The 2020 baseball season had to feel sobering to the Yankees for a whole boatload of reasons, but a difficult lump to swallow was unquestionably the decisive ascent of the Tampa Bay Rays. The rival Red Sox had been a 108-win behemoth in 2018 that romped to the World Series in one of the most impressive single seasons in history. The air came out of that bubble in a hurry though, and in 2019, the Yankees jumped on the chance to grab ahold of the AL East. They won their first division title since 2012, and their core backed by Baby Bombers and savvy veterans led them on a deep playoff run for the second time in three years. In both 2017 and 2019, they came just shy of reaching the World Series.
So why should the Yankees have expected their trajectory to divert at all in 2020? They had the whole gang coming back, plus the ace who helped bring them down in the 2019 ALCS: Gerrit Cole. Even when the season was shortened to 60 games by COVID, few expected anyone to snatch division supremacy away from the Yankees in 2020. The writers comparing them to the overpowering Dodgers were probably going a bit too far, but there seemed little doubt that this was the best team in the American League.
Then, the Rays made everyone look very, very silly.
The Mike Brosseau homer in ALDS Game 5 was the Rays’ knockout punch in a series of crushing blows to the Yankees’ gut throughout 2020.
Tampa Bay’s rise to prominence wasn’t exactly a stunner. The Rays jumped from under .500 to 90 wins in 2018, and after earning a Wild Card berth in 2019, they nearly dispatched the very Astros club in the ALDS that later took out the Yankees in a little more ease. There was no denying that this was a good team, but what they did to the Yankees in 2020 was just humiliating for Aaron Boone and company.
The Rays went 8-2 against New York in the regular season, turning what was supposed to be a relatively smooth ride to a second AL East crown in a row for the Yankees into a breeze of their own. They won the division by seven games and frankly, it didn’t even feel that close. The five-game loss in the ALDS was just the cherry on top. When the World Series turned out to be Dodgers vs. Rays, they were near-universally acclaimed as the two best teams in baseball in 2020.
It made sense. The Rays were simply better than the Yankees and while a tighter division battle was expected in 2021, they seemed to just be a superior team. What can you do?
Well, the Rays’ thrifty ways just ripped open a brand-new opportunity for the Yankees. Late on Sunday night, news trickled out that Tampa Bay would be sending ace Blake Snell to the Padres for a package of prospects led by top prospect Luis Patiño. It’s entirely possible that Patiño and company turn into giant pains in the ass for the Yankees in the years down the road; some might even cause headaches here and there as soon as next season, too.
That being said, it’s difficult to envision how removing Snell could make the Rays a better team in 2021. This was a clubhouse leader who won the Cy Young Award just a couple years ago and as recently as October, was making even a juggernaut lineup like the Dodgers look foolish. In two starts, the team with the highest slugging percentage and most homers in 2020 could muster only four hits against Snell.
That’s a tough customer, but the Rays just told that guy, “Thanks for your services, but you’re no longer needed.” (No word yet on if Stu Sternberg pulled a Cracker Factory CEO and dodged saying “good luck.”)
Joke all you want about how the Rays did not trust Snell to last deep into starts — no matter how talented the organization appears to be at conjuring good pitchers out of thin air, it will not be easy to fill Snell’s spot at his level. They stunned by playing .667 ball in 2020, and that’s going to be awfully hard to repeat without him. (They also might not be finished subtracting, either, and that’s to say nothing of declining fellow starter Charlie Morton’s reasonable option and letting him walk in free agency.) With one trade, the Rays made Yankees fans feel better about 2021 than anything their own team has done this offseason.
Assuming that the Snell trade forces the Rays to take at least a slight step back, the American League pennant is right there for the Yankees to capture. Although a reduced Tampa Bay should still be in the mix, the competition beyond doesn’t quite hearken to the era when the Red Sox and others were at their throats. It would take an upset for either Francisco Lindor or George Springer to begin 2021 with Cleveland and Houston, respectively. The day that the Twins and A’s cause postseason fear will be the first in a generation. The White Sox and Blue Jays are young and dangerous, but still have developmental steps to take. Everyone else is either rebuilding or forcing their superstar to do his best impression of Eddie Murphy trying to make early-’80s SNL relevant.
This is exactly the time for the Yankees to, well, be the Yankees. Stop futzing around and re-sign your team MVP to the contract that he’s deserved since last offseason. Give your ace some real backup in the rotation beyond Jordan Montgomery and a hodgepodge of young guns and injury rehabbers. Add credible depth so that you don’t have to gamble on shooting the moon again with unlikely heroes when various maladies strike à la 2019’s “Next Man Up” philosophy — one which failed to repeat in 2020.
The Yankees have the financial wherewithal, the farm system talent, and the front-office savvy to make something happen, whether it’s via free agency or the trade market. The primes of the likes of Gerrit Cole and Aaron Judge will only last so long, and this core deserves to make it to at least one Fall Classic anyway. They’ve made it so tantalizingly close but could use an assist to take them over the top. Sign the big contract. Make the bold trade.
The Rays just gave the Yankees a gift by sending their ace away. If they don’t strike now, then when will they?