Image credit: (Photo by Curt Leimbach/Getty Images)
The success the Rays enjoyed in 2021 started the year before with Zoom sessions and FaceTime calls and instructional and inspirational messages texted across state lines, national borders and oceans beyond.
What the Rays did in the major leagues was obviously impressive. They won an American League-high and team-record 100 games. They claimed a second straight—and fourth in 14 years—AL East title in making the playoffs for a franchise-first third straight season.
And while the Rays’ season ended in the Division Series, Tampa Bay succeeded all while navigating a seemingly never-ending string of injuries and resulting roster churn that led to them using a franchise high 61 players, including 38 pitchers.
But it was what the Rays did in the minor leagues that elevated the organization above the standard winning MLB club. Tampa Bay’s domestic affiliates posted a composite .653 winning percentage—which is the highest on record going back more than 30 years—and won three championships plus a near-miss.
Rays prospects succeeded both collectively and individually, with a litany of promotions and achievements that were made all the more impressive because they followed the disruption of 2020 and the canceled minor league season.
“What immediately comes to mind: It’s not the major league part of this that’s most visible—though we’re exceptionally proud of everything that went on there—it’s the minor leagues,’’ Rays president of baseball operations Erik Neander said.
“It’s all of our staff and players, from our complexes all the way through. The people who didn’t have games last year—that was tough. I can’t even imagine how tough it was for many of them.
“You try to empathize, but realistically I had games in front of me. A lot of people didn’t. They were at a distance. And to come out this year, and for the collective performance of our affiliates to be as strong as it was, is something that I just am incredibly grateful and appreciative and proud of all the work that went into making that possible, because of all that was endured by so many in 2020.’’
As a result of what they did on all levels, the Rays, for the second time in three years, were honored as the Baseball America Organization of the Year.
And they feel pretty good about that.
“It’s something that I personally see as a really big honor,’’ Neander said. “Obviously, there’s on-field accomplishments that we’re still chasing, that ever elusive World Series championship that we hope to one day experience. But this is up there.
“Baseball America, and the incredible work they have done and continue to do in the game, for an outlet like that to recognize our organization, twice in three years—but this one in particular—it does mean a lot. And it’s something that I hope our staff and our players are really proud of.’’
The success of the Rays’ minor league affiliates might be unprecedented.
High-A Bowling Green’s .695 winning percentage was the highest among domestic minor league affiliates in 2021. Low-A Charleston ranked second at .683 and Triple-A Durham third at .662. Double-A Montgomery finished a more modest .530, but the Florida Complex League Rays counterbalanced that by leading all domestic Rookie affiliates with a .737 winning percentage.
Durham was the Baseball America Minor League Team of the Year. In the absence of playoffs, the Bulls were recognized as Triple-A champions based on their regular season record. Bowling Green won the High-A East. Charleston won the Low-A East. Montgomery fell a win short in the Double-A South finals.
“It’s hard to win and to do so at the rate we did this year,” said Carlos Rodriguez, the Rays’ vice president of player development and international scouting. “Our process prioritizes individual player development ahead of winning.
“However, we do believe that winning across the minor leagues this year is the result of our collective process and an incredible effort from our players, coaches and staff despite the canceled season in 2020 and while navigating changing protocols.’’
There were numerous individual achievements as well.
Most notably, the graduation of 20-year-old shortstop Wander Franco from No. 1 overall prospect in baseball to the cool-and-collected player who hit .368 and popped two home runs and two doubles in four postseason games.
The Rays called up Franco, who topped out at High-A in 2019 and spent 2020 at the Rays’ alternate training site, after just 40 Triple-A games.
Franco made a smashing debut but hit just .197 through his first 15 games. In the second half he showed the hype was real by hitting .314/.372/.500 with five home runs, 16 doubles, 19 walks and 22 strikeouts in 55 games. He struck out just three times in his final 97 plate appearances.
Franco finished third in the AL Rookie of the Year voting despite playing in just 70 games. In late November he signed an 11-year extension with the Rays worth at least $182 million.
“I think you could make the argument that he’s the most impactful player on any team in baseball,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said of Franco after the season. “Certainly for us.
