick up a $7 million 2022 option on catcher Mike Zunino. The Rays are likely to at least talk at some point with most of their free agents, a group that includes designated hitter Nelson Cruz and pitchers Collin McHugh, David Roberston, Chaz Roe and Michael Wacha.
• • •
Sign up for the Rays Report weekly newsletter to get fresh perspectives on the Tampa Bay Rays and the rest of the majors from sports columnist John Romano.