Saturday, December 9 2023

ST. PETERSBURG — There really has been a lot of good in this Rays season that seems to be marred now by pain and suffering. Brandon Lowe, Jason Adam, Luke Raley and Randy Arozarena are the latest to be sidelined to various degrees, and that was just in the last few days.

The consistent standout production by Yandy Diaz, who has a chance to be the Rays’ first top-five finisher in the American League MVP voting, certainly headlines that list.

Zach Eflin stepped in and, amid head-shaking attrition due to injuries, led the rotation with a 15-8, 3.44 mark. Isaac Paredes, in his first full big-league season, stepped up to head into the final week chasing a 30-homer/100-RBI season.

Josh Lowe, Jose Siri, Raley and relievers Shawn Armstrong, Colin Poche and Robert Stephenson were among others with strong performances, while Zack Littell and rookies Taj Bradley and Kevin Kelly were on the list of unexpected heavy contributors.

And not lost in this should be the job done by manager Kevin Cash to steer them through this steady stream of setbacks, displaying his trademark, and Terry Francona-inspired, consistency in the face of ample adversity that has made that 13-0 and 27-6 start seem long ago.

But so much of the narrative has been about what has gone wrong — the disciplinary/legal issues that sidelined their best player, Wander Franco, since mid August; the loss of two-time All-Star Shane McClanahan and two other members of the rotation to season-ending elbow surgeries; and a series of other injuries, some as random as Raley colliding with a staff member while chasing a batting practice fly ball.

With the Baseball Writers’ Association of America Tampa Bay chapter set to announce the official team awards Sunday, here is our annual, slightly different, take:

Most Valuable Ray

It’s hard to remember that at the All-Star break, roughly 2½ months ago, this was a really tough call between the four players headed to Seattle: Franco, Arozarena, Diaz and McClanahan. Now it is abundantly clear for Diaz, who ranks among the league leaders in average and OPS while hitting a career-high 20 homers from the leadoff spot and has played through assorted injuries.

Runners-up: Eflin, Paredes

Most disappointing (non-injury division)

Franco had some early-season issues that led a publicly announced two-game benching and some flaws in his game, but his play on both sides of the ball was overall impressive until allegations of inappropriate relationships with minors surfaced in mid-August, ending his season and putting his career in question pending investigative results. Despite not playing since Aug. 12, he still ranks sixth among AL position players with a 5.3 WAR rating.

Runners-up: The catching trio of Christian Bethancourt, Francisco Mejia and Rene Pinto, with a combined .644 OPS; Manuel Margot (though he also missed time with injury), Luis Patino

Most disappointing (injury division)

McClanahan tops the list, though at least the Rays got 21 starts (and 15 good ones) from him before he was shut down in early August and, after considering several options, elected a second Tommy John surgery, which will sideline him until 2025.

Runners-up: Jeffrey Springs, who made only three appearances, and Drew Rasmussen eight before injuries abruptly ended what had the makings of stellar seasons; Brandon Lowe going down for the second time, and likely done for the year, after fouling a ball off his kneecap.

Most Pleasant Surprise

After spending much of the offseason seeking a left-handed impact bat, pursuing Michael Brantley and Brandon Belt among others, the Rays had one — actually two — all along. Raley, who had a .189 average, three homers and a .561 OPS in limited 2021-22 opportunities (55 games). In 118 games this season, he hit .249 with 19 homers (and 14 steals) and an .824 OPS while playing all three outfield positions and first base. Josh Lowe, their higher-ceilinged 2016 top draft pick, also broke out big time in his first full season, with a chance at 20 homers to go with his 32 steals.

Runners-up: Kevin Kelly, the Rule-5 rookie; Littell, who converted from fringy reliever to rotation-saving stater; J. Lowe, Paredes

Stadium rumblings

Impressive work by the Rays keeping the scheduled Tuesday announcement quiet until the Tampa Bay Times reported on it Monday morning given the number of people involved and the extensive planning, including orders for platters of crab legs and champagne for an employee celebration. … The Rays-owned Rowdies aren’t likely to follow to the new stadium, sticking with their old, or a new, outdoor and grass field venue. … Team execs insist there is no danger of fly balls hitting the pavilion-style roof, saying Statcast data on every ball hit this season is checked and all would have cleared. … Though plans call for artificial turf, the Rays will monitor any technological developments that could eventually lead to a grass field being feasible under a fixed roof. … If the new stadium deals for the Rays and A’s (in Las Vegas) go through, Major League Baseball seems likely to move ahead soon with plans to expand by two teams, getting to a more manageable 32.

Rays rumblings

Following veteran reliever Jake Diekman’s lead to keep pre-game work from feeling mundane, several Rays pitchers made their casual game of catch with a football more interesting by sporting college or pro football helmets and receiver gloves. Among the ordered choices so far: Diekman, Nebraska; Eflin, Florida; Jason Adam, Chiefs; Kelly, James Madison; Armstrong, Bills; Poche, Cowboys; Stephenson, 49ers. … The Rays did get some payoff after all from Tim Beckham, who disappointed as the 2008 overall No. 1 pick. Beckham was traded in July 2017 to Baltimore for minor-league pitcher Tobias Myers, who was then traded in November 2021 to Cleveland for Junior Caminero, the just called-up top prospect. Coincidentally, Caminero chose to wear No. 1, which Beckham wore from 2015-17. … In response to a question, Cash last week confirmed what has seemed obvious, that they are planning for the postseason without Franco, who remains on administrative leave indefinitely. … Fellow Australians Curtis Mead and former Rays reliever Grant Balfour met for the first time over lunch Friday. … The new clubhouse drink of choice looks to be Mountain Valley Spring Water, which is packaged in green glass bottles.

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Source: Yahoo Sports


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