Back in October, just after the Rays had been bounced from the postseason, president of baseball operations Erik Neander gave a press conference and outlined some goals for the offseason. One area targeted for improvement was the club’s performance against right-handed pitching. As a whole, the team hit .234/.305/.373 against righties, leading to a 99 wRC+ that indicates they were just a hair below average.
“I don’t think it’s in us to just stand pat and assume things will get better,” Neander said at that time. Cut to April and the club apparently decided that the standing pat thing wasn’t such a bad idea after all. They made no moves this offseason to add to their lineup. In fact, they subtracted from it, as players like Kevin Kiermaier, Ji Man Choi and Miles Mastrobuoni are now on different teams. Aside from signing Zach Eflin, all the club’s offseason additions were minor leaguers, with most of those being pitchers.
The MLB offseason was generally considered to be on the robust side, with many contracts going well beyond predictions, especially for the top free agents. It’s possible that the low-spending Rays simply got priced out of whatever plans they initially drew up for the winter. Whatever the reasons, the club didn’t bring in anyone from outside the organization and is relying on internal options, at least for now. The season is still young but the early results are encouraging, as the club is 14-2 and hitting a collective .276/.364/.544 against righties for a 155 wRC+ so far. Let’s dig in on the players individually.
In the first few years of his career, Lowe had established himself as one of the key members of the Tampa lineup. He hit 14 home runs in the shortened 2020 season and added 39 more the next year. Over those two seasons combined, he hit .253/.346/.532 for a wRC+ of 141.
Unfortunately, he was hobbled in the health department last year. He made trips to the injured list due to lower back issues and a triceps contusion. He only got into 65 games and produced a diminished .221/.308/.383 slash line when on the field for a 104 wRC+. Early indications suggest that Lowe has put those injuries behind him, as he is off to a great start. He has five home runs in his first 14 games and is currently batting .310/.442/.690 for a 215 wRC+.
Franco’s arc is fairly similar to Lowe’s. His track record in the majors isn’t as long, but he was considered the top prospect in the sport for quite a while and then performed well in 2021 while only 20 years old. But the switch-hitter was also snakebitten in 2022, making trips to the IL due to a quad strain and wrist discomfort. He only got into 83 games and hit .277/.328/.417 for a wRC+ of 116, still above average but not elite. But like Lowe, he seems to be healthy and in a good groove here this year. He already has four long balls and is batting .318/.366/.621 for a wRC+ of 176.
The switch-hitting Walls has always hit well in the minors but hasn’t been able to translate it to the majors. Coming into this year, his career batting line was .182/.281/.288. He’s off to a strong start here in 2023 though, batting .281/.378/.469 through 37 plate appearances for a wRC+ of 144.
Mejía isn’t off to the same blazing start as some of his teammates. The switch-hitting catcher is batting just .167/.276/.208 through his first 29 plate appearances. He and Christian Bethancourt have been splitting the catching duties fairly evenly so far, but the right-handed-hitting Bethancourt is performing much better at the plate and could increase his share as the season goes along.
Acquired from the Dodgers in a trade just prior to the 2022 season, Raley got into 22 games with the Rays last year but hit just .197/.306/.279. He’s still striking out at a 31% clip in 2023 but has hit three homers in just 13 games, leading to a .222/.310/.528 slash line and 131 wRC+.
Lowe has long been one of the club’s highly-touted prospects, having been selected 13th overall in 2016 and performing well in the minors. He got a two-game cameo in the big leagues in 2021 but struggled in his first meaningful taste of the majors. He hit .221/.284/.343 last year and struck out in 33.3% of his trips to the plate. He’s been far superior this season, cutting that strikeout rate in half to 16.7% and hitting three home runs in just 12 games. His current batting line of .359/.405/.718 amounts to a wRC+ 213.
Long one of the club’s most significant prospects, Bruján has struggled badly against major league pitching. He had a batting line of .150/.207/.231 over 62 games coming into this year. The club was granted a fourth option for him, allowing them to send him to the minors on Opening Day, but he was called up when Jose Siri landed on the injured list. Bruján is hitting .333/.333/.333 through 15 plate appearances but has six strikeouts (a 40% rate) in that tiny sample.
Aranda got to make his MLB debut last year but didn’t crack the Opening Day roster here in 2023. He’s off to a nice start in Triple-A, hitting a couple of home runs for the Durham Bulls and drawing walks in a massive 24% of his 50 plate appearances. His current batting line is .250/.440/.444 for a 136 wRC+.
Manzardo isn’t yet on the 40-man roster but is one of the club’s top prospects and is playing in Triple-A, meaning a debut at some point this year is on the table. He has three home runs and a 10.4% walk rate for the Bulls so far this year, leading to a .262/.333/.548 batting line and 115 wRC+ through 12 games.
Jones is on the 40-man roster but he’s in Double-A and therefore not likely to be at the front of the line for a call-up. He’s also not forcing the issue right now, hitting .167/.189/.417 through eight games for the Montgomery Biscuits.
All of these numbers come with small sample warnings, as the Rays have only played 16 games thus far. Also, the strength of their competition has been fairly weak, as their 13-game winning streak to start the season came against the Tigers, Nationals, Athletics and Red Sox. When they finally faced a team that’s generally considered to be a contender by squaring off against the Blue Jays this past weekend, they went 1-2.
The fact that they demolished the pitching of rebuilding clubs like the Nats and A’s doesn’t mean that we can declare the situation resolved, but it’s encouraging nonetheless. Franco and Brandon Lowe aren’t likely to sustain these torrid streaks, but it’s a good sign that they are healthy and are making the 2022 struggles seem like temporary injury setbacks. Walls can’t suddenly be declared a superstar, but he’s considered a strong defender and any offense he can provide is a nice bonus. We also can’t say that Raley and Josh Lowe have cemented themselves as successful big league hitters, but they’ve shown tremendous promise in the minors and could be getting acclimated to big league pitching. Lowe’s much-improved strikeout rate is especially positive.
As the season goes along and the Rays face stronger competition, it’s entirely possible that this picture looks less glowing. However, the games all count the same and they already have 14 wins in the bank, which makes it highly likely they stay in contention up until the trade deadline. If they need to upgrade on any of the hitters in this group, they have a very strong farm system and should be able to bolster their left-handed options by making a deal or two. But if even one or two of these early developments start to seem more real, their urgency to do so will be lessened.