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The Rays should be the Yankees’ preferred ALDS opponent

A vulnerable AL East rival matches up well for the division champs.

Tampa Bay Rays v Boston Red Sox Photo By Winslow Townson/Getty Images

Who do you want more? The Yankees have two potential ALDS opponents: the Cleveland Guardians, who fattened up on a bad AL Central, or the Tampa Bay Rays, a perfectly solid baseball team that isn’t all that intimidating on paper. I’m going to make the case that the Rays would be the desired matchup — the Yankees went 11-8 against their AL East rivals this season, but this is a more vulnerable Rays team than we’re used to.

To start with, this is a very middling offense. The Rays ranked 15th in all of baseball by wRC+, the league median, and seem to be particularly good matchups for the expected Yankee starters in the ALDS. Gerrit Cole, Nestor Cortes, and Luis Severino combined to throw 56.1 innings with a 2.56 ERA against the Rays this year, and that counts Sevy’s one, bad start. With 58 strikeouts and just 15 walks between the three arms, I think you have to feel confident about the matchups.

Now, Wander Franco only played 83 games this season, only seven of them against the Yankees, so expect their lineup to be a little bit better than the 101 wRC+ they put up on the season. Still, the Yankees held him to “just” a .724 OPS, slightly below his season mark, so holding him in check will be a big part of any ALDS win.

The pitching staff is somewhat better, fourth in the game in ERA, sixth in K-BB%, but 12th in overall strikeout rate, reflecting a trend toward contact control rather than pure swing-and-miss stuff. Shane McClanahan at the top of the rotation is A Problem, and Tyler Glasnow has made his way back from injury with two outings down the stretch. He didn’t go more than four innings in either start, but has allowed just a single run with 10 strikeouts against two walks in 6.1 innings.

Fortunately, the Yankees may have the antidote to Glasnow’s stuff:

The third part of the solid-to-average Rays roster is the bullpen, somewhere between the eighth and 12th best unit in the game. Like the rest of the team, they’re not as dominant as we’ve seen in past seasons, with a strikeout rate below league average. Glasnow has never been a guy that goes deep into games, and while McClanahan does, the rest of the rotation is a fairly five-and-fly grouping meaning that their bullpen has thrown the most innings in the game. Their topline numbers are solid, but I think a hot Yankee lineup can handle the so-called stable of guys. Moreover, burning McClanahan in the Wild Card round means he can only go once in the ALDS, further increasing the expected workload of the bullpen.

I don’t know what the AL Central-to-East conversion rate is. I think if the Rays got to play the Royals and Tigers and White Sox and Twins 80 times a season, they probably would have ended up with more than 86 wins. Still, the top-line talent the Guardians boast, between Shane Bieber, José Ramírez, Andrés Giménez and perhaps the best relief pitching corps in the game make them a tougher challenge for the Yankees this year. This is not the same Rays team we’ve seen as the past couple years, and I like New York’s odds against them.