ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays seem to be feeling pretty good as they complete final preparations for a season that starts Thursday, one they hope leads to a fifth straight playoff berth.
Aside from losing one of their top starters, Tyler Glasnow (at least into May due to an oblique strain), there have been no major injury issues. And given that Glasnow’s innings were going to be limited in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery, there is even some benefit from his situation.
And though March success can turn into a cruel tease come April, the Rays look to be better offensively, with more candidates to impact a game than last season, despite not making an expected addition.
So what players are going to be the biggest keys to their success?
The initial reaction is that it would be one of the hitters, specifically one of the four — Wander Franco, Brandon Lowe, Manuel Margot, Harold Ramirez — who missed big chunks of last season due to injury as they struggled mightily to score.
Or because pitching is their strength, are the contributions of their elite-level starters more important, and would the dropoff if one was out — such as opening day choice Shane McClanahan — be more significant?
That’s actually an interesting way to look at it.
If Franco or Lowe were to be out again, it would likely mean more at-bats for Isaac Paredes and/or Taylor Walls, who are slated for part-time duty, with Vidal Brujan called up to provide depth. But if McClanahan or another one of the starters got hurt, whoever didn’t win the No. 5 job — Yonny Chirinos or lefty Josh Fleming — would be elevated to starting every five days.
That said, here’s our list of the most important players to this season’s success:
Brandon Lowe, 2B
He provides what the Rays need most — left-handed power — and his 39 homers in 2021 are proof he can do it when healthy.
Wander Franco, SS
The potential for a breakout season is alluring given his immense talent and positions him to have the biggest impact.
Shane McClanahan, LHP
Though the Rays feel good about their depth, losing their top starter would be troubling and have a trickledown effect.
Jason Adam/Pete Fairbanks, RHPs
Given how the Rays use multiple relievers in high-leverage situations, having one is essential, both more beneficial.
Jeffrey Springs, LHP
His development into an impact starter last season, with a dazzling spring, has raised expectations.
Randy Arozarena, LF
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He has the talent to be the best player on the field any night; the question is keeping him motivated to show it.
Zach Eflin, RHP
Besides the $40 million investment, he is being counted on to stay healthy and be effective for a full season.
Josh Lowe, OF
Though Luke Raley had the better spring, Josh Lowe has the higher upside and chance to establish himself.
Jose Siri, CF
Given a clear path to replace centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier in preventing runs, Siri has to produce enough offensively.
Garrett Cleavinger, LHP
A pleasant surprise after being acquired last July, he emerged due to his strike-throwing ability as a key piece of the pen.
When Andy Freed slides over to the TV booth for the approximately 25 games Dewayne Staats is taking off this year, one candidate to join Neil Solondz on radio is Doug Waechter. Another could be whomever gets hired for radio pre-/post-game duties. … Tricia Whitaker will again be part of the AppleTV+ Friday night national game coverage — presumably including the three or four times the Rays will be on — while also keeping her Bally Sports Sun sideline reporter duties. … Because optioned players can’t be called up during the first 10 days of the season, expect the Rays to have a couple of non-roster relievers on call at Triple-A if they need bullpen help early on. … Per Forbes.com’s annual report, the value of the Rays franchise went up 14 percent to $1.25 billion, on par with an overall league-wide increase despite the potential for a loss of TV rights fees. The Rays ranked 26th, ahead of the Royals ($1.2B), Reds ($1.19B), A’s ($1.18B) and Marlins ($1B). Forbes also estimates the Rays’ 2022 regional TV sports network payment at $56 million, which would rank 21st in the majors. The team has declined to say. ... A WEDU-produced documentary on the history and backstory of how the Tampa Bay franchise came into existence — called Rise of the Rays — will debut Thursday at 9 p.m. ... Given all the 25th anniversary focus this season, still seems odd that the Rays didn’t opt to push their season opener against the Tigers to Friday — which would have been the same date of the inaugural game: March 31, 1998. Instead, they play Thursday afternoon and have Friday off. … Four Rays made ESPN’s ranking of the game’s top 100 players: Franco, 31; McClanahan, 36; Arozarena, 84; Glasnow, 88. ... Arozarena was the center of attention at the World Baseball Classic because of his play for Mexico and also for all the fun he seemed to be having, including taking fly balls before games wearing cowboy boots and a colorful mariachi hat. Would he consider doing so for the Rays? “When we get to the playoffs,” he said. ... Arozarena applied for and was granted citizenship in Mexico to be eligible for WBC play, and said he was proud to as he settled there after leaving his native Cuba in 2015, and enjoys living there in the offseasons. … Seven Rays games are slated for Fox regional/national TV coverage, starting with the April 22 game against the White Sox, which is also the date of the pre-game tribute to radio broadcaster Dave Wills, who died March 5. ... The Rays are sixth in mlb.com’s preseason farm system rankings, down from three last year and one in 2021; the Orioles are No. 1 this year.
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