Tampa Bay Rays Season Preview 2023 – Competing in the AL East

The Tampa Bay Rays enter the 2023 MLB season with high hopes of competing in the always challenging AL East division. After making the playoffs in 2022 but falling short of a World Series appearance, the Rays made some key moves in the offseason to bolster their roster.

This in-depth season preview will analyze the Rays’ offseason acquisitions, position battles, lineup and pitching projections, prospects to watch, and predictions on how they’ll fare against their AL East foes – the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Toronto Blue Jays, and Baltimore Orioles.

Introduction

The Rays have established themselves as perennial contenders in the AL East despite having one of the lowest payrolls in baseball. They’ve made the playoffs in four straight seasons thanks to strong pitching, strategic roster construction, and excellent player development.

However, the Rays have struggled to get over the hump in October. Their World Series appearance in 2020 was their only one since 2008 when they lost to the Philadelphia Phillies.

This season, Tampa Bay is looking to finally capture that elusive second World Series title. They’ll rely on a balanced lineup, deep rotation, and innovative bullpen approach perfected by manager Kevin Cash. But the AL East features three other likely playoff teams in the Yankees, Jays, and Red Sox.

Can the Rays rise above their big-spending rivals and make it back to the Fall Classic? Let’s preview their 2023 outlook.

Offseason Acquisitions

The Rays didn’t make any blockbuster moves over the winter, but they addressed key needs through some under-the-radar signings:

  • Curt Casali – The veteran catcher was signed to a 2-year, $6 million deal after spending 2022 with the Giants. He’ll pair with Christian Bethancourt behind the plate.
  • Michael Wacha – Tampa Bay added the durable right-hander on a 1-year, $7 million contract to reinforce the rotation. Wacha posted a 3.32 ERA across 23 starts for Boston last season.
  • AJ Pierzynski – The Rays took a flier on the former All-Star catcher coming back from injury on a minor league deal. If healthy, he could be a great depth addition.
  • Manuel Margot – Tampa Bay was able to re-sign the swift center fielder to a 1-year extension worth $7.5 million right before arbitration.

While not the flashiest additions, these veterans address needs at catcher, starter, and center field at affordable costs – all hallmarks of the Rays’ approach. The team is betting on breakouts from young players and bounce-backs from key returners.

Position Battles

The Rays are returning the majority of their 2022 AL East contending core, so there are only a few spots up for grabs this spring:

Fifth Starter

  • Josh Fleming – After struggling in 2022, the lefty will try to rediscover his rookie form. His chance of cracking the rotation may be slim.
  • Luis Patino – The talented young righty is the frontrunner for the last rotation spot. However, the Rays may want to limit his innings early on.
  • Tommy Romero – Romero impressed as a rookie in 2022 and will be given a long look after pitching well in relief.

First Base

  • Yandy Diaz – Diaz is penciled in as the starter after platooning here in 2022, but he’s had trouble staying healthy.
  • Isaac Paredes – Paredes broke out with 20 HRs last season and could take over first base full-time if he improves defensively.

Designated Hitter

  • Harold Ramirez – Ramirez enjoyed a strong 2022 season as the DH and will compete to reclaim the role full-time.
  • Jonathan Aranda – The young infielder slugged .495 in Triple-A last year. His bat could force its way into the lineup.

Projected Lineup and Rotation

Here are the projected batting order and rotation for the Rays this season:

Batting Order

  1. 3B Yandy Diaz
  2. RF Manuel Margot
  3. SS Wander Franco
  4. 1B Isaac Paredes
  5. LF Randy Arozarena
  6. 2B Brandon Lowe
  7. DH Harold Ramirez
  8. C Christian Bethancourt
  9. CF Jose Siri

The lineup will rely on the young duo of Wander Franco and Randy Arozarena to provide pop in the heart of the order. Manuel Margot and Yandy Diaz set the table, while Isaac Paredes, Brandon Lowe, and Harold Ramirez offer depth.

Starting Rotation

  1. Shane McClanahan
  2. Tyler Glasnow
  3. Drew Rasmussen
  4. Jeffrey Springs
  5. Luis Patino / Tommy Romero

The Rays boast one of baseball’s best rotations led by 2022 All-Star Shane McClanahan. Getting Tyler Glasnow back from injury is huge, while Drew Rasmussen and Jeffrey Springs both had breakout seasons. The fifth spot will be a spring battle, but has two strong candidates.

Tampa Bay will utilize the “opener” strategy at times, so pitchers like Josh Fleming, JT Chargois, and others will get opportunities to start. Overall, this is an incredibly deep and versatile pitching staff – the backbone of the Rays.

Prospects to Watch

The Rays farm system is packed with premium talent. Here are three top prospects who could make their MLB debuts this season:

  • Curtis Mead – This lefty-hitting infielder mashed 19 homers with a 1.005 OPS between Double-A and Triple-A in 2022. He could take over at first or second base at some point.
  • Taj Bradley – Bradley went 12-5 with a 2.69 ERA across Double-A and Triple-A last season. The electric righty is knocking on the door of the Rays’ rotation.
  • Osleivis Basabe – Basabe dominated at every minor league level as a reliever in 2022, posting a 2.14 ERA with 98 strikeouts in 63 innings. His elite stuff could play a key late-inning role.

The Rays have graduated many top prospects to the majors in recent seasons like Franco, Arozarena, McClanahan, and Rasmussen. They still have an enviable pipeline of talent headlined by Mead, Bradley, and Basabe.

