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Opening day is in sight, and the Rays still need more hitters

John Romano | Coming off a historically bad postseason effort, Tampa Bay has yet to address its obvious offensive shortcomings.
The Rays are counting on Brandon Lowe, left, and Wander Franco to be healthy again in 2023, but even that may not be enough offense for Tampa Bay in the rugged American League East.
The Rays are counting on Brandon Lowe, left, and Wander Franco to be healthy again in 2023, but even that may not be enough offense for Tampa Bay in the rugged American League East. [ WINSLOW TOWNSON | AP ]
Published Jan. 7|Updated Jan. 7

ST. PETERSBURG — Exactly three months ago, the Rays offense rolled over and died.

In a best-of-three playoff series against the Guardians, Tampa Bay hitters combined for a .115 batting average across 84 plate appearances. To put that in perspective, the Rays got more offense out of their pitchers — a .200 batting average — when they had to hit in the 2008 World Series.

It was as complete an offensive meltdown over a short series as anyone had ever seen in the postseason.

And while it was horrifying, it wasn’t exactly shocking.

The Rays were a weak offensive team in 2022. They had the lowest OPS (on-base/slugging percentage) of any playoff team in the American League since the designated hitter was introduced 50 years ago. The only reason they were in the postseason was due to their pitching and an expanded playoff field.

So why pick at that scab now?

Because three months later, the Rays have done nothing to help their offense. It might even be argued — by saying goodbye to Ji-Man Choi, Mike Zunino, David Peralta and Kevin Kiermaier — the offense actually looks weaker today.

While there was once hope of revamping the lineup through free agency, recent economic trends conspired against Tampa Bay. Salaries have grown so high that even veteran hitters coming off shoulder surgery, such as Michael Brantley and Michael Conforto, signed short-term deals that pay them more than any Ray is making in 2023.

At this point, the only free agent who perfectly fits Tampa Bay’s stated need — a left-handed hitter who can play a corner infield or outfield position — is Brandon Belt. And while he mashed the ball in 2020-21, he saw a sharp decline last season and will soon turn 35. Corey Dickerson would be a cheaper alternative, although he’s been with five teams in five years since the Rays last traded him.

So does that mean Tampa Bay fans are doomed to watch a lot of 3-1 losses in the upcoming season? Potentially, but not necessarily.

There are two other ways this could go, although both options have their drawbacks.

1. The Rays could use their surplus of pitching and young middle infielders to get a left-handed bat in a trade. Tampa Bay is not likely to deal top prospects Taj Bradley or Curtis Mead or a frontline pitcher, so that probably lessens the quality of hitter they might acquire.

The Diamondbacks had a surplus of lefthanded-hitting outfielder/first baseman types but have already traded Daulton Varsho to Toronto. Pavin Smith might still be a possibility there.

Max Kepler might be squeezed out in Minnesota after the Joey Gallo signing, but his numbers have trended downward for three seasons and he’s also got $9.5 million in guaranteed money on his deal.

Oakland’s Seth Brown fits the Tampa Bay profile — he’s still a year away from arbitration and four years from free agency — and has decent pop. He looks more like a platoon hitter, possibly filling the role Choi played at first base but with more power. The question is what will Oakland want in return.

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2. If the Rays do not find a trade that appeals to them, they might instead convince themselves that 2022 was a worst-case scenario fluke.

And there is some justification for that line of thinking. After all, a lot of these same hitters were in the lineup in 2020 when they went to the World Series and in ‘21 when they set a franchise record for runs.

Brandon Lowe and Wander Franco are, arguably, Tampa Bay’s best hitters and both had disappointing seasons with injuries limiting them to about a half-season’s worth of work in 2022. The Rays were also certain that Josh Lowe was going to break out last season, and instead he spent most of the year in Triple-A. If all three play up to their potential, the Rays will automatically be better in 2023.

But even that may not be enough.

Losing Zunino, who signed with Cleveland, has robbed them of a significant power bat. And trading Choi to Pittsburgh leaves a hole at first base. The Rays may be able to shift Yandy Diaz or Brandon Lowe to first base, but that means more production will be expected from Taylor Walls or Vidal Brujan or Isaac Paredes in the infield.

The Rays still have time to make some moves. Spring training is five weeks away, and opening day is still a few months down the road. But the dwindling free-agent field has significantly limited their options.

As good as their starting rotation looks — and it might be the best in the AL — the Rays could be squandering an opportunity by not upgrading their offense.

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

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