Tampa Bay Rays' best-case and worst-case scenarios for 2024 season

Feb 18, 2024; Port Charlotte, FL, USA;  Tampa Bay Rays left fielder Randy Arozarena (56) poses for a
Feb 18, 2024; Port Charlotte, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays left fielder Randy Arozarena (56) poses for a / Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

More than any other team, the small-budget Tampa Bay Rays annually depend on a genius front office to ensure their ongoing contender status in the AL East.

That being the case, it’s possible that the biggest hit the Rays took all offseason was the loss of general manager Peter Bendix, who was lured to Miami to be chief baseball exec of the Marlins. His departure leaves president of baseball ops Erik Neander flying solo at the Rays helm, at least for the start of 2024.

Tampa Bay Rays' Best-Case Scenario for 2024 MLB Season

Rays fans perennially expect their team’s leadership to do more with less, and for good reason. Since 2019, the Rays have never ranked higher than 25th in Opening Day payroll – they were 28th last season – yet they’ve made the playoffs every year. At an estimated $98 million this coming Opening Day, they’ll probably set a franchise record yet still be in or close to the bottom five.

The Rays retain a interesting offensive core led by Randy Arozarena and Jose Siri. Arozarena had, by his standards, a modest 2023, but he still produced 23 home runs and 83 RBI, along with a .789 OPS. He’s capable of 40 homers and 100 RBI.

Siri brought the power, including 25 home runs. He needs to hit more. Between July 1 and Aug. 31 last season, Siri failed to break .190. Even with so-so seasons from those two big names, the Rays still won 99 games last year.

Two guys who only need to replicate their 2023 performances are first bseman Yandy Diaz and Harold Ramirez, the DH. Diaz hit .330 with 22 homers and a .932 OPS; Ramirez produced a .313 average, along with an .813 OPS.

If those four heart-of-the-order guys play to their potential, the Rays have a chance to stay with the Orioles, the Yankees and anybody else.

Tampa Bay Rays' Worst-Case Scenario for 2024 MLB Season

The only reasonable assumption the Rays can make regarding shortstop Wander Franco, facing serious legal issues in his native Dominican Republic, is that he has no discernible future with the team. That puts big pressure on his replacement, Taylor Walls. He ran up good defensive numbers, but barely broke .200 in average. If Walls doesn’t step up his offensive game, that’s a big hit.

The Rays are also unusually suspect in their rotation, which is populated by second- and third-tier guys. Zach Eflin was 16-8 with a 3.50 ERA in 31 starts last season, but that did mark the best season of his eight-year career, so the question of whether he can replicate it is a legitimate one.

Of course, the Rays typically answer that question in the affirmative.

Behind Eflin are Aaron Civale, Zack Littell, Ryan Pepiot and Taj Bradley. Civale and Littell were both okay but not inspirational following their mid-season acquisitions, Bradley fought through 21 starts with a 5.59 ERA in his rookie year, and Pepiot, who came over from LA in the Glasnow trade, is untested.

The Rays were fifth in fewest runs allowed per game in 2023, but that staff had Glasnow and Shane McClanahan heading it up. Glasnow’s gone and McClanahan had a second Tommy John procedure that will force him to the sidelines this year. That means the Rays' fortunes are largely dependent on Eflin, Civale and Littell all pitching like consistent top-three rotation arms, and on Bradley and Pepiot replicating Glasnow and McClanahan. Bradley, recovering from a pectoral muscle strain, has already been ruled out for Opening Day, so that’s at least a minor setback.

If the pitching doesn't hold up, and if Siri and Arozarena both produce at the ordinary levels they generated in 2023, the Rays’ entire 2024 season could replicate the indifferent 71-game midseason stretch of 2023.

You’ll recall that Tampa Bay got away to a 29-7 start last season that produced a six and one-half game lead by early May. What you may have forgotten is that, over the ensuing 71 games, they went 34-37, fell out of first place, only made the playoffs as a Wild Card and went down meekly in two games to the Texas Rangers.

Since they’re not likely to start 29-7 again, another long sub-.500 stretch could doom their hopes of a sixth straight postseason appearance entirely.

Most Realistic Scenario for Tampa Bay Rays

Every year, the Rays find hidden young talent that gets the job done. The losses of Glasnow and McClanahan (and, yes, their starting shortstop) make it tougher to identify the 2024 crop of hidden gems.

Perhaps Pepiot is one of them. The Rays obviously hope so. Perhaps Bradley will discover the promise that made him a hot prospect last season before the magic wore off. In both cases, however, the realistic expectation is mediocrity.

The Lowe boys, Ramirez and Diaz are reliable offensive assets. What Neander and manager Kevin Cash really need is for Arozarena and Siri to play like All-Stars, giving Tampa Bay a truly scary core. That would create yet another playoff scenario.

Absent that, the Rays enter 2024 as a borderline postseason team.

Chicago Cubs' best-case and worst-case scenarios for 2024 (calltothepen.com)