AL East Competition and Predictions

The AL East looks to be fiercely competitive once again. Here is a brief outlook on the Rays’ divisional foes along with predicted standings:

New York Yankees

The Yankees had an MLB-best 99 wins last season but were swept in the ALCS. They lost stud OF Aaron Judge but spent big to sign Carlos Rodon and traded for Harrison Bader. Another 100-win season is likely.

Projected Record: 102-60

Toronto Blue Jays

Toronto (92-70) also made major upgrades, signing Chris Bassitt and Kevin Kiermaier while getting a full season from phenom C Gabriel Moreno. Vlad Guerrero Jr. and the Jays will push the Yanks all year.

Projected Record: 96-66

Boston Red Sox

Trading Mookie Betts continues to haunt Boston, but LF Masataka Yoshida and SP Corey Kluber were nice additions. The Sox should stay competitive but lack the talent of NYY/TOR.

Projected Record: 87-75

Baltimore Orioles

The Orioles (83-79) finally broke their playoff drought last year. Top prospect Gunnar Henderson impressing and veteran additions bolster their lineup. The pitching is still a question mark.

Projected Record: 80-82

Tampa Bay Rays

The Rays won 86 games a year ago in the AL’s toughest division. Their talented young core should take another step while the pitching staff remains elite. Expect them to be in wild card contention.

Projected Record: 89-73

The Rays will battle hard all season but likely end up around 4th in the AL East – still good enough for a wild card spot if they can edge out Seattle, Texas or Minnesota. With their pitching, Tampa Bay could certainly make playoff waves again. But catching the Yankees and Jays is going to be difficult unless all their young hitters truly break out.

Key Storylines to Watch

As the Rays gear up for a run at the 2023 World Series, here are the top storylines to follow this season:

  • How will phenom Wander Franco progress in his second full season? If he takes a leap into superstardom, it elevates the entire lineup.
  • Can Tyler Glasnow return to ace form after Tommy John surgery? Getting a healthy Glasnow at 100% would be like adding an elite free agent.
  • Will top prospects like Curtis Mead, Taj Bradley and others make their debuts? The Rays have waves of talent on the way.
  • Is this the year Randy Arozarena goes from good to great? He has all the tools to become a true superstar.
  • Will young starters like McClanahan, Rasmussen, and Patino pitch up to their full potential? Their continued growth will be key.

There are plenty of juicy storylines centered around the Rays’ enviable collection of young talent. If several breakout this year, the sky is the limit for Tampa Bay.

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Strengths and Weaknesses

Let’s examine the definitive strengths and weaknesses of the 2023 Rays:

Strengths

  • Starting Pitching – Led by McClanahan and Glasnow, this could be baseball’s best rotation if prospects like Patino thrive.
  • Bullpen Depth – No other team can match the Rays’ bullpen depth and creativity in leverage situations.
  • Defensive Positioning – Tampa’s commitment to advanced metrics and shifting puts fielders in optimal spots.
  • Young Core – Franco, Arozarena, Mead, Patino and others ooze superstar potential.
  • Player Development – No organization is better at drafting and developing overlooked prospects into diamonds.

Weaknesses

  • Power Hitting – The Rays lack a classic middle-of-the-order power threat to drive in runs.
  • High-Leverage Relief – Outside of Brooks Raley, Tampa lacks a shutdown closer type for big late leads.
  • Catching – Bethancourt and Casali are solid defenders but not huge offensive threats.
  • Contact Hitting – Besides Margot, the Rays whiff a lot and don’t consistently move runners over or manufacture runs.

The Rays may not mash or have a prototypical bullpen, but they maximize what they do have extraordinarily well.

Reasons for Optimism

Despite the challenges of competing in the AL East, there are ample reasons for optimism around the 2023 Rays:

  • The young core headlined by Wander Franco, Randy Arozarena, Brandon Lowe, and more have room to take big steps forward. Franco could evolve into a perennial MVP candidate as soon as this season.
  • Getting Tyler Glasnow back to full strength gives the Rays a lethal big three atop the rotation along with McClanahan and Rasmussen. This starting staff could be the AL’s best.
  • Outfield prospects like Josh Lowe, Luke Raley, and Roman Quinn provide speed and athleticism off the bench and reinforce an already sound defense.
  • Kevin Cash has proven to be one of MLB’s most innovative and creative managers, getting the most out of his deep roster.
  • The Rays possess arguably the top player development pipeline in baseball, with exciting prospects on the way like Curtis Mead, Taj Bradley, and others.

The 2023 Rays are built to compete now while also injecting young premium talent. That’s an enviable position to be in.

Final Word on the 2023 Rays

The Tampa Bay Rays have all the ingredients – elite pitching, blossoming young stars, and creative management – to finally get over the hump and capture that elusive World Series title in 2023. It won’t be easy battling the Yankees and Blue Jays 19 times each, but this is the most balanced and dangerous Rays team in years.

If newcomers like Michael Wacha and Curt Casali contribute and Kevin Cash pushes all the right buttons, Tampa has a real shot to dethrone their AL East rivals. Rays fans have plenty to be excited for this season.

But the Yankees and Jays will likely duke it out for the division crown, leaving Tampa to snag a wild card spot. Once in the playoffs however, the Rays have all the pitching and swagger to make a deep October run. The road won’t be easy, but the 2023 season sets up for Tampa Bay to finally get back to the World Series.

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