Attrition vs. tradition: After heavy losses, Tampa Bay Rays hope to defy odds yet again

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. – In their nearly three decades of existence, the Tampa Bay Rays have given every reason for fans to fixate on what they don’t have.

Even in the best of times.

After winning their first 13 games in 2023 and 27 of their first 33, elbow injuries shelved three members of their stellar pitching rotation, including ace Shane McClanahan. And then the franchise foundation was unmoored when All-Star shortstop Wander Franco was placed on administrative leave and faces possible criminal charges in the Dominican Republic after allegations of a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old girl.

A season of great promise went sideways, yet even though they conceded the division crown, the Rays won 99 games and reached the playoffs a fifth consecutive year.

The new year brought the trade of hard-throwing Tyler Glasnow to the Dodgers and the injured starters are still out, even if wounded pitchers Jeffrey Springs and Drew Rasmussen should return in the summer. Franco’s legal situation has many potential outcomes, though his major league future is murky at best.

Impervious to attrition? Not totally.

Talented enough to flourish anyway? Take it from the stars who remain, who know nothing else but playoff baseball at season’s end.

“It’s no secret that we did lose some of the best pitchers in the league,” says infielder Yandy Diaz, who turned into an All-Star and top-six MVP finisher in 2023, through translator Manny Navarro. “But the pitchers they brought up did a great job. We obviously made it to the playoffs.

“There were some moments of negativity there within the season. But our job was to keep it positive and keep it going from there – and our mentality’s going to stay the same from that point on.”

As a new season dawns, perhaps it’s time to fixate on what the Rays do have.

Yandy Díaz finished sixth in AL MVP voting last season.
Yandy Díaz finished sixth in AL MVP voting last season.

'I didn't plan any of this'

For once, it starts in the batter’s box.

The Rays almost always fascinate because of their pitching, a wicked stew of pitching coach Kyle Snyder’s wizardry and what’s probably still the best analytics department in the majors turning struggling hurlers into All-Stars, and paupers into multi-millionaires.

Let’s consider Diaz, for a moment.

At 32, he's played all but 88 games for Tampa Bay, after a 2019 trade from Cleveland. Yet he’s just now reaching his apex as a player.

Few put up tougher at-bats than Diaz, whose .330 batting average was good enough for the AL batting title. His 22 homers, a .410 OBP and .932 OPS helped forge 5.2 WAR.

“Yandy took his game to another level,” says Rays manager Kevin Cash, who enters his 10th season as the longest-tenured manager in the major leagues.

Diaz’s first half earned him an All-Star selection, and after some hesitation, he flew to the game in Seattle, hit a home run and was able to return for the birth of his son a day later.

“It was a blessing to have him,” he says of Yandy Jared Diaz, born to his wife, Mayisleidis. “Now you have double goals – everything is for him.

“Everything I do is for him and to hopefully help the team at the same time.”

He has been in virtual lockstep with his fellow native Cuban, Randy Arozarena: The two were traded in the 2019 off-season after brief careers elsewhere, and Arozarena blew up, figuratively, in the 2020 offseason when he crushed 12 home runs in an 18-game postseason stretch, driving the Rays to Game 6 of the World Series in the pandemic bubble.

Those narratives – Arozarena’s panache, Diaz’s pillar-like presence – have only deepened.

Arozarena’s spot blew up further after an epic performance for Mexico in the 2023 World Baseball Classic. In the year since, he has been name-dropped in a Bad Bunny verse and hung out backstage with hip-hop artist Travis Scott, who assumed Arozarena’s arms-folded pose for the camera.

“We have been working on something,” says Arozarena of Scott. “I can’t say.”

Big-time, eh?

“I won’t say he really likes the attention,” says Diaz, “but he just does things in a way that gets people's attention. I think that’s just the personality that he has.”

Cash, for his part, calls Arozarena “a model of consistency.” And Arozarena can remember when he was a seldom-used Cardinals outfielder swapped for pitcher Matthew Liberatore after the 2019 season. He now has three 20-homer seasons, a Rookie of the Year honor and All-Star nod to his credit.

