The idea of the Tampa Bay Rays being the most feared team in the American League is absurd on its face.
How can a club with such a miniscule payroll, which consistently trades away its best players and shuffles through pitchers like a Pokemon deck, really be favored in the American League Division Series over the big-market Red Sox?
It's called the sweet spot, and the Big Bad Rays are right in the middle of it.
Some of their best young players -- like power-hitting second baseman Brandon Lowe, power-hitting outfielder Austin Meadows, and, yes, other power-hitting outfielder Randy Arozarena -- are in their prime age-26 seasons, but not yet at a price Tampa can't afford.
In addition, some of baseball's best prospects have arrived to start the next wave, none bigger than shortstop Wander Franco, who homered in his big-league debut vs. the Red Sox and hasn't stopped hitting since. He reached base in a record-tying 43 straight games and posted an .810 OPS at age 20. He's already a factor; he'll soon be a force.
The Rays are so deep, they could afford to trade productive starter Rich Hill to Mets at the deadline. They eventually replaced him with right-hander Shane Baz, a top prospect who was the final piece of the a fleecing of the Pirates that saw fading right-hander Chris Archer turned into Meadows and dominating right-hander Tyler Glasnow as well.
Baz is likely to start Game 2 vs. the Red Sox, who know what they're in for.
"They're really good," said chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom, a former Rays executive. "They're as deep, as versatile, as hard to play against as anyone in baseball. We've got our work cut out for us."
So how do the 92-win Red Sox prevail vs. the 100-win Rays? Tampa won the season series 11-8, but only by a cumulative score of 106-104, though a 20-run outburst by the Red Sox skewed that number. The Red Sox swept the Rays in April and split with them in September.
Tampa will be favored, but the Red Sox shouldn't be discounted.
"We know what they bring," said catcher Kevin Plawecki. "We faced them a lot. They're a hell of a team, they pitch the ball and put good at-bats together. It's October. Anything can happen. We're ready for it, and they'll be ready for it."
Let's unfurl the tale of the tape.
Here's the true separator between the 2021 Rays and every prior iteration to fall short in the playoffs -- these Rays can mash.
They finished second in the American League with a franchise-record 857 runs. That's their highest ranking ever. They did it with the combination of power and patience that sabermetricians love, placing third in the AL in both homers (222) and walks (585), which compensated for their middling .242 batting average.
Tampa builds an advantage by platooning more aggressively than any team in baseball. Catcher Mike Zunino split his career-high 33 homers equally between right-handers (17) and left-handers (16), but he hit only .151 vs. the former and .342 vs. the latter. That's OK, because switch-hitting backup Francisco Mejia hit 100 points higher vs. righties than Zunino did.
At first base, Yandy Diaz crushes lefties and Ji-Man Choi does the same to righties. Outfielder Brett Phillips murders righties and has no chance against lefties, but it doesn't matter, because Manuel Margot hits them. And on and on it goes.
The everyday players are Lowe, Franco, Meadows, Arozarena, and ageless trade-deadline acquisition Nelson Cruz. The Rays can mix and match everywhere else. They're not the same team that was held to three runs total in the last two games of the World Series loss to the Dodgers.
|3rd in MLB||Average||T-14th in MLB|
"Wander and Nelson, no doubt, but you look at Austin, Yandy, and Ji-man -- going into the postseason none of them had established themselves," Rays manager Kevin Cash said when comparing this team to last year's.
"They were all coming back from some sort of injury, and there were a lot of question marks. These guys have had consistent reps. They've pretty much stayed healthy, and I do think whichever way we go, the options that are going to be available on the bench to impact us will be greater than maybe what they were last year."
The Red Sox, by comparison, boast more pure star power, especially if DH J.D. Martinez recovers from an ankle injury and is able to play. Bloom added some versatility during the waiver period by bringing in left-hander slugger Travis Shaw, and acquiring Kyle Schwarber at the trade deadline obviously has added another dimension to the offense.
But even with Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts, Alex Verdugo, and Hunter Renfroe, the Red Sox aren't quite as deep as the Rays. This is close, but ultimately, Tampa has the advantage.
Unlike the offensive matchup, this one is not remotely close. The Red Sox played excellent defense in the wild card game vs. the Yankees, particularly on an 8-6-2 relay to cut down Aaron Judge at the plate, but they've been shaky all season.
Tampa committed just 80 errors, tied for eighth-fewest in baseball and well ahead of the Red Sox, whose 107 miscues rated next to last. Outside of Lowe at second and Meadows in left, the Rays boast premium defenders all over the diamond.
Three-time Gold Glover Kevin Kiermaier remains a highlight film in center, and Margot and Phillips aren't far behind at any of the outfield spots. Zunino has long been respected as an excellent receiver behind the plate. All-Star Joey Wendle can pick 'em at third and is an above-average shortstop, too.
The key for the Red Sox is keeping Kiké Hernández in center, where he may not take as direct a route to the ball as predecessor Jackie Bradley Jr., but nonetheless ends up in the right place, and with a cannon for an arm. Hernández is the domino that slots everyone else into their best positions, and if Martinez can't return, it will actually help defensively, since it allows Schwarber to DH rather than play first base, where he's subpar.
