The MLB playoff alignment is far from settled, and over the next week some of the most important games will be played by three American League teams hoping to clinch a wild card berth. Yesterday, colleague Ryan Pavich broke down what the Cleveland Indians bring to the table as potential opponents, but today we’ll look into the division rival Tampa Bay Rays.
With a two-game series starting today, the Yankees will play a huge part in the Rays’ playoff fate, and will have the ability to scout their potential opponent face-to-face after having last played against them in mid-July. The Rays haven’t changed much since then, but they have recently received three of their most important players from injury in reigning Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell, Brandon Lowe, and Tyler Glasnow.
Tampa Bay consistently endeavors to develop productive players from their farm system and scope out valuable performers others have overlooked. This year, the Rays have been able to do quite well in procuring talented hitters from other organizations. Austin Meadows, Tommy Pham, and Yandy Diaz are all players the Rays acquired through trade in 2018, and quickly became three of the most productive pieces of their offense this season. Unfortunately for the Rays, Diaz suffered an injury July 22nd, and further testing revealed a fracture on his left foot, putting him on the injured list for the remainder of the season.
Meadows and Pham do headline the Rays’ offense, but pitchers will also have to look out for former Yankee Ji-man Choi and Lowe, who have not shied away from their starting roles this season. Choi is currently producing a 114 wRC+, doing most of his damage versus right-handed pitching, producing a wRC+ of 120 against. The only thing slowing down fellow left-handed hitter Lowe this season has been his injury. When healthy, he has provided an isolated power mark of .245 and an impressive wRC+ of 128. Lowe’s contract extension signed shortly before the season began already leaves Lowe looking underpaid.
These four hitters have helped the Rays compete in the playoff race, but others like Avisial Garcia, Travis d’Arnaud, and Jesus Aguilar cannot be overlooked. Not only are they all right-handed hitters in a particularly left-handed heavy lineup, but these are veteran hitters that can have a big impact on a game. Aguilar figures to be the only bench player of the three, but should see some playing time, perhaps in during late-game pinch-hit situations.
Trades have also made a difference for the Rays on the pitching side, most notably Glasnow and Nick Anderson, both of whom could be used in creative roles during the postseason. Like Luis Severino, both Glasnow and Snell recently returned from injury and are looking to build strength before October. However, Anderson will be exclusively used out of the bullpen, and has done nothing but embarrass hitters while producing a 17.90 K/9 since joining the Rays.
Before we continue to the rest of the bullpen, we have to mention Charlie Morton, the Rays’ best pitcher in 2019. Morton ranks sixth in WAR among all pitchers according to FanGraphs’ calculations. Morton has been an amazing acquisition for the organization, as the veteran continues to pitch excellently well into his 30’s. He’s been crucial as the ace of the staff.
The Rays do not have the number-one bullpen in MLB, as that mark goes to the Yankees, per FanGraphs, but the Rays do rank second, and use their bullpen more often than any other club. Considering they are the originators of the opener, it only makes sense that they have multiple bulk relievers in their bullpen, inflating the bullpen inning total. Jalen Beeks and Ryan Yarbrough have often taken the role of middle relievers coming in after the opener, while Yonny Chirinos has graduated from this role into the rotation since last season. Chirinos is currently looking to regain his rotation spot after losing it because of a recent injury, adding another pitcher for the Rays looking to quickly get back into form.
Yet another huge trade acquisition has been current closer Emilio Pagan, who joined Tampa Bay last December. The combination of Anderson, Pagan, Diego Castillo does give them formidable options late in games. The Yankees’ bullpen is deeper, but the Rays’ absolutely have late-inning arms that can close out games.
For this matchup to occur, the Yankees would need to secure the best record in the AL. Otherwise, the Rays would have to play spoiler, winning the Wild Card Game, and then defeating the Astros in the ALDS. Whatever happens, a Yankees-Rays postseason series would profile as a highly competitive battle between two divisional rivals brimming with young talent.