2023 Tampa Bay Rays Season Preview – AL East Contenders Back for More

The Tampa Bay Rays are coming off a successful 86-76 2022 season where they finished third in the hyper-competitive AL East division. With a talented roster headlined by shortstop Wander Franco and pitcher Shane McClanahan, the Rays have their sights set on dethroning the Yankees and winning their third AL East title in 2023.

Strengths of the 2023 Tampa Bay Rays

The Rays have several strengths that could help propel them to the top of the AL East in 2023:

Young Core of Stars

The Rays have an impressive core of young talent that is just entering their prime, including:

  • Wander Franco (22 years old): One of the top prospects in baseball, Franco had a strong rookie season when healthy and has the potential to develop into a perennial All-Star shortstop.
  • Shane McClanahan (26): Emerging ace of the staff after finishing top 3 in AL Cy Young voting in 2022. Has overpowering stuff and could contend for the award in 2023.
  • Brandon Lowe (28): Batted .251 with 27 HR and 75 RBI last season. Provides steady power in the middle of the order.
  • Randy Arozarena (28): Breakout 20 HR/20 SB season showcased his dynamic talent. Already one of the most exciting players in baseball.

This young nucleus gives the Rays star power to build around both now and in the future.

Deep and Versatile Roster

The Rays boast one of the deepest rosters in baseball, with valuable contributors at every position. This gives manager Kevin Cash plenty of flexibility to mix and match lineups depending on matchups.

Notable players include:

  • Manuel Margot – Outstanding defensive outfielder and baserunner perfectly suited for Tropicana Field.
  • Yandy Diaz – Veteran infielder provides professional at-bats and extra-base power.
  • Francisco Mejia – Switch-hitting catcher shares time with Christian Bethancourt behind the plate.
  • Brett Phillips – Fan favorite and elite bench asset with speed, defense, and energy.

The Rays roster has no superstars beyond Franco, but makes up for it with perhaps the best depth 1-26 in the American League.

Strong Team Defense

The Rays have perennially boasted one of the top defenses in MLB under manager Kevin Cash, combining athleticism, positioning, and slick fielding.

Notable defensive standouts include:

  • Kevin Kiermaier – Three-time Gold Glove center fielder when healthy covers the outfield gaps better than anyone.
  • Yandy Diaz – Sure-handed infielder had just 2 errors in 2022 and can play 1B, 2B, and 3B.
  • Taylor Walls – Elite glove at shortstop allows Franco to slide to 2B or 3B to improve overall infield defense.

Tampa Bay’s pitching staff – including groundball specialists like Tyler Glasnow and Drew Rasmussen – benefit tremendously from the rangy defense behind them turning batted balls into outs. The Rays defense could be an overlooked factor that keeps them in the division race all season.

Question Marks Facing the 2023 Rays

While the Rays have plenty of strengths, they also face some uncertainties entering 2023 that could hinder their ability to overtake the Yankees and win the AL East:

Health Concerns

Several Rays players ended 2022 injured and their health status is unclear heading into spring training. This includes:

  • Wander Franco – Hamstring and quad injuries limited electric young shortstop to only 83 games last season. Will need to stay healthy and on the field in 2023.
  • Kevin Kiermaier – Missed significant time with hip issues. Remains elite defender when available, but injuries are becoming a concern.
  • Tyler Glasnow – Missed entire 2022 recovering from Tommy John surgery. Unclear if he can recapture prior dominance.
  • Brandon Lowe – Played through knee discomfort last season. Production faded down the stretch.

If these and other key players like Mike Zunino, Manuel Margot, and Jalen Beeks cannot shake the injury bug in 2023, it could seriously hamper Tampa’s ability to contend over a full 162 games. Depth can only overcome so many missed games from top contributors.

Lack of Major Offseason Improvements

The thrifty Rays had another quiet offseason, lacking the financial flexibility to make any major outside upgrades. Meanwhile, division rivals New York and Toronto were aggressive making notable additions.

While Tampa has enough internal talent to compete as-is, the lack of significant improvement coupled with possible regression from 2022 breakthroughs could make it tough to overcome the Yankees and Blue Jays. An impact bat or bullpen upgrade could have made a difference.

Tough Divisional Competition

The AL East projects to be a gauntlet once again in 2023. The Yankees are World Series contenders after signing Carlos Rodon. Toronto is loaded with young phenoms like Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette. Baltimore and Boston both made major upgrades this winter as well.

Just reaching 90 wins again will be a challenge against this daunting divisional slate. The Rays will need to raise their game to overcome four hyper-competitive foes vying for divisional supremacy.

X-Factors for the 2023 Rays

The Rays will look to the following x-factors to help swing the division title race in their favor:

Young Player Development

Tampa Bay has a knack for developing unheralded prospects into valuable contributors. They’ll need new breakouts from players like Vidal Brujan, Jonathan Aranda, and others to overcome potential regression or injuries elsewhere on the roster.

Rays-developed youngsters Kyle Phillips, Isaac Paredes, Garrett Cleavinger and Calvin Faucher all made strong debuts last season. Further growth from these and other prospects could give the Rays impact value on cheap rookie deals, a trademark of their success.

Bullpen Health

The Rays bullpen was ravaged by injuries in 2022, contributing heavily to an uncharacteristically poor 4.24 ERA from the relief corps.