The Red Sox have been a poor baserunning team all season -- Verdugo ran into another out on his game-breaking single Tuesday -- and that's unlikely to change now. Whereas the Red Sox made 54 outs on the bases, tied for fourth-worst in baseball, the Rays only ran into 45, one better than average. No team took a higher percentage of extra bases (i.e., advancing 2 bases on a single) than Tampa at 47 percent, well ahead of the Red Sox (41 percent).
A big part of Tampa's success is doing all of the little things. Nowhere is that more true than defensively and on the bases.
Imagine the chutzpah of an organization to hand the ball to a pair of rookies -- one of whom has only started three games -- to open the postseason? That's the Rays Way, and they're fully confident in left-hander Shane McClanahan (10-6, 3.43) and the right-handed Baz (2-0, 2.03).
"I'm very confident in them," Kiermaier said. "These guys have electric arms. They might be classified as rookies, but it seems like they've been around longer, even a guy like Baz who doesn't even have two weeks in the big leagues. "I don't know how we get guys like Shane through trades. I don't know how we land some of these guys. Shoutout to you, (president of baseball operations) Erik Neander, for being a genius. Guys like McClanahan, these guys are throwing 100 miles an hour on any given pitch with nasty breaking stuff, and they've had hitters off balance. Shane throughout the course of the season, Baz these last two weeks looks dominant as can be, and, you know, they deserve to be in there."
They're not the only young firepower in the rotation. Even with Glasnow sidelined by Tommy John surgery, the Rays still boast 21-year-old right-hander Luis Patiño, the centerpiece of the trade that sent former Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell to San Diego, as well as right-hander Drew Rasmussen, who silenced the Red Sox twice in September while going 3-0 with a 1.50 ERA down the stretch.
The one pitcher the Red Sox want to see is left-hander Ryan Yarbrough, whom they pounded for 28 runs in 20 innings.
On the flip side, the Red Sox will be doing a lot of hoping. Nathan Eovaldi is the ace, but he started the wild card game and won't be able until Sunday's Game 3. Left-hander Chris Sale hasn't looked like himself since returning from COVID and lasted only 2.1 innings in Sunday's must-win season finale.
Eduardo Rodriguez will get the ball for Game 1 and Sale will probably take it in Game 2. The Rays pounded lefties at home this season to the tune of a .778 OPS (vs. just .725 vs. righties) so the Red Sox are taking a gamble, but both Rodriguez and Sale pitched well in Tampa and it's hard to blame Cora for going with his two most experienced rested hurlers, especially since right-hander Nick Pivetta struggled down the stretch.
If the Rays have shown a particularly impressive skill, it's finding relievers. Seemingly every pitcher in their pen comes from a different arm angle with a nasty slider and overpowering fastball, perpetually keeping teams off balance.
They acquired sinker-balling left-hander Jeffrey Springs from the Red Sox and watched him go 5-1 with a 3.43 ERA. Deceptive right-hander Collin McHugh never actually threw a pitch in Boston last year because of COVID, but he came down to Tampa and posted a 1.55 ERA while going 6-1.
Right-hander Andrew Kittredge spins one of the tightest fastballs in the league, while fellow righty Pete Fairbanks features one of the hardest at over 97 mph. They acquired J.P. Feyereisen from the Brewers and turned his fastball/changeup combo into a virtually unhittable pairing.
The Red Sox, meanwhile, have been forced to ride the hot hand. That was All-Star closer Matt Barnes in the first half until it wasn't. Then it was setup man Adam Ottavino until he became homer happy. Then it was converted starter Garrett Richards until he lost his pinpoint command. Left-hander Darwinzon Hernandez went from one of Alex Cora's key weapons to not making the wild card roster.
Right now, Cora trusts a small group, led by trade deadline pickup Hansel Robles, a hard thrower who hasn't allowed a run since August. His live fastball plays in the zone and he gives the Red Sox a dimension they had lacked. Cora has also leaned on right-hander Ryan Brasier, who missed most of the season, as well as rookie Garrett Whitlock, who returned from a pectoral injury in the nick of time. Left-hander Josh Taylor is another of Cora's favorites, though he's still recovering from a back injury.
While the Rays had 14 pitchers record saves this year, that's largely because they had plenty of places to turn. The Red Sox, by comparison, are still searching for someone to trust at the end, with Robles and Whitlock the obvious choices.
It doesn't seem to matter whom the Rays throw out there. They're all good.
These former teammates on the 2007-08 Red Sox know each other well and are battle-tested. Cora has won a World Series, while Cash took the heavily favored Dodgers to six games last year.
The difference is feel. Cash manages very much by Tampa's voluminous book, which is why he lifted starter Blake Snell in the middle of a two-hitter vs. the Dodgers in last year's clinching Game 6. Cora pulled a similar move with Nathan Eovaldi against the Yankees on Tuesday, but seems to have a little more leeway to manage by feel, particularly with his bullpen.
Cora has never lost a playoff series. Cash will be under the microscope if another decision backfires, especially with Tampa considered a heavy favorite.
Edge: Red Sox
So the Rays get the edge on offense, defense, baserunning, starting pitching, and relief. That leaves the manager's chair. Alex Cora is good, but he's not that good.
The Red Sox played the Rays tough all year, but Tampa typically found a way, especially in the second half. The Red Sox are walking too fine a tightrope, particularly in the bullpen, and particularly with Sale not yet back to being Sale. For what was supposed to be a rebuilding year, it was a nice run. There will be better days ahead.
Prediction: Rays in 3