“Our team was really good. We got better when he came. He lengthened our lineup. He made our defense better. He worked really hard on his defense, and it made our overall defense better. He is a game-changing player. He’s going to be fun to watch for a long time.”
The Rays farm system entered 2021 ranked as the most talented in baseball. The top six prospects in the system reached Tampa Bay and succeeded, led by Franco. The next five were outfielder Randy Arozarena, the eventual AL Rookie of the Year; righthander Luis Patiño, second baseman Vidal Brujan, lefthander Shane McClanahan and righthander Shane Baz. Shortstop Taylor Walls and outfielder Josh Lowe both ranked outside the top 10 but also made their MLB debuts.
Elsewhere on the Rays’ farm, righthander Taj Bradley won the minor league ERA title, reliever Colby White pitched at all four full-season levels and a quintet of prospects—Jonathan Aranda, Calvin Faucher, Rene Pinto, Ford Proctor and Tommy Romero—took major developmental strides and earned passage on the 40-man roster.
Another element to the Rays’ success was the depth they built and number of players they had available to help in the major leagues, a credit to the dogged pro scouting work by Kevin Ibach and his staff and the team’s research and development department, specifically in acquiring and stockpiling relievers.
“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say if not for the second and, probably, the third, line of our bullpen depth that we wouldn’t be leading the division without the contributions of all of them,” Neander said in August.
But, most visibly, the Rays achieved a lot in the majors.
They came into 2021 without their top two starters from 2020, having declined an option on Charlie Morton and traded Blake Snell. Then before they left spring training, they lost high-leverage reliever Nick Anderson to an elbow injury that cost him virtually the entire season and led to surgery.
The Rays went 13-14 in April and then lost ace Tyler Glasnow in June to an elbow injury that later resulted in Tommy John surgery. Still, they persevered. Tampa Bay made a series of roster moves aimed at transitioning to a younger core. The moves included a surprising late-May trade of shortstop and team leader Willy Adames, which initially led to Walls’ callup before he gave way to Franco.
And while the Division Series loss to the Red Sox was disappointing, the Rays still had a lot to celebrate. They made their third straight playoff appearance, captured back-to-back AL East titles and won two of the four writers’ awards. Arozarena was voted top rookie and Cash the top manager for a second straight season.
“I’m just incredibly proud,’’ Neander said. “I think just how widespread the success was this year just further highlights the endless contributions from every single member of our staff. And it’s not possible without each and every one of us doing our small part.
“Furthermore, to be recognized for something like this, which truly is an organization award, it is staff and players. Players are always the key.
“After the 2020 season that was disrupted and largely lost . . . all the work that went into keeping (minor league players) going, helping them make the most of that time and supporting them as best as we can—while not perfect by any means—we’re all the more proud of our staff and our players for the way they came out this year.”
The entire Rays organization, from minor league assistant trainer to major league star, put the disappointment and disruption of 2020 behind them and went into 2021 with no excuses and the proper goals. Unsaid was that they did it better than most.
“For (players) to come out the other side as good as they did this year, and as competitive as they did this year, and as developed as they were this year, that’s pretty special,” Neander said.
Even better, they think they are still at the beginning of a long run of sustained success, with the arrow pointing in the right direction.
“Up,’’ Cash said. “Maybe straight up. I mean, it’s a pretty exciting time to be a Tampa Bay Ray.”
The 2020 Rays reached the World Series, but the 2021 group of young players stands out. Arozarena and Franco were ROY finalists. A young Rays pitching staff led the AL with a 3.67 ERA. The club’s postseason roster included rookies Baz, McClanahan and Patiño.
Neander has more cautious optimism than Cash and a bigger-picture view of the cyclical nature of the game. But he also has the perspective that the Rays’ best chance to win a championship is to get into the tournament as often as possible.
“Winning 100 games, that’s a lot,” Neander said. “It’s an incredible accomplishment. It’s something we’ve never done. And not necessarily to say that we’re bound to win more games than that, but I do believe that the arrow is pointing up, just in the collective talent of this group, and their experiences.
“You see it in the way our minor league teams perform. You see it in the way our major league team performed. Deeper postseason runs are our goal, and we feel like we’ve got a group here that’s going to continue to give us a real shot to finally win a World Series.’’
Which would truly make for a special year for the whole organization.