With the playoff matchups set, the sixth-seed Tampa Bay Rays will be facing off against the Cleveland Guardians, unexpected winners of the AL Central, in a three-game Wild Card Series at Progressive Field. The winner of this showdown earns the right to square off against New York in the Division Series, so if you’re going to pay attention to any one series while the Yankees are enjoying some well-deserved rest, you’ll probably want to make it this one.
2022 Record: 86-76
Manager: Kevin Cash
Top Hitter: Yandy Diaz (3.8 fWAR)
Top Pitcher: Shane McClanahan (3.5 fWAR)
After back-to-back division titles and three-straight 90-win seasons (shortened 2020 season notwithstanding, though they were on a roughly 97-win pace in that one), the Rays finally took a bit of a step back this year. With that being said, they still managed to pull off 86 wins and a fourth consecutive postseason appearance, so this is certainly not a team to take lightly.
Much like the Yankees, the Rays’ 2022 campaign was plagued by injuries. By early July, Tampa Bay had already lost Kevin Kiermaier, Andrew Kittredge, Shane Baz, Mike Zunino, and J.P. Feyereisen for the season. To make matters worse, 21-year-old phenom Wander Franco lost two months to various injuries, breakout star Shane McClanahan missed a few starts with shoulder fatigue (though it looked like it could be much more serious for a little while), Brandon Lowe was absent for almost 100 games with, among other things, a nagging back injury, relief ace Pete Fairbanks lost three months of action, and ace Tyler Glasnow returned from 2021 Tommy John surgery just over a week ago.
A laundry list of injuries like that is enough to sink any team, but these are the Rays we’re talking about, so naturally they figured out a way to scratch and claw their way into the postseason by three games over the upstart Orioles. Basically, the 2022 Rays are the baseball equivalent of The Little Engine That Could.
Despite the various ailments, the Rays still put up a particularly strong season on both sides of the ball. Tampa placed 14th in the league in wRC+ and 15th in fWAR. Yandy Diaz led the way on the offensive side, hitting to the tune of a .296/.401/.423 slash line with 42 extra base hits (nine homers), a 14-percent walk rate, 10.8-percent strikeout rate, and a career-high 147 wRC+. That wRC+ was good for eighth across the entire league. His numbers, slash line aside, may not jump off the page, but man oh man did he quietly put up a great season.
Beyond Diaz, Randy Arozarena was also his usual electric self this year, hitting to a 124 wRC+ and 2.7 fWAR on the back of 20 home runs and 32 stolen bases. Isaac Paredes exploded onto the scene as a legitimate power threat after coming over from Detroit in exchange for Austin Meadows, and complementary hitters Manuel Margot, Ji-Man Choi, and Harold Ramírez each posted solid seasons at the dish.
But, remember, this is the Rays, and their true power will always lie in their otherworldly pitching staff. Tampa finished with the fourth-lowest ERA in the league (3.39) and eighth-lowest FIP (3.67). They had four starters eclipse the 135-inning plateau. Of them, three — McClanahan, Corey Kluber, and Jeffrey Springs — posted a fWAR of at least 3.0, with the fourth — Drew Rasmussen — posting a 2.9 fWAR and winning AL Pitcher of the Month in August. And don’t let Kluber’s ERA fool you — he was a solid pitcher this year, posting a strong 3.57 FIP with a tiny three-percent walk rate.
On top of all that, the Rays also got their old ace back at the perfect time. Since returning from Tommy John surgery on September 28th, Glasnow has struck out 38.5 percent of the batters he’s faced in his two starts. He may not be stretched out enough to take on a full starter’s workload yet, but for a team that is no stranger to bullpening, he can easily shut a lineup down for a solid three or four innings to make way for their power relievers.
Entering their series against the Guardians, the Rays are certainly a team to watch, even if they don’t have the weirdness of Tropicana Field on their side. In a three-game set, they’ll likely be throwing McClanahan, who led the Cy Young race for a significant portion of the year, and Glasnow, who looks like he hasn’t missed a step, in Games 1 and 2. That pairing is absurd. On top of that, Franco is back and healthy, so they’ll be running into a lineup that features Diaz, Franco, and Arozarena at the top of the batting order. Good luck, Cleveland.
Listen, we all know that Yankees fans are, unfortunately, far too familiar with Tampa Bay. Injuries certainly slowed them down this year, but they somehow figured out a way to make it to the postseason in a stacked AL East. So, what I’m saying is, don’t be surprised if we see a rematch of the Yankees’ 2020 ALDS against the Rays (albeit one not exclusively at Petco Park). After all, the Rays are, well, the Rays. And, until they’re back to losing nearly 100 games per season and letting all their superstars walk for nothing, I will never count them out.