2023 Tampa Bay Rays MLB season predictions, odds and preview

By Adam Burke  (VSiN.com) 

March 24, 2023 08:45 PM

Tampa Bay Rays 2023 Season Preview

Smart organizations almost always get the benefit of the doubt from me. There may not be a smarter one in baseball than the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays made the playoffs for the fourth straight season and have ranked 30th, 28th, 26th and 24th in year-end 40-man roster payroll over that span according to Cot’s Contracts. Last season’s year-end mark of $97,486,640 was the highest in franchise history and first time outside of the bottom five in payroll since 2012.

The Orioles aren’t really spending a whole lot, but the Yankees, Blue Jays and Red Sox certainly are, which makes all of Tampa Bay’s accomplishments that much more impressive. Now, the Rays may even get a respite with the changes to the schedule that take away 24 games against division opponents. For a smart, well-prepared team with a distinct home-field advantage, welcoming more opponents into the fold could yield some serious dividends.

Over the last 15 seasons, the Rays have had a losing record just four times and they were all grouped together from 2014-17. I don’t anticipate one, and neither do the oddsmakers, as one of sport’s model organizations gets ready for another run to the postseason.

Explanations of the stats used in this preview can be found in my “MLB Stats to Know” article.

2023 Tampa Bay Rays Odds

(odds from DraftKings as of Mar. 6, click for updates)

World Series: +2000

AL Pennant: +1000

AL East: +380

Win Total: 88.5 (-105/-115)

Make Playoffs: Yes -165 / No +140

Tampa Bay Rays Offense

For last season’s Guide, I wrote about how the Rays were an offensive chameleon. They would be patient and walk a lot at home in the suppressed run environment at the Trop and then get more aggressive and hit for power on the road. Well, teams either adjusted to that strategy or the Rays just had a lot less success away from home. The 2021 bunch slugged .440 on the road and finished fourth in MLB. Last year’s bunch only slugged .368, which ranked 22nd.

Because of the park factor adjustments to Tropicana Field, the Rays had a 109 wRC+ at home, but ranked 19th in wOBA. They walked at about the same clip as they did on the road. They still won 86 games, but their ceiling was undoubtedly lowered by their inability to capitalize on their road games the way they did in 2021. They had a 101 wRC+ overall, but finished 23rd in wOBA.

Injuries played a big role. Wander Franco was limited to 344 plate appearances. Brandon Lowe, who hit 39 homers in 2021, hit just eight over 266 plate appearances. Manager Kevin Cash had a tough job because there were 17 players with at least 150 plate appearances, but only three with at least 450, so there was a lot of shuffling due to injury, ineffectiveness and roster movement. Taylor Walls had a 66 wRC+ (34% below league average) and had the third-most plate appearances for the team.

The Rays always find edges in various ways. They had those home/road splits I mentioned. Back in 2018, they led the league in BABIP, largely because of hitting the ball the other way away from the shift. They were just 27th in Hard Hit% that year, but went against the grain and got rewarded.

I’m a bit concerned that the Rays made virtually no upgrades to the offense for this season. A healthier Franco could make a sizable difference. If Yandy Diaz can come close to his career year with a 146 wRC+, that will also help. Randy Arozarena was a 20/30 guy with 20 homers and 32 steals to help offset a low OBP because of a 7.1% BB%. But, who takes a leap? Or, maybe the bigger question - who stays the same?

Harold Ramirez posted a 119 wRC+ over 435 plate appearances, but ran a .350 BABIP that doesn’t appear sustainable with a 40.9% Hard Hit% and a low Barrel%. Isaac Paredes hit 20 homers to carry a 116 wRC+, but only had a .323 wOBA because of a big lack of contact quality. His 6.4% Barrel% doesn’t signal a repeat of his power production and he only batted .186/.312/.365 in the second half.

On the whole, the Rays were an average team defensively. Walls was the best defender, which helped to offset his offensive shortcomings, but the Rays look a little bit more vulnerable to me as a team than they have in previous seasons. They’re smart and they find ways to plug holes, but the boat seems a little more rickety this season on the position player side.

Tampa Bay Rays Pitching

Offensive production usually is hit or miss with limited financial resources, so teams like the Rays have to win with pitching. Last season, that’s precisely what they did. They were fourth in ERA and eighth in FIP. Shane McClanahan was elite, but the Rays did what they do best. They took Rangers castoff Jeffrey Springs and turned him into a legitimate frontline starter. They got tremendous production out of Drew Rasmussen. They got some good peripherals from Corey Kluber, even if he ran out of gas late in the year.

Eighteen different pitchers made a start for the Rays, who utilize the opener very effectively. Springs, Rasmussen, McClanahan and Kluber all made at least 25 starts, so they weren’t wholly reliant on them this past season. Once again, though, Tampa Bay got virtually nothing from Tyler Glasnow, who made just two starts, and still made it work. Glasnow is already sidelined with a strained oblique this year, so I think we’ll see him in late April at the earliest.

