Long chided as the nerds of the AL East, Rays have reason to flex, even amid stumble after 13-0 start

TORONTO — For their flight from Tampa to Toronto, the then-undefeated Tampa Bay Rays dressed like their third baseman, Yandy Díaz. The 31-year-old Cuban is, to put it bluntly, ridiculously jacked. His arms are to the arms of other professional athletes what the 2023 bases are to the 2022 bases: bigger. And, evidently, he favors fashion to accentuate this fact — tight sweaters, sleeveless shirts, things of that nature.

Brandon Lowe got the idea from Zach Eflin — a starting pitcher signed over the winter to a team-record free-agent contract — and it spread from there . (“One of the great things about bringing guys in from other organizations,” Lowe said of the suggestion.) Lowe stuffed his shift sleeves to mimic the muscles, and Díaz was delighted.

Outside of rookie rituals, it was the first time the team has done a themed dress-up for a road trip under manager Kevin Cash. It’s certainly not the first time in his tenure that the Rays have been good — since the start of 2019, only the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers have won more games — but it’s the first time they (or any other team in recent history) had been that good.

Caricature implies signature characteristics and a level of celebrity to make them recognizable. The knock on the Rays has always been that they’re anonymous — a good team made up of not necessarily great players; more than the sum of its parts, for better and for worse. But it’s hard to stay under the radar when you’re making history. And besides, that has become an increasingly reductive dismissal of a team that — streak or no streak — is off to the hottest start in the sport.

Yandy Diaz (R) and the Rays have been flexing their strength in April after starting the season 13-0. Tampa Bay clubbed an MLB-leading 35 homers through 15 games. (Nathan Ray Seebeck/USA TODAY Sports)
Yandy Diaz (R) and the Rays have been flexing their strength in April after starting the season 13-0. Tampa Bay clubbed an MLB-leading 35 homers through 15 games. (Nathan Ray Seebeck/USA TODAY Sports)

'Kudos to the front office, kudos to those players'

To be fair, there’s plenty of truth behind the public perception of the Rays as an ace-making machine. Unheralded hurlers go in, and pitchers who have honed their stuff and bought into a usage plan that maximizes it emerge.

“It's impressive,” Shane McClanahan said. “You wonder how the hell they do it. They find a guy from, say, the middle of Alaska that throws 95 [mph] with 24 inches of carry, and they're like, ‘This guy, this guy's gonna work.’”

McClanahan is not one of those guys. The first-round draft pick debuted in the postseason in 2020, was the Opening Day starter his sophomore season and was selected as the American League’s All-Star Game starter last year. He heads a rotation that has been rightfully snarking on evaluators for perceived preseason slights.

But he can appreciate the “next man up” mentality required behind him already this year. Shane Baz will miss the entire season after having Tommy John surgery in September, Tyler Glasnow has been out due to an oblique injury since before the start of the season, Eflin was placed on the injured list due to lower back tightness after his second start, and Jeffrey Springs — a 30-year-old 30th-round draft pick whose early April success was perhaps the strongest testament to the team’s pitching redevelopment prowess — is out for at least two months following an elbow issue that forced him from the game Thursday.

In their absence, the Rays have still managed a team 2.54 ERA through Sunday, thanks to contributions from guys such as Kevin Kelly, Braden Bristo, Ryan Thompson and rookie Taj Bradley. Depth is boring, but anyone in baseball will tell you it’s the differentiator at the end of the day. A couple of players can win a game; it takes at least 40 to finish a season on top.

“When we’re in spring training, we really get a sense of the depth and how good we can be,” McClanahan said. “I think that just speaks to the front office's ability to identify what makes a player great and the development they put in as a player. Kudos to the front office, kudos to those players.”

The front office: long considered the Rays’ not-so-secret weapon. From shifts to first-pitch strikes, Tampa Bay has trail-blazed innovations-turned-trends-turned-baseline practices within the sport. It’s a relentless strategy. Every edge eked out is an edge for only so long; if it works, it’ll become commonplace, and the bar for all of baseball will be raised (Rays’d?).