“All I wanted to do was have success in the big leagues. That was the ultimate goal,” Arozarena says through Navarro. “I didn’t plan any of this. I didn’t expect any of it. It’s all still kind of new to me as it comes out. I just wanted to have success in the big leagues and support my team.”

Randy Arozarena celebrates a home run in September 2023.
Randy Arozarena celebrates a home run in September 2023.

'I don't forget good people'

They may need it more than ever. Franco played his last game of 2023 on Aug. 12, yet still led the club with 5.5 WAR. His legal limbo in part prompted the club to trade useful outfield platoon man Luke Raley to the Seattle Mariners for shortstop Jose Caballero. The rookie leads a cast of many – Amed Rosario and Yu Chang were added on major- and minor-league contracts Tuesday - vying for infield playing time.

“We have a very good offensive team. We’re going to have more opportunities for younger players to be a part of that,” says Cash.

“Runs are at a premium. We’ll take as many as we can get.”

They’re still pretty good at preventing them. After the ’23 pitcher carnage, the Rays claimed vets like Zack Littell and Chris Devenski off waivers; both saw significant improvement from their prior stops after Snyder and Co. got their hands on them.

Now, Littell is likely going to hold down a rotation spot.

“I think we all kind of understand that the roles are fairly fluid,” says Littell, who started 14 games last year, going two innings at the outset and by year’s end, producing eight innings of one-run ball.

“We all wanna pitch in the big spots and be the guy. But you’ve seen so many times over the years with the Rays, guys who hadn’t yet made an impact on the big league level, and springboards his career from there.”

Devenski, 33, has eight major league seasons under his belt. He was dumped by the Angels as part of their late-season luxury-tax gambit and cut his ERA from 5.08 in Anaheim to 2.08 in nine appearances with the Rays, and made the playoff roster.

It was an easy decision to re-sign with them in December.

“Plans don’t always go as planned, right?” says Devenski. “I like the approach that we have here. I like the language we use. Everything just makes sense. It was a good squad for me last year, a very good bright spot for me.

“In my career, I don’t forget good people. I don’t forget people who treat people well. I’m appreciative of the people here.”

The Rays were swept in the AL wild-card series in 2023.
The Rays were swept in the AL wild-card series in 2023.

It's a surprise

For now, the Rays’ plans hinge on Zach Eflin filling something close to a No. 1 starter role, for Ryan Pepiot – acquired for Glasnow – to expand on the promise he flashed with the Dodgers, for second-year man Taj Bradley to find consistency.

Plan Bs will emerge in time.

“I suspect we have players in camp,” says executive vice president Erik Neander, “who can fulfill that unexpected, pleasant surprise.”

For now, it’s all about rinsing any aftertaste from a two-game sweep at the hands of the eventual champion Texas Rangers in the wild-card round. The Rays played particularly badly, not exactly a rousing vital sign that they soldiered on from adversity.

Believing otherwise probably epitomizes the Rays Way, if one must exist.

“We’re all collectively naïve enough to think we can do it,” says Neander. “You have to believe you can be successful.”

In Díaz and Arozarena, they have something beyond simply belief – tangible production and also abundant vibes.

“They kinda cover all of it,” says Littell. “Yandy is one of the most professional players I’ve played with. He comes to the field everyday knowing exactly what he needs to do to get his body ready for the game. The consistency alone, he’s a guy you have to fall behind, and for the young position players, there’s not a better guy to watch.

“Randy just has a bigger gear. It seems like the bigger the moment, the easier the game gets. There’s a handful of athletes who are like that.”

Despite their eternal search for a new ballpark and the consistently low payrolls, the Rays in the Neander era don’t really do windows; the idea is to get in the playoffs every year, and thus maximize the chance that everything goes your way.

Yet the AL East remains suffocating from top to bottom. Perhaps a transition year is due to arrive soon.

For now, Díaz and the Rays will give it another go, aiming for a sixth straight playoff trip and bound by the belief that the sky isn’t, in fact, falling.

“Ever since 2019, I’ve been very fortunate with this team,” says Díaz. “They gave me that opportunity.

“And I always say, even after I retire, I’ll always give thanks to Tampa Bay for the work and the opportunity they gave me here.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Tampa Bay Rays suffered major losses but can defy AL East odds again