The Rays do a lot of things differently. And that includes how they are defending their first American League championship since 2008.
Since losing to the Dodgers in the World Series, the Rays have parted ways with two of their top three starting pitchers, Blake Snell and Charlie Morton, along with a few other players, while making only moderate additions. But while acknowledging the net loss of talent, they insist they still will be contending to win the championship in 2021. The roster-churning and rebuilding on the run are nothing new to the Rays. But this offseason felt different. Between the level of success they had, their narrative of being at the opening of a window of contention, and the losses coming from an area of need, as three other starting pitcher candidates are injured, the Rays are left in an unusual position of seeking to add a proven starter.
But with the Rays, like most other teams, claiming significant financial losses as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the moves were deemed necessary, saving $15 million on Morton (who got the same money in Atlanta) and $10.5 million this year (and $39 million over three overall) on Snell.
GM Erik Neander remains confident they can rally — because of the treasure trove of young major league players and talented prospects in what is generally acknowledged as the game's best farm system — to maintain their level of success.
Opposing Scouts Size Up the Rays
"Everyone wants to know where they find all these guys with their resources. Losing Blake Snell and Charlie Morton, their top two starters, obviously hurts them this season, but Tyler Glasnow has no-hit stuff on any given night, and the whole staff just attacks. They understand that the best pitch is still a well-located fastball. Nick Anderson got tired at the end, but he dominates up in the zone, Pete Fairbanks is filthy, and Diego Castillo throws a sinker at 98 that looks like a Steve Carlton slider. Their offense is all about versatility and matchups, and Kevin Cash has so much flexibility in where he can play each guy. Randy Aronzarena plays with such confidence and beats you in a lot of ways, not just with the home run. Mike Zunino is a flat-out out as a hitter; it's amazing to think they can get to the World Series with his bat in the lineup, but he's got power and he's so good on defense that his overall contribution still helps them win. It's a belief in A-B-C baseball — fundamentals, catching the ball, great pitching, and timely hitting."
Beyond the Box Score
Silver Screen Outfielder Randy Arozarena's breakthrough from minor-league call-up to postseason star and record-smasher seemed like something out of the movies. Sure enough, Wonderfilm Media is developing an Arozarena biopic, to be released in theaters in fall 2022 or spring 2023, that will feature human interest aspects of his journey from Cuba to Mexico to the United States, his climb to the majors, and the success he had there.
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Lefty Shane McClanahan's big-league debut would have seemed uneventful — single, full-count walk, groundout — if not for the circumstances: the ninth inning of Game 1 of the 2020 ALDS vs. the Yankees. McClanahan became the first pitcher in history to debut in a postseason game (though the Padres' Ryan Weathers joined him hours later). Three modern-era position players had done it: Mark Kiger, 2006 A's; Adalberto Mondesi, 2015 Royals; Alex Kirilloff, 2020 Twins.
Giving back World Series Game 4 hero Brett Phillips earned $40,000 in 2020 between charity video game events and public appearances, and he donated the money to a series of nonprofit and charitable organizations throughout the Tampa Bay area, where he was born and still lives.
Switching it up Lefty-swinging first baseman Ji-Man Choi experimented with switch-hitting earlier in his minor-league career with mixed results. The first game he tried it in the big leagues was a smashing success: a home run off Toronto lefty Anthony Kay on July 26. Choi launched a blast estimated at 429 feet and 110 mph, a combo he never reached left-handed. Choi made only 12 plate appearances as a righty swinger (3-for-11 with a walk) before deciding he was better off concentrating just on hitting lefty.
Rising to the occasion Only four rookies have been voted MVP of a League Championship Series, and the Rays now have two of them. Newly signed pitcher Michael Wacha won the award in 2013 for the Cardinals vs. the Dodgers. Arozarena won the honors in 2020 vs. the Astros. The other two were Livan Hernandez (1997 Marlins) and Mike Boddicker (1983 Orioles).
Iron Man Reliever John Curtiss welcomed his opportunity with the Rays and said he'd do whatever he was asked. That included striking out the side in the ninth to get the save in the Sept. 25 game vs. the Phillies, then starting the next day as the opener. Only seven other pitchers have had such duty with no days off between games.
RF Austin Meadows (L)
2B Brandon Lowe (L)
LF Randy Arozarena (R)
1B Ji-Man Choi (L)
3B Joey Wendle (L)
DH Yoshi Tsutsugo (L)
SS Willy Adames (R)
CF Kevin Kiermaier (L)
C Mike Zunino (R)
IF Mike Brosseau (R)
IF Yandy Diaz (R)
C Francisco Mejia (S)
OF Manuel Margot (R)
OF Brett Phillips (L)
RHP Tyler Glasow
LHP Ryan Yarbrough
RHP Chris Archer
RHP Michael Wacha
LHP Rich Hill
RHP Nick Anderson (C)
RHP Diego Castillo
LHP John Curtiss
RHP Pete Fairbanks
LHP Ryan Sherriff
RHP Ryan Thompson
LHP Ryan Yarbrough
2021 Prediction: 2nd in AL East
(Randy Arozarena photo courtesy of @RaysBaseball)