“Strike three!!! The Dodgers have won it all in 2020” yells an enthusiastic Joe Buck as Willy Adames walks back to the dugout after taking a looking strike three. Those were the last words I heard as a Rays fan in 2020 right before I turned the TV off and let it fade into the darkness that was the 2020 off-season.
Enter spring 2021 – a new dawn for the MLB season and for the Tampa Bay Rays hopes of hoisting a championship trophy. Coming off a 2020 season that saw the Tampa Bay Lighting (NHL) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (NFL) win championships, the Rays had high hopes of capturing the crown in the fall classic.
Coming into 2021 the Rays were active with a flurry of movement and transactions. Major moves include:
- Blake Snell to Padres (You may recall a very memorable moment of the World Series was Snell being pulled out of the game in a pressure situation much to his displeasure which ended up leading to an even bigger run deficit to overcome)
- Charlie Morton, Declined $15 million Team Option – Landed With Braves
- Hunter Renfroe, Free Agency – Signed with Red Sox
- C Francisco Mejia
- SP Luis Patino, Chris Archer, Rich Hill, Michael Wacha, Collin McHugh, Chaz Roe, Oliver Drake (6 of which were acquired using monies saved by declining Morton’s option)
Mike Zunino, who struggled at the plate in 2020 but was a wall as a catcher, was retained and it has paid off huge for the Rays in 2021. The Florida man has shown improvement at the plate and when he connects on a pitch, he hits tape measure shots.
Finally, the Rays tendered the contracts of the following players to bring them back; pitchers Jose Alvarado, Johnny Chirinos, Tyler Glasnow, and Ryan Yarbrough, first baseman Ji-Man Choi, outfielder Manuel Margot and, infielder Joey Wendle.
So the stage was set and the Rays were off to their 2021 campaign. However, it wouldn’t be long before a recurring theme would plague the Rays. Injuries and lots of ‘em. From Opening Day through the time this article was written the following pitchers visited the injured list (IL) at least once:
- April 6th: RHP Chaz Roe to the 60-day IL with shoulder strain leading to season ending surgery
- May 8th: RHP Chris Archer to the 60-day IL with forearm tightness
- May 22nd: LHP Cody Reed to the 60-day IL with a left thumb injury
- June 17th: RHP Tyler Glasnow to the 60-day IL with a partially torn UCL leading to season ending Tommy John surgery and will miss the entire 2022 season. Glasnow was the ace in the Rays rotation and was on pace to have an All-Star year. The MLB came under scrutiny as the right hander stated that the injury likely from the MLBs ban on foreign substances. A mid-season change causing pitchers to have to re-learn pitches and how to grip baseballs.
- August 3rd: RHP Ryan Thompson to the 60-day IL with right shoulder inflammation
- August 16th: RHP D.J. Johnson to the 60-day IL with a severe sprained right shoulder.
Other notable mid-season transactions include;
- May 11th: First Basemen Yoshi Tsutsugo is designated for assignment (released from team)
- May 21st: RHP Trevor Richards and SS Willy Adames are traded to the Brewers in exchange for RHPs Drew Rasmussen and J.P. Feyereisen.
- June 22nd: The Rays call up SS Wander Franco whom was rated as the MLBs #1 prospect for quite some time before his call up.
- July 22nd: Nelson Cruz is acquired from the Twins
- July 23rd: Rich Hill is traded to the New York Mets
So where does this land the Rays? Well as of today, August 22nd, the Rays are leading the AL East touting a record of 77-48 with a hard charging New York Yankees team 4.5 games behind them with 37 regular season games remaining. The Rays have achieved this by turning up the wick in the offense department and despite all the starting pitching woes, being able to utilize their bullpen to get them out of tight jams has been their savior. The Rays introduced “the opener” role a few years back. For those that may not know this is where a long relief pitcher would come in and start a game, and sometimes even a closer would start the game before handing it off to the starting pitcher or a long relief pitcher.
The Rays are forging ahead with a pieced together starting rotation that nobody would have guessed on Opening Day and a bullpen that has seen it’s fair share of injury stints. Just this morning reliever Chris Mazza was on a boat fishing when he got the message that we would be needed in the game. So it’s pretty safe to say the Rays and their pitching staff are quite unorthodox but they are making it work.
Despite all these woes there is a ray of hope. The team chemistry is extremely high and there is this no quit attitude amongst the club. Veteran presence from both Chris Archer and now Nelson Cruz, the youth movement in guys like Taylor Walls, Wander Franco, Vidal Brujan and the excitement and grit of Brett Phillips, Ji Man Choi, Randy Arozarena make this team super fun to watch. The team has been to the big dance, they have seen the prize and they now want it more than ever.
Looking into my metaphorical crystal ball (all bias aside) I see the Rays heading into the 2021 postseason just as they did in 2020. Hopefully they get some pitching back from the IL and their offense continues to be potent at the plate. It feels like all the pieces are there and they are gelling extremely well as an organization. It shouldn’t go unnoticed but there are so many more talented players on this team that were not mentioned in this article that can deliver in a big moment. All the ingredients are there for a deep run at a World Series. The Rays are indeed shining, so let’s just hope the clouds don’t get in the way.