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Tampa Bay Rays Season Recap

Tampa Bay Rays
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On the surface, the Tampa Bay Rays appear to have failed in 2021. A lot of old-school baseball minds have been pumping their fists and making sure to let the world know that “nerds” don’t win baseball games. Those people would be correct; players are the ones who win games. The Rays, talented as they are, were not the better team in a best-of-five series with the Red Sox.

That does not detract from what the team accomplished during a season in which they won 100 games despite having the fifth-lowest payroll in the sport. A franchise that operates almost like a “professional” collegiate program; one with moving parts and year-to-year turnover. This season was a massive success for the Rays for a multitude of reasons.

Make sure to check out all of our other MLB Season Recaps.

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Their corps is young and under control

Wander Franco, Shane Baz, Shane McClanahan, Luis Patiño, Randy Arozarena, Brandon Lowe, and Austin Meadows are all 27 or younger. On top of that, they’re all under team control through 2024 at the earliest. Considering they’ve been to the World Series once and the playoffs the past three seasons, people think they’ve “arrived” and their championship window is closing.

They haven’t arrived at the party yet. You can hear them blasting music from their car down the street. They’re on the precipice of becoming a powerhouse in the American League and we’ve just all finally been exposed to the corps that’s going to anchor it.

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The Tampa Bay Rays still have the sharpest minds in the game

There’s a reason teams across baseball are plucking former Rays front office members. For starters, it leaves a chink in the armor, but it’s also because they’re brilliant and know what they’re doing. Of the four teams remaining in the playoffs, three have former Rays employees calling the shots: the Red Sox’ CBO is Chaim Bloom, the Astros’ general manager is James Click, and the Dodgers’ general manager is Andrew Friedman.

Those teams are experiencing success with their former Rays employees in the front office, but the Rays also continue to win. While it hasn’t translated to the ultimate prize of a World Series title, it has translated into wins and being competitive in their postseason series–in victory and defeat. They adapt and overcome the adversities that come with losing instrumental people to other front offices. It should instill fear into other organizations, especially those in the American League East.

The game is becoming more analytical by the day

Following that previous point, there’s a reason teams try to emulate the Rays. The only difference is these teams do what the Rays do, but with money. When someone cracks the code into how to sustain success, people try to copycat it. That’s what other organizations are doing when it comes to analytics.

Is it all because of Tampa Bay? No. But there’s a reason they’re so good at what they do, and there’s a reason teams are trying to catch up in that regard.

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They have a budding superstar at shortstop for at least six seasons

It’s still a considerably small sample size, but Wander Franco is on the cusp of superstardom at the ripe age of 20. He started rather slowly, posting a 76 wRC+ in his first 103 plate appearances, but hit the ground running from there. In his subsequent 205 plate appearances, Franco slashed .323/.385/.516 with a 152 wRC+. Then, in his first postseason, he had a 216 wRC+ in 19 plate appearances.

Wander Franco has only just begun to learn the MLB game, and he’s caught on pretty quickly. Don’t be surprised if the best player in the American League East is on the Rays in the next couple of seasons. He’s the real deal.

As for team awards, they’re relatively simple to give out.

Award Winners

MVP and Offensive Player of the Year: Brandon Lowe

Lowe had a rotten ALDS against the Red Sox, where he didn’t register a hit and struck out nine times in 18 plate appearances. However, they don’t even make it to where they are without his contributions all season.

The second baseman was the team leader in fWAR (5.2), wRC+ (137), wOBA (.363), xwOBA (.357), home runs (39), and was second to Austin Meadows (106) in RBI (99).

He had a phenomenal season that is, unfortunately, being overshadowed by a nightmarish postseason. He was a great player for Tampa Bay all year and it deserves to be recognized.

Cy Young: Shane McClanahan

The southpaw posted a 3.62 SIERA and 27.3 strikeout rate through 123.1 innings as a starting pitcher. He did have an alarmingly high xERA (4.57), but his FIP was 3.31, he had a 3.23 xFIP, and his average fastball velocity was 96.7 mph. McClanahan is going to have a long career of being productive, and the Rays have him for the next half-decade.

Reliever of the Year: Collin McHugh

What a signing McHugh proved to be for the Tampa Bay Rays. Having not pitched since 2019 after opting out of the 2020 year with the Red Sox, McHugh was a low-risk, high-reward signing.

Narrator: “The reward was high.”

McHugh posted a 2.12 FIP and 2.87 SIERA to combine with a 25.1 percent K-BB rate. On top of that, he pitched two scoreless innings in an elimination game of the ALDS after the team taxed their bullpen in a 13-inning Game 3 marathon. He was fantastic, and they should strongly consider re-signing him this winter.

Defensive Players of the Year: Kevin Kiermaier and Mike Zunino

The light-hitting center fielder had yet another year of brilliance defensively. In 894.2 defensive innings in center field, Kiermaier netted 13 defensive runs saved. That was the best mark on the Rays, but also third among all center fielders (min. 800 innings) behind only Harrison Bader and Michael A. Taylor.

As for Zunino, he was one of the better defensive catchers in the sport. Among all qualifying catchers, the first-time All-Star ranked fifth in runs extra strikes and frame runs.

Comeback Player of the Year: Austin Meadows

Meadows wasn’t at the same level he was in 2019, but this season was a nice bounceback for the Rays outfielder. In 2020, he posted just an 88 wRC+ in 152 plate appearances as a bout with COVID-19 derailed him mightily. He rebounded in 2021, posting a 113 wRC+ to go with 27 home runs and a team-leading 106 runs batted in. He’s part of this Rays corps going forward, and to have him right is going to be crucial to their success.

What’s next for the Tampa Bay Rays?

The Rays have a corps in place that is ready to compete for the next half-decade. At this point, it’s all about building around that group.

Does that mean digging deeper into their pockets to lure a free agent away? Does it mean sticking to the status quo when it comes to roster construction? They’re going to find ways to win ballgames no matter the construction tactic they choose. Their only remaining test becomes putting a bow on a successful season with a World Series.


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Main Image Credit: Embed from Getty Images

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