Confident Rays aiming to finally clear World Series hurdle

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — The young, hungry Tampa Bay Rays have done quite a job building expectations.

Back-to-back division titles, an American League pennant two years ago, and the AL’s best record over the past three seasons.

And while they’re proud of an impressive resume that also includes winning a franchise-record 100 games and making a third consecutive playoff appearance last fall, the defending AL East champions are still pursuing an elusive World Series title.

“We’re built to win,” manager Kevin Cash reminded the team during a meeting at the start of spring training.

“We got a taste of the World Series in 2020. … Last year we had a wildly successful regular season, a disappointing postseason,” baseball operations president Erik Neander said. “We are trying to find a way to take that last step that this organization hasn’t found a way to get done yet.”

After pushing the Dodgers to six games in the World Series two years ago, Tampa Bay was eliminated by the Red Sox in the AL divisional round last fall.

The hope is 2022 will be different.

“This is a group that’s young, incredibly talented, and through those experiences, they had a chance to grow a little bit faster,” Neander said. “I think that’s going to serve us well.”

The cost-conscious Rays made headlines this offseason by spending more money than usual, signing young star shortstop Wander Franco to a $182 million contract. They also added pitcher Corey Kluber (one year, $8 million) to a mostly young rotation that figures to benefit from the two-time Cy Young Award winner’s experience and leadership.

The 21-yearold Franco made his much-anticipated major league debut in 2021, batting .288 with seven home runs and 39 RBI’s in 70 games while helping solidify a lineup also featuring Randy Arozarena, Brandon Lowe and Austin Meadows.

The Rays, who have one of the deepest farm systems in baseball, feel they’re positioned to be competitive for years to come.

“We believe our best chance to win a World Series is to have as many chances to do that as possible,” Neander said. “Maybe that’s not quite so ‘all in.’ But if we continue to raise the bar with our group, and we have a shot in as many years as possible, eventually we feel like we’re going to knock that door down.”

NEW LOOK

Kluber, 35, joins a rotation that at times will feature as many as four starters — left-hander Shane McClanahan and right-handers Shane Baz, Luis Patiño and Drew Rasmussen — who began last season as rookies with a combined one start in the majors. In all, the Rays used 18 rookies in 2021 — 12 of them pitchers who combined to win 36 games.

With RHP Colin McHugh moving on, free agent acquisition Brooks Raley is the biggest change to a bullpen that was already pretty good before the addition of the veteran left-hander.

LOFTY EXPECTATIONS

The Rays are trying to make the playoffs for a franchise-best fourth straight season. They have earned berths seven times since 2008. The Dodgers (11), Yankees (10) and Cardinals (9) are the only teams that have more appearances over that span.

PRODUCTIVE BATS

While the Rays still thrive on pitching and defense, they have evolved into a much better offensive team. They have improved their ranking in runs scored each of the past five seasons, going from 25th in 2017 to second with 857 last year.

ROOKIE TO WATCH

Baz is expected to be part of the rotation when he returns from arthroscopic surgery performed during spring training to remove loose bodies from his right elbow. The 22-year-old rookie made his big league debut last September, going 2-0 with a 2.03 ERA and 18 strikeouts in 13 1/3 innings. He also made one start against the Red Sox in the playoffs.

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