10 questions about the Rays’ hot start and whether they can keep it up

John Romano | Tampa Bay clearly is not going to play .800 ball the rest of the year, but are there enough signs that this team is for real?
Josh Lowe, Wander Franco and Randy Arozarena have all gotten off to hot starts for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2023. How sustainable are their numbers for the rest of the season?
Josh Lowe, Wander Franco and Randy Arozarena have all gotten off to hot starts for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2023. How sustainable are their numbers for the rest of the season? [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published April 18

ST. PETERSBURG — There are some things you could have predicted about the Rays this season. Three starting pitchers on the injured list, for instance.

And, yet, some things may have caught you by complete surprise. Three starting pitchers on the injured list by April 18, for crying out loud.

It’s been an eventful three weeks around here, and that makes it hard to say what’s real and what’s temporary. You can be pretty certain the Rays won’t stay on pace to win 130 or so games, but is another 100-win season within reach?

And Shane McClanahan won’t continue winning every start, but what are the odds that he joins Blake Snell and David Price as the only 20-game winners in franchise history?

Now that we’ve had a small slice of the 2023 season, let’s try to figure out what is definitely real, what is vaguely possible and what is total fantasy. Starting with …

Can the Rays set a franchise record for runs? When they woke up Tuesday morning, the Rays had the top offense in Major League Baseball. By a bunch. Tampa Bay was averaging 6.76 runs per game, and the Orioles were the next-closest team at 5.88. But here’s the necessary caveat: The Rays have fattened their stats by facing some of the worst pitching staffs in the game. There’s no doubt the offense is better than a lot of us anticipated, but in this case the first month cannot be trusted. The franchise record for runs was set in 2021 at 5.29 per game. A new record is possible but not probable.

Will Wander Franco get 75 extra-base hits? Through the first 17 games of the season, Franco had practically doubled his percentage of extra-base hits from 2022. Is that sustainable? Certainly not at that level, but there are definite signs that Franco is becoming a more punishing hitter. His launch angle has gone from 8.2 degrees to 16.3, which explains why his percentage of ground balls has dropped from 44.2 to 34.5. His exit velocity is up slightly and he’s hitting more balls in the air, and that’s a pretty good combination for extra-base hits. If he stays healthy, Franco could lead the league in extra-base hits.

Are there enough arms in the rotation? Signing Zach Eflin doesn’t look like such a luxury now, does it? Tyler Glasnow, Eflin and Jeffrey Springs all ended up in the trainer’s room before the Easter candy was all gone. Eighteen games into the season, the Rays have already required six starts from guys called up from Triple-A (Taj Bradley) or pulled out of the bullpen (Josh Fleming, Jalen Beeks, Calvin Faucher). And the biggest fear? Eflin, Glasnow and Drew Rasmussen all have extensive injury histories. The chance that all three stay off the injured list the rest of the way seems minimal. If Bradley and Chirinos don’t come to the rescue, the Rays could be in the market for a starter.

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Can they keep up this home run pace? The short answer is no. The longer answer is heck no. The Rays went into Tuesday night on pace to hit 353 home runs. To put that in perspective, the Yankees hit 254 homers last season when Aaron Judge crushed 62. This power explosion is doomed to fade.

Is this an improved version of McClanahan? He was the All-Star Game starter in 2022 and finished sixth in the Cy Young voting, but McClanahan has gotten off to a more remarkable start in 2023. He’s 4-0 with a 1.57 ERA compared to 1-1 with a 2.45 ERA after four starts last season. His walk rate is a little alarming, but it’s not like he’s missing wildly. It’s almost as if he’s trying too hard to paint the corners and gets more aggressive when runners are on base. His walk percentage when the bases are empty is 17.9 and only 2.8 when runners are on. As good as he was in 2022, McClanahan will be even better this season.

Can the bullpen dominate? The Rays are one of three teams without a blown save in 2023, but that has more to do with the lack of save situations. The truth is, the bullpen has been merely adequate. The strikeout rate is down 5.2 percent, and the walk rate is up 2.2 percent. No early evidence of domination.

Are we finally seeing a breakout season from Randy Arozarena? His walk rate hasn’t changed much and he’s not hitting as many homers as he does in the postseason, but there are still some encouraging signs out of Arozarena. He seems to have a more strategic approach at the plate and is not chasing as many pitches out of the zone. The result is fewer ground balls and soft contact. His strikeout rate is down from last year (24.2 percent to 17.1), and his hard-hit percentage is way up (41.3 to 58.5). A .300 batting average with 25 home runs would not be a shock.

Should we expect more stolen bases? The front office has talked a lot about the remarkable athleticism in the lineup, but it hasn’t shown up on the bases. The Rays were tied for 12th in stolen bases last year and tied for second in caught stealing. This year, they’re tied for 13th in stolen bases and still tied for second in caught stealing. While the rest of the league has taken advantage of the new pickoff restrictions and bigger bases, the Rays are slightly less successful in their stolen base percentage. That needs to, and will, change.

Is this the real Josh Lowe? A wildly disappointing start in 2022 has turned into a wildly impressive start in 2023. The reality is in the middle but weighted more heavily to the improved version of Lowe.

Will I eventually be wrong on more than half of these? Oh, you could probably bank on that.

John Romano can be reached at Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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