ST. PETERSBURG — We’ll spend plenty of time this offseason looking at what the Rays can do to improve next season at first base, at the back of the rotation and, above all, at the plate. But during this Thanksgiving weekend in the United States, let’s set aside what the Rays don’t have and take a moment to assess what Tampa Bay should be most grateful for.
“There’s plenty of reasons to see optimism when we look ahead. I think the biggest one to point to with respect to that is our pitching,” president of baseball operations Erik Neander said last month. “Our pitching is in a really good place. … We got a small preview of what it could look like having McClanahan and Glasnow at the front of the rotation.”
In short, it looks good. McClanahan developed into a legitimate No. 1 starter this year and pitched well enough to win Game 1 of the American League Wild Card Series. Glasnow took a huge step forward in 2021 before undergoing Tommy John surgery, returning in time to dominate for five innings to start Game 2 in Cleveland.
Both will likely appear on preseason Cy Young Award watch lists. How good could they be? Oh, just “the best right- and left-handed starting pitcher[s] in baseball,” pitching coach Kyle Snyder said in August. “That is their ceiling.”
Don’t sleep on what Springs and Rasmussen did this year, either. Transitioning from the bullpen to the rotation, Springs posted a 2.46 ERA with 144 strikeouts in 135 1/3 innings. In his first full season as a big league starter, Rasmussen put together a 2.84 ERA in 146 innings over 28 starts.
“We feel like it’s really a strength of the team,” general manager Peter Bendix said at the GM Meetings. “To add in a healthy Glasnow … I think he’s primed to have an excellent season. He’s healthy. He’s ready to prove that he can be truly an ace. And then you also have McClanahan, who I think is already starting to show that he is an ace.
“The symmetry, even, of the right-hander and the left-hander and both young guys who are really hungry and really eager to prove that they’re the best pitcher in the American League — and then beyond that, you have Drew Rasmussen and Jeffrey Springs. … That’s four pitchers that I think we feel really good about.”
The Rays will have to be careful with each starter’s workload, and they’ll need depth behind them. But how many other teams can claim a top four as talented as that group? With any sort of run support, how much of an advantage would that rotation be in a postseason series?
“That’s a special top four, as we look at it,” Neander said.
Last year, we were throwing around the word “special” a lot about Franco. The switch-hitting shortstop lived up to all the top prospect hype in a spectacular debut before signing a massive extension almost exactly a year ago. Despite a sensational start and a fine finish, that enthusiasm has seemingly dimmed after an injury-interrupted season in which Franco played only 83 games.
But here’s the thing: Franco is just as talented as he was when he signed that contract. He turns 22 on March 1, making him a few months younger than AL Rookie of the Year Julio Rodríguez of the Mariners and six days older than National League Rookie of the Year Michael Harris II of the Braves.
Despite hamstring issues that limited him in May and a fractured hamate that may have sapped some strength, Franco still managed to hit .277/.328/.417 with an OPS+ (117) that was 17 percent better than a league-average hitter. In half a season marred by injuries, he finished seventh on the team with 2.6 WAR.
He’s going to be here a long time, and if he’s healthy, he should be the Rays’ best player for many of those years. Isn’t that something to be thankful for?
“I can’t wait to see what next season brings. Wander faced a lot of challenges this year with the injuries,” manager Kevin Cash said last month. “I honestly think it just kind of buckled him. Like, this kid wants to go out and play. He’s always played pain-free. He’s always kind of played with his hair on fire. And he didn’t know how to manage his workload. Get him healthy, keep him healthy, and I’m betting he’s going to take off.”