This should still be an elite pitching staff, which is why the team performs so well at the Trop. In a low run environment, the Rays can do what they do best and win games 4-3, 3-2, 5-3, and the like. When it comes to the road, the pitching staff is easily good enough to keep the team in every game.

Sixteen different pitchers made at least 20 appearances last season. All but three of them had an ERA under 4.00 (Kluber, Calvin Faucher and Ryan Yarbrough). All eight pitchers with at least 33 appearances had an ERA under 4.00. The Rays deploy a bullpen full of different arm angles and handedness to keep hitters from getting comfortable, an attribute that may really help this season with 24 fewer games against division opponents.

McClanahan is going to be one of the best pitchers in baseball for however many innings he can go, but that is the question. He jumped from 123.1 innings to 166.1 from 2021 to 2022, but he went from a .223 wOBA against in the first half with a 1.71 ERA and a 2.41 FIP over 110.2 innings to a 4.20 ERA and a 4.19 FIP with a .296 wOBA against over just 55.2 innings in the second half. McClanahan’s K% went from 35.7% in the first half to a 20.5% mark in the second half. His BB% nearly doubled. He allowed 12 HR in the first half and seven in the second half in half as many innings.

He is said to be healthy coming into the season, but the one thing it seems like the Rays have failed with in recent seasons is keeping pitchers healthy. Most of their top prospects, like Shane Baz and Brendan McKay, have had Tommy John surgery. Brent Honeywell has never really been healthy. Glasnow missed nearly all of last season. McClanahan had Tommy John as a freshman at USF and last season’s shoulder impingement.

Their depth has been the saving grace. They’ve done a great job of drafting, developing and acquiring arms via trade to withstand the injury barrage, but I see some high-risk arms. McClanahan hasn’t had a huge injury history as a pro, so his risk isn’t as high, but Springs had thrown just 129.1 innings over four pro seasons before becoming a starter and throwing 135.1 this past season. Rasmussen was a reliever/spot starter who had never thrown more than 87.1 innings before throwing 146 last season.

To counteract some of the risk, the Rays signed Zach Eflin, who had his best season from a contact management standpoint in 2022. His Hard Hit% fell to 31.1% and ranked in the 94th percentile. His average exit velocity ranked in the 96th percentile. What will be interesting is to see how the Rays revamp his arsenal because they ranked 30th in FB% by 2.8%. Eflin threw a sinker 40% of the time last season, so I think we could see them work on his slider and changeup in hopes of generating some more swing and miss.

While they didn’t shine in the WAR department, the Rays were a top-10 bullpen by ERA. They were actually 16th in FIP, a byproduct of their 18th-ranked K%. Most of the high-leverage guys rack up strikeouts, though. The fill-in guys that work in long relief or mop-up roles don’t miss a ton of bats, so it drags down the rate stats for everybody. Five of the top six guys in appearances struck out well over a batter per inning.

Miscellaneous Notes

The Rays were 51-30 at home and 35-46 on the road. That speaks to what I talked about with regards to the low run environment at Tropicana Field. The Rays allowed 279 runs (3.44 R/G) at home and 335 on the road (4.14 R/G). The brand of baseball on the Gulf Coast of Florida is much different for the Rays than it is at home. However, their offensive adaptability meant that they scored nearly as many runs per game at home (336) as they did on the road (330).

As mentioned, though, it was that road offensive performance that led to falling short of expectations. They scored 456 runs on the road last season compared to 401 at home. They also gave up 133 more runs on the road, so they figured out the pitching side, but the offensive punch was not there from the 100-62 team in 2021.

Player to Watch

SP Jeffrey Springs: As a changeup specialist, Springs has what it takes to neutralize right-handed batters. In fact, lefties slashed .248/.291/.453 with a .318 wOBA against him, while righties slashed .215/.260/.323 with a .258 wOBA. Normally teams try to load up on the platoon advantage (right-handed batters vs. left-handed pitchers), but that just plays into what Springs does well. A lot of managers haven’t evolved enough to play into the reverse platoon splits like what Springs has. What was most impressive about Springs to me is that he got better in the second half from a command standpoint and also turned lineups over effectively. I think he’ll be a good bet in his starts given what he does well.

Tampa Bay Rays Win Total Pick

It hurts me to say and I could be very wrong, but I think this will be a year in which the Rays fall short of expectations. Like I said in the intro, I really don’t like picking against smart teams and few are smarter than the Rays. Last year’s team won 86 games while dealing with injuries at a lot of key positions, so there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Help is coming from below as well, as the Rays have three of FanGraphs’ top 56 prospects.

But, I look at this team and I still can’t help but wonder where the offense comes from. The pitching staff has a great chance to border on being elite again, but the big innings spikes for Rasmussen and Springs worry me. McClanahan’s second-half drop in K% and spike in BB% may just have been related to the shoulder impingement and it could be behind him, but this team basically needs to win 90 games to beat me and I think the margin for error is small in that regard.

If I get punished for picking against a team I greatly respect, I’ll tip my cap, but Under 88.5 is my favorite win total in the AL East.

Pick: Under 88.5

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