2021 Tampa Bay Rays season preview – Infield

Brandon Lowe headlines what anticipates to be an exciting infield this season (Will Vragovic/Tampa Bay Rays)

It’s that time of year: OPENING DAY!

Baseball fans across the country can rejoice as the 2021 MLB season will get underway on Thursday. 

Thursday will also be the only time this season that all 30 teams will have the same record as the drive for a World Series Championship starts at 0-0. 

The Tampa Bay Rays have a lot of things to be looking forward to this season as the Rays are coming off their second American League pennant, defeating the Houston Astros in seven games.

Despite losing in the 2020 World Series to the Los Angeles Dodgers in six games, there is a lot to be looking forward to this season for Tampa Bay. 

A lot of turnover already occurred, especially on the pitching side, but if there’s something to look forward to in 2021, it’s the offense. Oh boy, what an offense it could be.

In this first part of our 2021 Rays The Roof season preview, we’re going to discuss the infield, which is going to be full of some heavy hitters and a sure-fire MVP candidate.

(Will Vragovic/Tampa Bay Rays)

1B: Yoshitomo Tsutsugo

2020 Statistics: .197 AVG, .314 OBP, .708 OPS, 99 OPS+, 8 HR, 24 RBI

Baseball Reference 2021 Projections: .221 AVG, .316 OBP, .719 OPS, 17 HR, 56 RBI

Tsutsugo will be starting out the season at first base with the recent injury and surgery to regular first baseman Ji-Man Choi. With Choi sidelined until at least May, this is now Yoshi’s time to shine, and he had a rough go of things to start out his Tampa Bay Rays career. 

A .197 average with a 99 OPS+ was not what the Rays were expecting out of the Yokohama DeNA Bay Stars standout, who in 2016, hit 45 home runs with 111 RBI and a 1.116 OPS. Tsutsugo left Japan as one of the best hitters in the NPB, Japan’s top league, and at age 28, still has much of that in him. 

The shortened season was not one that helped him, so hopefully, with a full offseason and spring training now under his belt, he’ll break out into the star the Rays were hoping for from him when they first signed him during the 2019-20 offseason. The tools are there. Put everything together and you have a 25-30 home run hitter who can hit .270 with a 120 OPS+.

(Will Vragovic/Tampa Bay Rays)

2B: Brandon Lowe

2020 Statistics: .269 AVG, .362 OBP, .916 OPS, 154 OPS+, 14 HR, 37 RBI

Baseball Reference 2021 Projections: .258 AVG, .341 OBP, .827 OPS, 26 HR, 81 RBI

For the first month of the 2020 season, Lowe, a third-round pick out of the University of Maryland in the 2015 MLB Draft, was the AL MVP front-runner. Now, the spotlight is on him, and he has solidified himself as a top five second baseman in baseball and one of the best in the game. 

What should concern Rays fans the most about his play is his struggles toward the end of the season and in the postseason, where he did shine in the World Series, but he fell off dramatically from where he was. He’s shown to be a very streaky hitter, especially last season, though his strikeout rate dipped nearly 10 percent and his 11.2 percent walk rate was a career high. 

Surprisingly, his exit velocity was the lowest in his career in 2020, but take his last three seasons and when combined, this is a potential 40-home run hitter. You wouldn’t expect a guy that’s 5-10 to be able to generate the amount of power that Lowe does, but he’s going to be an MVP candidate again. He’s arguably the best offensive player on this team, and with his stellar defense, there’s no stopping him in 2021.

(Will Vragovic/Tampa Bay Rays)

SS: Willy Adames

2020 Statistics: .259 AVG, .332 OBP, .813 OPS, 126 OPS+, 8 HR, 23 RBI

Baseball Reference 2021 Projections: .258 AVG, .330 OPS, .761 OPS, 19 HR, 56 RBI

Adames statistically had his best season last year, posting a career-high 126 OPS+ and was a reliable offensive option for the Rays. However, his bat, like many on the Rays, went cold in the postseason. Regardless, there’s reason to believe that 2021 will be Adames’ best season in Tampa Bay. 

