Despite a few changes and the reliance on youth at some key positions, the Tampa Bay Rays are expecting to do what they seem to do every season — win.
Manager Kevin Cash’s club will begin its 2022 season Friday afternoon with an Opening Day clash with the Baltimore Orioles in St. Petersburg, Fla., to begin a three-game series.
As it did in 2020’s pandemic-affected campaign, Tampa Bay ran roughshod over the American League on its way to another East Division title last year, posting the junior circuit’s best record (100-62) for the second consecutive season.
But after losing to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series two seasons ago and being shocked by the Boston Red Sox in last season’s American League Division Series, the Rays have unfinished business.
The club traded All-Star utility player Joey Wendle to Miami. Slugger Nelson Cruz was a bust after being acquired from Minnesota at the trade deadline, and he signed in the offseason with Washington.
On the mound, right-hander Tyler Glasnow is on the mend from last summer’s Tommy John surgery and had ankle surgery last month. His 2022 contribution is an uncertainty.
What Cash hopes to rely on is the youthful bounty of one of baseball’s best minor league systems.
In addition to reigning Rookie of the Year Randy Arozarena, the Rays had two other players receive votes for the award in 2021 — shortstop Wander Franco (third in voting) and lefty starter Shane McClanahan (seventh).
Stepping in for Glasnow, McClanahan assumed the ace role last season and posted a 10-6 mark with a 3.43 ERA over 25 starts.
Cash tabbed him for Friday’s Opening Day start.
“I think I’m in a good spot,” said the 24-year-old McClanahan. “I put the work in this camp and in the offseason, and we’re going to go into Friday in a good position.”
The local University of South Florida product is 4-0 with a 2.74 ERA in four rookie starts against Baltimore.
Arozarena batted .274 with 20 homers, 69 RBIs and 20 stolen bases in a breakout season. Now a 21-year-old budding superstar, Franco hit .288 with seven homers and excelled defensively after making his debut on June 22.
The organization signed free-agent starter Corey Kluber and reliever Brooks Raley but lacks another power-hitting righty hitter in the absence of Cruz.
In 2021, the Orioles finished tied with the Arizona Diamondbacks for the worst record in the majors at 52-110 and are merely looking to improve in baseball’s toughest division.
Baltimore’s rebuild is in its fourth season under new management, and this campaign and its growth or lack thereof could yet again lead to changes at the top of the organization.
The club’s best returning everyday player is center fielder Cedric Mullins, who was an All-Star selection thanks a spectacular year.
In 159 games in 2021, the Greensboro, N.C., native established himself as one of the game’s best outfielders when he became the first player in franchise history to produce 30 homers and 30 stolen bases in a single season.
No other player accomplished the feat in the majors last season, with the most recent being Christian Yelich and Ronald Acuna Jr. in 2019.
Mullins’ accomplishment is even more impressive considering his plight. He revealed in February that he played last season after having intestinal surgery in November 2020 following a diagnosis of Crohn’s disease.
“My main concern was being ready for the season and not missing any time, and luckily I was able to do that and build my body back up through the season,” said Mullins, 27.
Opening Day starter John Means is 3-3 with a 4.31 ERA in 10 career appearances against the Rays, nine of them starts.
Pitching is a major concern for Baltimore, which lost 19 straight games last August. The staff allowed nine or more runs in six consecutive games from Aug. 3-10 to set a franchise record and fall just one short of tying a major league record.
–Field Level Media