Getting key late-inning arms like JT Chargois, Jalen Beeks, Ryan Thompson, and Colin Poche healthy and back to form would be a major boost in 2023. This unit dominating again is essential with how heavily Tampa leverages its pen.

Kevin Cash’s Managing

Rays manager Kevin Cash is consistently able to get the most out of his roster through savvy decision-making. From platooning to aggressive bullpen usage, Cash pushes all the right buttons.

If Cash can continue optimizing matchups and navigating around potential pitfalls, he can help squeeze a division title out of this scrappy but flawed roster. His strategic edge is a difference-maker.

2023 Rays Projected Lineup, Rotation, and Bullpen

Projected Everyday Lineup

  1. 3B Yandy Diaz
  2. RF Manuel Margot
  3. SS Wander Franco
  4. LF Randy Arozarena
  5. 2B Brandon Lowe
  6. 1B Isaac Paredes
  7. DH Jonathan Aranda
  8. CF Kevin Kiermaier
  9. C Francisco Mejia

This lineup is stacked 1-5 with the Rays best hitters, offers speed and power balance, and has the defensive flexibility to maximize platoons and rest days. Breakout seasons from Paredes or Aranda would be huge.

Projected Starting Rotation

  1. LHP Shane McClanahan
  2. RHP Tyler Glasnow (if healthy)
  3. LHP Jeffrey Springs
  4. RHP Drew Rasmussen
  5. RHP Luis Patino / LHP Josh Fleming / RHP Taj Bradley / LHP Garrett Cleavinger

McClanahan-Glasnow forms a dominant one-two punch if Glasnow can recover his ace form post-surgery. Springs broke out last season, Rasmussen excels at keeping the ball in the yard, and the 5th starter is wide open. Good blend of styles.

Projected Bullpen

CL – RHP Pete Fairbanks

SU – LHP Jalen Beeks

SU – RHP Ryan Thompson

MID – RHP Jason Adam

MID – LHP Brooks Raley

MID – RHP JT Chargois

LR – LHP Josh Fleming

If fully healthy this unit has the weapons to again be among baseball’s best pens. Fairbanks, Beeks, and Thompson make a versatile late inning trio. Excellent blend of lefties and righties for matchup leverage.

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Tampa Bay Rays Prediction for 2023 Season

The Rays will be in the thick of the AL East race thanks to their talented young core, deep roster, and stellar pitching and defense. But some concerning injury risks and tough competition leave them just short of overtaking the Yankees for divisional supremacy.

Final 2023 Record Prediction: 90-72, 2nd in AL East

Key Questions Facing the Rays This Season

Will Wander Franco make the leap to superstardom?

The ultra-talented Franco has MVP caliber ability but has yet to put it all together over a full 162 game season. If he stays healthy and unlocks more power while retaining his elite contact skills, he could emerge as one of baseball’s biggest stars and carry Tampa’s lineup. But another injury setback could stunt his growth. Franco’s performance might be the single biggest factor in whether the Rays can keep pace in the division race.

Can Tyler Glasnow regain his ace form after Tommy John surgery?

Glasnow was dominant before his injury, posting a 2.66 ERA with 14.3 K/9 in 2021. But command and stuff can take time to fully return post-Tommy John, so it’s no guarantee Glasnow picks up where he left off. Having a Cy Young contender as McClanahan’s wingman would be huge for the Rays staff, while any setbacks for Glasnow could force larger roles for unproven starters like Luis Patino.

Will young hitters like Paredes, Aranda, and Brujan build on 2022 debuts?

The Rays will rely heavily on player development to boost an offense that ranked just 18th in runs last season. They need at least 1-2 prospects to break out with an impact bat, like Randy Arozarena before them. Paredes, Aranda, and Brujan showed intriguing flashes in limited 2022 action and offer hopeful upside for Tampa’s staff to mold.

Can Kevin Cash continue to ‘bullpen game’ his way to success?

The Rays innovated leveraging modern bullpens, but the strategy depends on having top-flight relief corps health and depth. Last season’s pen struggles were a cautionary tale. Even with better injury luck, can Tampa’s arms withstand the workload? And will opponents develop counterstrategies? How Cash handles his staff could make or break the Rays season.

Why the Rays Can Win the AL East in 2023

The Rays quest for their first AL East crown since 2010 won’t be easy given the competition, but remains very achievable if a few factors align:

  • Full healthy seasons from Franco, Glasnow, and others – This could elevate Tampa from wild card team to division champs. A version close to their peak roster on paper would be scary.
  • Kevin Cash managing magic – His strategic edge matters. Navigating this roster well could scrape out enough wins to pass the 95-100 victory Yankees/Jays.
  • Breakouts from young hitters – Tampa needs to unlock more offense from players like Paredes, Aranda, Brujan. Could compensate for lack of additions.
  • Dominant bullpen – At their best, this unit could carry the Rays and ease rotation questions. Fairbanks-Beeks-Thompson and other fireballers shutting down close games creates a clear path to October.

The odds still favor the Yankees and Blue Jays, but the scrappy Rays have proven doubters wrong repeatedly. Their young core progressing, some prospect gems emerging, and a little injury luck could make Tampa a shock AL East winner in 2023.

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