The trade rumors persist, but he’s one of the best defensive shortstops in baseball, with incredible range and a strong arm, but his offense will be the start of the show in 2021. One thing that is really frustrating to watch about Adames is his long swing at the plate. Yes, he makes contact and when he does, he can hit the ball a long way, but like Jose Altuve, his bat spends a lot of time getting through the zone.

Adames isn’t Cody Bellinger and can whip that bat through the zone to hit a ball 450 feet with a 110 MPH exit velocity. He’s a good hitter and is not going to be the big home run hitter that Brandon Lowe, Austin Meadows and Randy Arozarena will be, but he’s got a chance to hit 25 home runs this season easily. Expect to see similar statistics out of him from the shortened season, but with somewhere around 25 home runs and 80 RBI.

(Will Vragovic/Tampa Bay Rays)

3B: Joey Wendle

2020 Statistics: .286 AVG, .342 OBP, .777 OPS, 118 OPS+, 4 HR, 17 RBI

Baseball Reference 2021 Projections: .264 AVG, .328 OBP, .728 OBP, 9 HR, 48 RBI

Off the top, Baseball Reference is way underselling what Wendle did last season, a significant upgrade from the player he was in 2019. Wendle was on the verge of possibly getting DFA’d as a player coming off injury, posting a 72 OPS+ after being a finalist for the 2018 AL Rookie of the Year award. Now 30 years old, Wendle is a necessity on this team as he showed in a big way during the postseason last year.

Wendle showed his spectacular glove throughout the playoffs last season, arguably most notable for making the last play in Game 5 to seal the ALDS for the Rays over the New York Yankees, and making some insane plays over at third base. A player that was once a second baseman is now easily the Rays best option at the hot corner.

He might lose that job if Yandy Diaz has a good season or Wander Franco comes up from the minors, but Wendle should be the day one starter for the Rays as a debt of gratitude for the games he saved during the playoffs. Not only that, but Wendle was a good hitter in 2020 and should be the same level of good, if not great in 2021.

(Will Vragovic/Tampa Bay Rays)

C: Mike Zunino

2020 Statistics: .147 AVG, .238 OBP, .598 OPS, 66 OPS+, 4 HR, 10 RBI

Baseball Reference 2021 Projections: .194 AVG, .266 OBP, .647 OPS, 14 HR, 39 RBI

To say Zunino’s offense last season was atrocious is an understatement. He was about as terrible as terrible can be, yet he did hit several key home runs in the postseason, but other than that, Zunino was as much of a guaranteed out as you can be. 

Madison Bumgarner would’ve been a much more reliable hitter at the plate than Zunino by a wide margin, but it’s not time to continue to bash Zunino. He’s here for his defense, of which he was fantastic last season. He knows the pitchers on this staff incredibly well and the more he works with them, the better and more comfortable they are on the mound.

That being said, Zunino needs to pull his weight at the plate or else he could be out of a job, regardless of how good his defense is. He’s hit .251 in a season before, arguably his best season back in 2017, and he hit 25 home runs while in a Mariners uniform. If he does that, the Rays will be in business and then some.

(Will Vragovic/Tampa Bay Rays)

C: Francisco Mejia

2020 Statistics: .077 AVG, .143 OBP, .322 OPS, -10 OPS+, 1 HR, 2 RBI

Baseball Reference 2021 Projections: .236 AVG, .306 OBP, .712 OPS, 10 HR, 30 RBI

Mejia, not too long ago, was a prized prospect in Cleveland’s system and one of the more coveted prospects in baseball, but he just hasn’t quite lived up to the hype thus far. A change of scenery however might be the thing to help him out as Mejia came over in the Blake Snell trade in late December.

