ST. PETERSBURG — Rays baseball operations president Erik Neander and manager Kevin Cash talked a lot about balance during Tuesday’s season wrap-up media session.
Most generally, in their pride of making the postseason for a fourth straight season versus the disappointment of being eliminated in their first round.
“If this season happened in 2018, 2019, there’s a different feeling than it being our fourth consecutive trip and our earliest exit of the four,” Neander said. “We’re really proud of that winning culture, the expectations that come with that. Our expectations are higher than the season that just concluded here.”
Most specifically, that trying to prevent it from happening again will be dependent on finding ways to improve an offense that faltered too often without making major changes to the relatively young/inexperienced core group.
“Ideally, we find a little bit of a better balance,” Neander said. “We don’t want to ask too much of too many that haven’t yet established themselves, but you want to give them those opportunities, too.
“So exactly how that all comes together is something that we’ll spend some time on here over the next month especially sorting through. We’re always going to be dependent on young players. But we’ve got to find a way to fortify that group with players that have more underneath them.”
That need was exacerbated because injuries sidelined several of those veterans who provided offense last year, when the Rays ranked fourth in the American League with 222 homers, fifth with a .750 team OPS and seventh with a .243 average. This year they were 11th with 139 homers, 12th with a .686 OPS and ninth at .239.
Most notably missing were Brandon Lowe, who went from hitting .247 with 39 homers, 99 RBIs and an .863 OPS to .221.-8-25-.691 in playing just 65 games; and Mike Zunino, who went from .216-33-62-.860 in 109 games to .148-5-16-.499 in 36 games.
“That puts a real dent in the power department of this group,” Neander said. “And you talk about the benefits of all their experience being on their postseason clubs prior, you feel that.”
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Another issue was the lack of contributions from their lefty hitters against right-handed pitchers, which also hurt them in the two Wild Card Series games vs. Cleveland.
For the season, the Rays were 28th in the majors in average (.216) and OPS (.643) and 20th in homers (50). In 2021 (when they also had the since-traded Austin Meadows), they were seventh in average (.253), fifth in OPS (.804) and second in homers (96).
“I don’t know if we’ve ever had a club that has struggled so much against right-handed pitching as this one did,” Neander said. “That’s something we’ve got to find a way to improve.”
How to boost that offense, of course, is the bigger question.
Signing a big-money free agent is typically not their way, though they did make a legit run last spring at Freddie Freeman before he chose the Dodgers — and his lefty bat would have been a huge boost.
As much as Cash and Neander raved Tuesday about their top-shelf pitching staff — especially the starting quartet of Shane McClanahan, Tyler Glasnow, Jeffrey Springs and Drew Rasmussen — making a big trade from a strength seems unlikely.
More likely, the Rays may be doing their usual work in the margins, making some lesser-known additions they hope can pay off big. (Such as relatively unheralded Isaac Paredes, who after being acquired from Detroit in the Meadows trade hit 20 homers to tie for the team lead.)
They should have some roster room to work with. Trade pickup David Peralta, Zunino and injured centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier are free agents, first baseman Ji-Man Choi seems to be on the way out, and they likely would at least consider trading Randy Arozarena, who puts up big numbers but is extremely inconsistent in getting there.
Some gains will come from having Lowe back and twice-injured Wander Franco playing a full season; and they expect improvement from others, especially younger players who will benefit from working more with hitting coach Chad Mottola and his staff.
“I’m confident if we get a little healthier and have a little bit more healthy, consistent contributions,” Cash said. “Tack on another year of experience for some of these players, whether it’s Isaac, Randy, Wander, we’re gonna start driving some balls more consistently.”
But change is coming.
“There has to be an open-mindedness to that,” Neander said. “I don’t think it’s in us to just stand pat and assume things will get better. I think there’s an acknowledgement that our standards offensively, we want to raise them. And that includes taking a look at the group we have and figuring out ways to do that.”
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