Rays are putting the band back together. When can we expect the hits?

ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays have reached an anniversary, of sorts. Or a grim reminder, if you prefer.

With their victory against the White Sox on Monday night, the Rays evened their record at 18-18. Maybe nothing to celebrate, but something of an accomplishment considering they had been outscored by 32 runs and lead the league in surgical scars.

And, in case you needed reminding, the Rays were 29-7 at this exact point last season. This was shortly after Jeffrey Springs blew out his elbow, and a week before Drew Rasmussen would do the same. Since then, the Rays also lost Shane Baz and Shane McClanahan and have gone 88-74.

Not bad, but not quite Ivy League either.

So why bring this up now?

Because Tampa Bay is starting to become whole again. Josh Lowe was activated off the injured list on Monday, Brandon Lowe began a minor-league rehab in Durham on Tuesday, Springs is pitching in an extended spring game later this month, and Rasmussen is ready to start throwing off a mound.

It’s fantasy to think the Rays can replicate the historic pace they were on when healthy last season, but maybe it’s not so outlandish to think there are better days to come this summer.

“Going back to last April … there wasn’t a whole lot of excitement about what that team was capable of doing, and they changed that very quickly,” president of baseball operations Erik Neander said. “There was no expectation that that group was going to run roughshod through the league, but they synced up very well before, unfortunately, the injuries hit.

“So when we look at this group, getting our position players back, should put us in a place where our lineup is extremely balanced and our bench is deep. We’re going to score more runs and the pressure will not be on any one individual. We’ll get some guys back from a pitching standpoint and I think our expectations for this group will be comparable to where our expectations have been for the last five seasons.”

Because they are not built around two or three superstars, there’s a misperception that the Rays can withstand injuries with their depth. The problem is that their depth is actually a daily part of their success. They aspire to mix and match as much as any team in the league to get the upper hand.

But, with left-handed hitters Josh Lowe, Brandon Lowe and Jonathan Aranda on the injured list, the Rays have been forced to use players in roles they’re not accustomed to. Harold Ramirez, for instance, played in every one of the first 32 games. In the two previous seasons, he played in 79% of Tampa Bay’s games when on the active roster. That goes a long way in explaining why his OPS has dropped from .813 to .637. He’s facing pitchers he would not normally see.

Here’s another way of looking at it:

The Rays have had the platoon advantage in 43.3% of their plate appearances in 2024. That ranks 28th in the majors. A year ago, they had the platoon advantage 52.9% of the time. The year before that, they were at 57.9%.

That’s why Josh Lowe’s return this week is such a big deal. It not only adds a talented bat, but it balances the lineup. And that balance will only grow when Brandon Lowe and Aranda return.

“We’ve always been able to counter moves to create an advantage when a team is going to a lefty or righty specialist,” Neander said. “In April, we just weren’t able to do that.”

The bullpen has been in a similar situation. Because Colin Poche is on the injured list and Tyler Alexander had to fill in for Taj Bradley in the rotation, there was only one left-hander among the eight relievers on the roster Monday night against the White Sox.

So what might this team look like in another three months?

Barring unforeseen circumstances, the rotation will include Springs and Bradley. Rasmussen should be available in a hybrid role as a multi-inning reliever or bulk pitcher. Baz will also be in the mix, although he’s more of a wild card since he has thrown barely 40 innings in the past two years and has only 31 starts above Class A in his career.

It’s not exactly the same crew that had a 6.5-game lead in the AL East at this point last season, but it’s a lot closer than the roster Tampa Bay has been using the past six weeks.

“Our more accomplished pitchers, our more touch, feel, command, artistic pitchers will be there,” Neander said. “And then some of our younger, power guys like Taj, (Ryan) Pepiot, Baz will be available, however all of that sorts out. So it should be a kind of fun mix in that way.”

John Romano can be reached at Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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