2021 AL East Division Preview: Tampa Bay Rays
In order to preview the Red Sox’ rivals in the AL East, I’m going to be interviewing some experts on the other teams in the division. Today I talked to Jake, who runs the page @raysbatflip on Instagram. Keep reading to learn what we can expect in 2021 from our rivals down in Tampa!
Philip: Chris Archer was the Rays’ ace for awhile before being traded to the Pirates. A report just came out that he’s returning to Tampa on a one-year deal. He’s going to be in his age 32 season, and struggled pretty significantly when he last pitched in 2019. What can you reasonably expect from him in 2021?
Jake: He’ll be a guy who will definitely eat some innings. We also have a pitching coach in Kyle Snyder who is arguably the best in the game, so we’ll see if he can turn Chris back into the player that made the All-Star Game two of his last three seasons in Tampa. But for now, I see him as a back-end of the rotation guy.
Philip: Everyone knows the situation that unfolded with Blake Snell in the World Series and this offseason. Do you think what happened with him will get the team’s front office and coaching staff to rethink their strategy of only allowing starters to pitch two times through the order? Or does that method work, and his situation was just an unfortunate side-effect?
Jake: I don’t think they’ll change due to the fact that making those moves are what got the Rays to the World Series. We rarely let a starter go more than 6 innings, and I don’t think we should change that up because it’s had so much success. Also, just because it’s the World Series, that doesn’t mean we should change the strategy that was so successful in the regular season.
Philip: Brandon Lowe really seemed to breakout last year after making his first All-Star Game in 2019. He hit 14 homers in only 56 games, and had an OPS over .900 for the first time. He’s only going to be 26 this upcoming season, and has improved every year he’s been in the bigs. Do you think he can replicate his 2020 year over the course of a full season? Should we expect some regression, or do you think he’s going to keep looking like one of the best hitters in baseball?
Jake: For the first of the year he was on an MVP pace. He slowed down in the second half and the playoffs, but I think that he can produce for a full season like he did in the first half of 2020. He has the potential to be an MVP candidate, and if he can cut down on the strikeouts he will be. I think we’ll see more first-half and less second-half B. Lowe in 2021.
Philip: Wander Franco is your team’s top prospect, and the consensus top prospect in all of baseball. He’s an absolute stud, and is only 19 years old. He’s projected to reach the majors in 2021. Do you think the cancellation of the 2020 minor league season affects his ETA? If not, what do you expect from him this year?
Jake: I think there was a chance he would have been called up at some point in 2020 had it been a normal year. But due to COVID and no minor league season, he was at the alternate site all year training. This year, I don’t think he’ll make the roster out of camp, but I do see him making his debut in 2021 at some point. Weather that’ll be due to an injury to one of our starters or just the fact that he is MLB ready, he will play at the major league level in 2021.
Philip: What’s your prediction for this team? Repeat as AL East Champions? Wild Card?
Jake: I think the Rays are always doubted, but that’s what they thrive on. The AL East got way better this offseason, but ion the end I still see the division as a three-team race. I think the Yankees will always be tough, and the Blue Jays got much better, although they lack pitching and that’s a problem for them. The Rays had the Yankees number last season so I’m hoping they can replicate that success. When all is said and done, I think we’ll win or lose the division by a game or two, but don’t expect anyone to run away with it. If we lose it, we’re definitely the top Wild Card, but I think if there is a way to win the division that the Rays will get it done.
Philip: Any bold predictions? MVP/CYA/ROY winners or anything of that nature?
Jake: I think Randy Arozarena is the Rookie of the Year favorite out of the gate, as he should be.* The pressure is on him to do it. I think he can, but it won’t be easy to replicate his 2020. I can see a big year from Josh Fleming and potentially could see him being our teams Cy Young, and if Randy can keep up what he’s been doing he is the team MVP. Outside of those two, I like Austin Meadows and expect a big bounce-back year out of him. And don’t sleep on Yoshi Tsutsugo. I can see him having a huge year in 2021, it’s only his second MLB season, and his first that’s at least semi-normal.
*Arozarena is still ROY eligible in 2021. He only had 81 regular season at-bats, and wasn’t called up until August 30th, so he hasn’t exceeded the playing time threshold.
Overall, the Rays should be poised to make another run at the AL East crown. They have some great players in Lowe, Arozarena, and Meadows, and while losing Snell is a huge blow, it may not be fatal. I disagree with Jake's three-team race comment (the Orioles really have no shot. But come on, the Sox can at least be decent!), but I do agree that Tampa should once again be one of the better teams in the American League. Let me know what you think in the comments!