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Have the 2022 Rays solved the one flaw in their ingenious plan?

John Romano | They have conquered the regular season. Now, the Rays are hoping the emergence of young stars is the difference in the playoffs.
The kids are alright. Manager Kevin Cash's son J.D., 9, may not be quite ready to crack the Rays lineup, but the team is hoping shortstop Wander Franco, left, is about to lead a new generation of Tampa Bay players to postseason glory.
The kids are alright. Manager Kevin Cash's son J.D., 9, may not be quite ready to crack the Rays lineup, but the team is hoping shortstop Wander Franco, left, is about to lead a new generation of Tampa Bay players to postseason glory. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Apr. 7|Updated Apr. 8

ST. PETERSBURG — In some ways, the Rays have perfected the 40-man roster. That might be an exaggeration, but only slightly.

With a payroll that ranks 28th out of 30 franchises since 2019, the Rays have somehow won more games than any team other than the Dodgers over the past three seasons. Their rosters are usually deep, flexible and complementary. They come at teams with wave after wave of talent and ingenuity.

So, yes, I think it’s fair to say no one is as efficient in building a roster from top to bottom.

The problem is, October is not ruled by the guys on the end of the bench.

So while depth has made the Rays a regular-season sensation, they have not fared quite so well in the playoffs as teams that have mega-stars in the middle of the order or at the top of the rotation. The Rays may have the best roster from 1 to 40, but they haven’t measured up as well from 1 to 10.

Since 2008, there have been a half-dozen teams that have seven postseason appearances or more. Every one of those teams has won at least one World Series — except for the Rays.

Call it a quirk. Call it fate. Call it bad luck. More than likely, however, it has to do with a roster that maximizes low-cost, versatile talent during the grind of a 162-game regular season but may not have as much high-end talent that can take over a short playoff series.

“Building for 162 games is a little different than building for a 5- or 7-game series. And, unfortunately, you have to do both at once,” said Rays general manager Peter Bendix. “In a (playoff) series, you’re playing a team that is almost as good or a little better than you, and so you don’t want to overreact to losing two extra-inning games. Things can go either way, right?

“But you also want to make sure that you’re not dismissing it and saying, ‘Aw, that’s purely random,’ when it’s not.”

Which is a balance the Rays have tried to walk in recent seasons. That’s one of the reasons they signed Charlie Morton to a two-year deal in 2019, to have that playoff-tested pitcher at the top of the rotation. It’s the reason they gave up two prospects to acquire Nelson Cruz in the middle of 2021.

While they’ve done amazing things with openers and multi-inning relievers and platoons in the lineup, there is something to be said for a Cy Young-caliber pitcher or a legitimate thumper in the No. 3 hole.

Just look at who punished the Rays in the Boston series last October. J.D. Martinez, Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, Kike Hernandez and Kyle Schwarber combined to hit .379 with seven homers in four games. In the 2020 World Series, Corey Seager, Justin Turner, Max Muncy and Mookie Betts combined to hit .323 with seven homers in six games against the Rays.

That’s a lot of high-priced, MVP-quality hitters coming at you one after another in the lineup.

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The good news is the Rays believe their roster is organically trending in that direction. That their best 10 players now match up favorably with their top rivals.

While they have had a platoon-heavy lineup in recent seasons, it’s conceivable that Wander Franco, Brandon Lowe, Randy Arozarena, Kevin Kiermaier and Josh Lowe could be everyday players in 2022.

And their crew of electric young arms in the rotation — Shane McClanahan, Shane Baz, Luis Patino, Drew Rasmussen — will all be a year older with a full year in the majors under their belts.

“We have the same group of guys coming back, and now we’ve added a two-time Cy Young award winner like Corey Kluber. A been-there, done-that kind of guy in the postseason,” said Kiermaier. “We’ve got a phenom with Wander, another young guy with J-Lowe. We just want to get our foot in the door in the postseason and then, when we’re there, turn it up a notch and finally take that next step.

“It’s easier said than done. Every team expects to do that. But I look at this group, and I think we’ve got the pieces to do it.”

To be fair, it’s not as if the Rays have collapsed every October. Last season was the first time that could accurately be described as a playoff disappointment. If you count wild-card games, the Rays have prevailed against half of their 14 postseason opponents since 2008.

They haven’t strayed from their basic philosophy in 2022 — depth will still be a crucial strength — but the idea that some of their younger players are emerging as everyday stars could be the final piece of the puzzle.

“There’s no doubt that our depth got us to 100 wins last season. And, in a short series, depth may not be as much of a factor,” said manager Kevin Cash. “So, yeah, it’s fair to say you need your core personnel hitting their stride at the right time. And I think that’s what we’re seeing here now.”

John Romano can be reached at Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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