ST. PETERSBURG — C.J. Cron once hit 30 home runs for the Rays. A month later, he was waived.
Corey Dickerson was traded not long after his only All-Star appearance, Blake Snell was the Game 1 starter for three playoff rounds in 2020 and was a San Diego Padre three months later, and Austin Meadows went from 106 RBIs in 2021 to packing his bags for Detroit in the spring of 2022.
If you haven’t figured it out, the Rays are fearless when it comes to remaking their roster. While others contemplate, the Rays obliterate. Year after year, locker by locker. To this team of limited revenues, conventional wisdom is a trap.
So when the Rays finished last season with their lowest winning percentage since 2017 and a feeble offensive showing in a wild-card series against Cleveland, you just knew the offseason would be filled with bold and aggressive moves.
And, in a way, the Rays did manage to shock people.
By doing very little.
When the Rays line up at Tropicana Field for opening day festivities on Thursday, 24 of their 26 active players will be returning from 2022. The team that is constantly remaking itself has decided it likes the way it looks for 2023.
Is that a mistake? Obviously, the Rays don’t think so. They’re convinced last season was an aberration caused by injuries and not inadequacies. They could be right, or they could be deluded. They’ve got 162 games to make their case.
And as familiar as this roster may look today, it still has its share of mystery. With that in mind, here are five questions that must be answered correctly if the Rays expect to still be winning in October.
Will the Rays take advantage of MLB’s rule changes?
The pitch clock got a lot of attention in spring training, but the baserunning rules could have a bigger impact on Tampa Bay. With the number of pickoff moves limited and the size of the bases slightly increased, the stolen base could be back in vogue. And the Rays have at least three players (Randy Arozarena, Josh Lowe and Jose Siri) with the potential to steal 30 bases or more. It’s been more than 10 years since a team has pulled that off.
The Rays did not come close to matching the Yankees or Blue Jays in home runs last season, but they can close that scoring gap by running the bases sensibly and aggressively.
“If we make intelligent decisions … stealing bases we can really create a lot of havoc,” manager Kevin Cash said. “This is as fast a team as we’ve had since I’ve been here.”
Will Pete Fairbanks have a breakout year?
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For a variety of reasons, the blown save is an imperfect stat. Particularly when you’re grading an entire team as opposed to an individual closer.
Having said that, the Rays led the majors in blown saves last season and it wasn’t particularly close. Tampa Bay had 36 blown saves (which was one away from tying the MLB record) and the next-closest bullpen had 31.
Overall, the Rays bullpen was quite effective in 2023 led by Jason Adam’s spectacular season. But another lights-out reliever could be the difference between a good bullpen and a dominant group. Fairbanks could be that guy.
He came into last season with a career 4.08 ERA and 12.3 strikeouts per nine innings with seven saves in 95 games. After missing the first half of the season with an injury, Fairbanks was a revelation. He had a 1.13 ERA with 14.3 strikeouts per nine innings and eight saves in 24 games.
Was that just a hot streak, or the first indication of an All-Star-caliber reliever?
Can the Rays hit against the AL’s best?
The Rays had a decent offense against mediocre pitching in 2022. They were awful against division winners.
Tampa Bay’s combined batting average (.201), on-base percentage (.276) and slugging percentage (.307) against the Yankees, Guardians and Astros was abysmal. And it only got worse in the postseason when the Rays scored one run in 24 innings against Cleveland.
It makes sense that a team struggles against the league’s best pitching, but the dropoff was untenable for Tampa Bay. The hope is that injuries to Wander Franco, Brandon Lowe, Yandy Diaz, Harold Ramirez and Manuel Margot robbed the Rays of some of their best hitters at various points.
But that still doesn’t excuse the postseason.
Will Jeffrey Springs be a Cy Young candidate?
Sounds crazy, right? As good as he was last season, you don’t necessarily think of Springs as an elite pitcher.
But the truth is, he was among the top dozen starters in the American League in baseball.com’s version of WAR last season. And he was absolutely filthy this spring.
Springs faced 48 hitters in four spring appearances and struck out half of them. He gave up five hits, two walks and no runs in 14 innings. Obviously, that’s a small sample size and spring numbers can be notoriously unreliable, but his track record is beginning to grow.
Tampa Bay’s rotation is already formidable. If Springs continues to evolve, the Rays could have the best group of starters in the league.
Will the left-handed hitters show up?
The Rays wanted another left-handed bat. They needed another left-handed bat.
They did not get another left-handed bat.
The reasons are no longer important, it’s the calculations that matter. The Rays are confident that Luke Raley is finally ready to excel in the big leagues after three years of tearing up Triple A. They also think Josh Lowe is going to have the type of season they were expecting to see last year.
Throw in better health for Brandon Lowe and Franco, and the problems against right-handed pitching should be solved.
If not, you can expect to hear a lot more about the lack of offseason moves.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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