It’s hard to imagine the Tampa Bay Rays will win another 99 games in 2024 with the roster they’ve currently got. Not only did they trade Tyler Glasnow and lose Robert Stephenson to free agency, but they’ll be without Shane McClanahan, Drew Rasmussen, and, presumably, Wander Franco for most, if not all, of the season.
Thus, while the Rays have plenty of talent, they’re lacking true star power.
The ZiPS projection system seems to agree.
ZiPS is a player projection system created by Dan Szymborski (currently of FanGraphs), who has spent the past twenty years developing and refining the design. Here’s a quick summary of how it works, courtesy of MLB.com:
ZiPS is a system of player projections developed by FanGraph’s Dan Szymborski… ZiPS uses past performance and aging trends to develop a future projection for players. On FanGraphs, the projections are updated daily and predict each player’s numbers over the course of the remainder of the season… Obviously, no one is claiming that every ZiPS prediction will come true, but it is widely regarded as one of the most accurate predictors in the industry.“sZymborski Projection System (ZiPS)” MLB.com
Throughout the darkest months of the winter, Szymborski gradually releases the ZiPS projections for all 30 teams, along with a thorough write-up for each. Way back in November, he first published the projections for the Rays, and there’s a whole lot to learn from what the projections have to say.
First and foremost, Tampa Bay’s best players from 2023 are either no longer with the organization or are projected to take a step back. The Rays don’t have a single player projected to surpass 4.0 fWAR; last year, they had four players reach that mark.
The Rays are always hard to predict. Who could have guessed Zach Eflin would become one of the best pitchers in the American League? Who could have foreseen Yandy Díaz finishing with the third-highest OPS in the AL, just behind Shohei Ohtani and Corey Seager? And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
This is the Rays we’re talking about. They’ve made the playoffs in each of the past five seasons, winning an average of 96 games per year, despite consistently running one the lowest payrolls in the game. They always seem to find a way to outperform their projections.
So here’s the million-dollar question (or in the Rays’ case, let’s say the $900,000 question): Can they do it again?
Rays ZiPS: Position Players
The Rays have a strong offense, but the lineup isn’t without its holes.
- The Rays could use another catcher – The only backstop on the 40-man roster is René Pinto, who projects for a mediocre .227/.268/.394 slash line without enough defensive value to fully make up for his feeble bat. The other options – Rob Brantly, Nick Meyer, and Alex Jackson – are equally uninspiring, although ZiPS is surprisingly high on Jackson (.204 ISO, .707 OPS) given his limited big league experience and unimpressive big league numbers.
- José Caballero was a solid pickup – With Franco likely out for the foreseeable future (possibly never to return), the Rays needed a better option at shortstop than Taylor Walls or Osleivis Basabe. Right now, it’s looking like Caballero is their guy. ZiPS projects a high OBP (.344), good stolen base numbers (22-for-26), and strong defense (4.2 DEF in 89 games) from the 27-year-old infielder. He can also play second base, so he gives the Rays more depth if the oft-injured Brandon Lowe needs time off. What’s more, Caballero projects for a higher WAR than Luke Raley, whom the Rays dealt to the Mariners to acquire him.
- What’s in store for Isaac and Yandy? – Isaac Paredes and Yandy Díaz significantly outperformed their ZiPS projections in 2023. That’s not to say ZiPS didn’t like them entering the year, but they certainly didn’t project to finish as two of the top five hitters in the AL by wRC+. Projections are conservative by design, so it’s not too surprising that ZiPS has both of them taking a step back in 2024. Still, their offensive projections are higher now than they were at this time last season.
- ZiPS is really buying in on Josh Lowe – Wowza… Entering the 2023 campaign, ZiPS had Lowe slashing .227/.301/.381 with a 93 OPS+. After his monster breakout season (.292/.335/.500, 129 OPS+) his projections have shot up. It will take a larger sample before ZiPS believes Lowe can repeat his 2023 performance, but his projected .259/.321/.437 slash line and 113 OPS+ mark a phenomenal improvement.
- Not so much on Jose Siri – Siri ranked among the top 10 AL hitters (min. 300 PA) by isolated power last season, hitting 25 home runs in barely half a season’s worth of plate appearances. However, ZiPS has his .272 ISO crashing down to earth in 2024. His projected .185 ISO is still an improvement from last year’s projection (.160 ISO), but it’s not substantially better than league average.
Rays ZiPS: Pitching Staff
With so many injuries to the pitching staff, the Rays will be hoping to work their magic once again to turn some unheralded arms into playoff-caliber starters.
- Zach Eflin gets his chance to lead – At this time last year, Eflin looked like Tampa Bay’s No. 5 starter, behind Shane McClanahan, Tyler Glasnow, Drew Rasmussen, and Jeffrey Springs. Now, he’s the chief of staff. ZiPS projects Eflin to post a 3.37 ERA and 3.30 FIP, some of the best projections for a starting pitcher in the American League.
- Do the Rays have big plans for Ryan Pepiot? – His 3.96 ERA and 4.29 FIP are solid, but you have to think the Rays are hoping to get more than that out of Pepiot, who came over from the Dodgers as part of the Tyler Glasnow trade in December. Can Tampa Bay turn him into the No. 3 starter they need?
- ZiPS likes Zack Littell in short bursts – ZiPS has Littell pitching to a 3.86 ERA and 4.14 FIP. However, the system also spits out 82.2 IP in 36 games (10 starts) as a 50th-percentile projection. Can Littell maintain an ERA under 4.00 as a full-time starter? Talk about difficult to project.
- Dreaming on Shane McClanahan – It’s unclear if McClanahan will pitch at all in 2024, but damn, those ZiPS projections… His projected 3.13 ERA ranks second only to Jacob deGrom’s 2.89.
The Rays bullpen is talented, if somewhat top-heavy.
- Pete Fairbanks is nasty – I don’t have a lot of analysis to offer here, but I had to say something about these projections. Fairbanks has the fifth-lowest projected ERA (Félix Bautista excluded) and the third-lowest projected FIP among relief pitchers. Somehow, he still doesn’t get enough credit for being one of the best relievers in the game.
- Another step back for Jason Adam? – Adam turned heads with his 1.56 ERA in 2022. That figure nearly doubled in 2023 (2.98 ERA), but an ERA under 3.00 is nothing to sneeze at. Unfortunately, the ZiPS projections see Adam’s ERA rising another half of a run in 2024. Overall, his projections are more “solid seventh- or eighth-inning guy” than “dominant back-end reliever.”
Rays ZiPS: Final Thoughts
As currently constructed, the projections see the Rays as a “good-not-great” team in 2024. However, it’s hard not to take the over on this club. If a few of their best players outperform the projections and a few breakout contributors emerge, the Rays should find themselves in the hunt for the AL East crown once again.