He’s a plus hitter with a plus arm and at age 24, is definitely poised to be the Rays’ catcher of the future if all things work out in Tampa Bay. His biggest thing is stability at the MLB level and growth as a hitter. Mejia is a good player and has shown it in glimpses. All he needs to do in 2021 is put the entire package together and he’s golden.

(Will Vragovic/Tampa Bay Rays)

1B/3B Yandy Diaz

2020 Statistics: .307 AVG, .428 OBP, .814 OPS, 133 OPS+, 2 HR, 11 RBI

Baseball Reference 2021 Projections: .266 AVG, .352 OBP, .778 OPS, 13 HR, 46 RBI

Diaz might truly be one of the most yoked and swole players in baseball, but might literally be too strong to play baseball as his home run rate regressed in a big way in 2020, hitting just two home runs during the season. He hits balls into the ground and his average launch angle is not great. 

Combine that with a career-low 88.3 MPH exit velocity off his bat, and you have, despite having a career-high on-base, average, OPS and OPS+, a hitter that Rays fans were very frustrated with at the plate. He should be a player who can hit 30 home runs a season easily just from his physical make-up. 

He’s in insane shape and looks great, but he needs to be able to change his hitting just enough to lift the ball more and turn those line drives into 450+ foot home runs. Diaz should easily have that ability, but whether or not he will be able to adapt that to his game this season remains a mystery.

(Will Vragovic/Tampa Bay Rays)

UTIL: Michael Brosseau

2020 Statistics: .302 AVG, .378 OBP, .936 OPS, 160 OPS+, 5 HR, 12 RBI

Baseball Reference 2021 Projections: .265 AVG, .336 OBP, .796 OPS, 14 HR, 42 RBI

There’s nothing bad to say about Brosseau’s performance in 2020 as he was exactly what the Rays needed out of a utility player, and he hit arguably the second-biggest home run in franchise history, solo home run off New York Yankees relief pitcher Aroldis Chapman in Game 5 of the ALDS.

That home run gave the Rays a 2-1 win over the Yankees and will live rent-free in the heads of Yankees fans forever. Also, he was really good last season, posting a 160 OPS+ and .936 OPS in 36 games. Brosseau is going to do exactly that and much more this season, given the fact that he should be a day-to-day player.

(Will Vragovic/Tampa Bay Rays)

1B: Ji-Man Choi

2020 Statistics: .230 AVG, .331 OBP, .741 OPS, 108 OPS+, 3 HR, 16 RBI

Baseball Reference 2021 Projections: .248 AVG, .347 OBP, .785 OPS, 16 HR, 56 RBI

Choi is expected to miss the first month or so of the 2021 season as he gets right knee surgery to hopefully fix a problem that he was dealing with during spring training. He struggled mightily during the 2020 season, a regression from a career-best 2019 season where he hit 19 home runs with 63 RBI in 127 games. 

That also included a .261 average, .822 OPS and a 121 OPS+, and the expectation in 2021, post-injury, is that Choi will hit those marks again. He’s got the talent to do so and he’s looked really good so far this off-season.

Also, a healthy and happy Choi is not only good for the Rays, but good for baseball. We could always use a happy Choi and his incredible defense at first base to bring us some good vibes for the 2021 season.

2021 Surprises

Expect to see one of Taylor Walls, Vidal Brujan or Wander Franco up on the big league team this season. Franco seems to be the least likely of the three as he’s the youngest and of course, has the accolade of being MLB’s top prospect for the past two seasons. That comes with immense pressure, which isn’t on Walls or Brujan nearly as much.

There’s also a lot of pressure riding on Willy Adames as he’s been thrown around as a possible trade target to free up space for any of those three players to come up in his place. Franco has experimented at third base and could very much play there, while Walls, known more for his glove, almost exclusively plays at short and Brujan can play either position up the middle.

Regardless, one of those three players will be playing at some point, and with Walls being on the taxi squad for the opening series in Miami is a good sign he might be the first one of the three to come up.

Overall Expectations

This is going to be a strong crop of players to watch out for this season, so stay tuned for what will be an exciting 2021 campaign.