Mandatory Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

A gross overachievement out of the gate later, the Tampa Bay Rays should revert more to the mean in 2024. Starting 13-0 was grossly unprecedented for this shoestring budget squad, as was being 30-9 on May 11. The Yankees underachieving and the Blue Jays Wild Carding (again) also helped.

It turned out to be an incredible 99-win campaign for Tampa Bay, one game behind the first-place Orioles. Unfortunately for them, their fifth-ranked pitching staff ran head-first into the eventual World Series champion Texas Rangers’ AL-best offense. Cut to today, one week out of Opening Day, and the Rays are ready to do it again.

Or are they?

We can acknowledge that in baseball, no team squeezes blood from a stone like the Tampa Bay Rays. The roster doesn’t look great on paper at first, but then stuns opponents with unprecedented bullpen games instead of a traditional starter. And then add an oh-so-conveniently-timed clutch hit just for good measure.

But even then, it’s hard to see the Rays pulling yet another rabbit out of the hat. We were wrong last year, but it seems more likely now. Tampa Bay could finally be headed towards a rebuild.

Greatest Addition: Amed Rosario. Hear me out on this one. Rosario is coming off of a pretty bad year split between the Guardians and Dodgers. His wRC+ was a paltry 88 and he hit way too many ground balls. It doesn’t help that his glove at shortstop is awful to the point of a -39 career defensive runs saved (DRS) and -57 outs above average (OAA).

However, Rosario was ever-so-slightly better in Los Angeles than he was in Cleveland. His batting average with the Dodgers dipped nine points to .256 compared to .265 with the Guardians, but his OPS was .709 compared to .675. Still below average, but still better too.

The Dodgers also shifted Rosario to second base and he put up a +3 DRS in 190 innings. Tampa Bay relies on data enough to keep that up, and hitting coach Chad Mottola has already gotten more lift out of Rosario’s swing. He’s batting .255 with a pair of homers in spring training and though he hasn’t drawn a single walk, the Rays seem the best fit for Rosario to reinvent himself.

Greatest Loss: Luke Raley. Some may view losing Tyler Glasnow in a trade to the Dodgers hurts more, but his health was touch-and-go and the Rays weren’t going to pay him.

Raley, on the other hand, was a valuable lefty bat who could play first base along with all three outfield positions. He hit .249 with 19 homers and an .824 OPS last year before Tampa Bay traded him to Seattle for utility infielder José Caballero. For context, Caballero hit .221 as a rookie last year and is known primarily for his glove.

Barring newcomer Jonny DeLuca breaking out, the Rays’ essentially traded Raley and his five remaining years of team control for almost nothing.

Greatest Strength: Kevin Cash. It’s truly astonishing how much Cash has accomplished in nine years as the Rays’ skipper. His record is 739-617 in that span including a trip to the World Series in 2020. They lost, but Cash has led them back to the playoffs every year since.

Now entering his tenth year, Kevin Cash has a tough job in 2024. He must overcome his front office’s spending shortcomings and field a competitive team. That’s a tough task in the AL East, where even the last-place teams are strong. And we haven’t even factored in the Rays likely selling at the deadline.

But knowing Cash, he’s been planning for this. Even if the Rays miss the playoffs, they’ll still steal more than their fair share of wins en route to one of St. Petersburg’s finest golf courses.

Greatest Weakness: Thin pitching. Looking at the current depth chart on the Rays’ website, the expected starting rotation is as follows: Groundball specialists Zach Eflin, Aaron Civale, and Zack Littell up front, with former Dodger Ryan Pepiot and comeback story Jacob Waguespeck bringing up the rear. That’s not a bad group, but then look at how many pitchers the Rays have on the injured list:

  • LHP Shane McClanahan- Tommy John surgery, out for the season.
  • LHP Jeffrey Springs- Tommy John surgery, expected return in July.
  • RHP Shane Baz- Tommy John surgery recovery, expected return in May.
  • RHP Drew Rasmussen- Tommy John surgery, out for the season
  • RHP Taj Bradley- Strained pectoral muscle, may resume throwing next week.

That’s practically an entire pitching staff on the injured list, and a textbook example of the Rays’ fatal flaw. A lot of bullpen games means a lot of relievers throwing important innings on consecutive days. In some cases, namely Springs, these once-relievers become starts and suddenly throwing more innings than they ever have.

And here we are today. The Rays are down five important arms, one of which is their unquestioned ace in McClanahan, and are rolling the pitching dice by necessity. Never a good spot to be in when your team plays in baseball’s most competitive division.

Will the Rays actually be bad in 2024? Despite all we’ve just discussed, no, I don’t. That isn’t to say I think they’ll make the playoffs but look back to how we began. No team squeezes blood from a stone better than the Tampa Bay Rays. Add a great manager in Cash, and there’s a path to the Rays finishing, for argument’s sake, at or about 82-80.

And even that could be tough because we all know the Rays’ playbook by now. A star player starts getting expensive and is suddenly on the trade chopping block. Next up on that front could be the popular Randy Arozarena, who’s earning $8.1 million this year and has two arbitration years remaining. The Mariners, sure enough, expressed some interest in the offseason.

This team will play spoiler in some cases, but that’s probably the Rays’ ceiling for 2024.

Josh Benjamin has been a staff writer at ESNY since 2018. He has had opinions about everything, especially the Yankees and Knicks. He co-hosts the “Bleacher Creatures” podcast and is always looking for new pieces of sports history to uncover, usually with a Yankee Tavern chicken parm sub in hand.