What's more, the reputation of being just a bunch of nerds is not one that is generally applied favorably. First of all, it’s considered a precursor to not paying market price for production. Players are traded before they get too expensive because of the ability to replace them cheaply. The unflattering assumption is that the Rays view their athletes as just numbers in a spreadsheet, and that’s why they have no stars despite all their success. Even though front offices are always pulling strings, people want to believe that players are not just pawns.

But even players who have left or been dealt elsewhere speak fondly of their time in Tampa. And this year’s club defies that mold, anyway.

Last year was good, this year can be better

“It’s more talent than maybe we’ve had in a long time,” general manager Peter Bendix said.

It’s a maddeningly simple explanation for how the team has gotten off to an MLB-best 14-2 start. But why shouldn’t that be the answer? Last year’s team — which snagged a wild-card spot on the virtue of run prevention before being swept out of the postseason — was 17th in batting average, 25th in slugging and 21st in total runs scored. Despite suffering their first series loss in Toronto, the 2023 Rays lead all of baseball in runs, home runs and OPS.

The irony is that the lineup is nearly identical.

“Everybody in this clubhouse has played with each other for two or three years. You can get really comfortable with your guys in here,” Lowe said. “You know how other people are feeling, how they're doing, and you know how to talk to certain guys.”

“And I think that has been a positive,” Bendix said, “because these guys went through ups and downs last year. We were good last year. We had a good team. We made the playoffs. But we weren't as good as I think we could have been.”

Díaz usually hits leadoff — the biceps bely a more on-base-centric approach — and behind him Lowe, who had a five-game home run streak come to an end this weekend. Then, generally, come the guys who undermine the Rays’ anonymous reputation.

Randy Arozarena was perhaps the biggest MLB-based breakout of the World Baseball Classic. Savvy viewers knew from his 2020 and 2021 postseason performances that he savors a global stage. Now in just his third full season, Randy is bordering on mononym status thanks to both his unbridled style of play — twice he has led the league in caught stealing because of his eagerness to push the boundaries on the basepaths — and his instantly iconic personal celebration.

If the Rays are as smart as everyone says they are, there will be a Randy Arozarena bobblehead with his arms crossed and his expression defiant coming soon.

And at the heart of it all: Wander Franco, the exception to the team’s oft-cited thriftiness, the face of a faceless franchise, the future longest-tenured Tampa Bay Ray. Franco debuted in 2021, the culmination of a closely monitored, meteoric rise for the prodigious prospect. But if he can stay healthy, this would be his first full season.

Of course, it’s early — in the year and in his career — but even so, pencil him in as a perennial MVP pick. He has looked that good.

Randy Arozarena (R), pictured with Shohei Ohtani of Team Japan at a World Baseball Classic semifinals, solidified his star power with his arms-crossed celebration. (Photo by Daniel Shirey/WBCI/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

What the streak hath wrought

“I've seen this for years. This isn’t new to me,” McClanahan said with faux-exasperation when asked whether this is the best iteration of the young phenom he has seen yet. “It’s like, ‘Wander did this, Wander did that.’ I’m like, I’ve seen this for five years, brother.”

The Rays will have to get used to people noticing them and remarking with some incredulity that the small-market club known for doing just enough to always be in the mix is now pacing the pack. Rattling off 13 wins to start the season will do that.

Their GM is hoping it will do something else as well.

“It shows them, ‘I can do this,’" Bendix said. “That is almost more important than any kind of streak, that self-confidence, that belief: ‘Oh, I'm not overmatched. I'm good enough to be in the big leagues and not just be in the big leagues but to be really good in the big leagues.’”

Bendix says he has avoided checking Fangraphs’ playoff odds to see what the streak hath wrought, and that’s smart, seeing as it’s mid-April.

But if he were to take a peek, he’d see that the Rays have more than doubled their chances of winning the World Series. They’ve gone from a projected third-place finish behind the New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays to most likely to win the division. If they thrived on low expectations and anonymity, they’re going to need to find a new source of motivation.

Because even though the streak is over, the target it put on Tampa Bay’s back remains.