On a sunny June seventh, 2018, my friends and I rode the train into Boston to watch Jalen Beeks dazzle in his professional debut. The estimated time arrival being 7:20, with a 7:05 first pitch, I was constantly checking between my watch and the train stops. Laced with anxiety because of our lack of planning, city traffic, and the struggling lineup, the night didn’t go as planned. By the time we showed up halfway through the bottom of the first, the Sox had already found a way to be down by five runs. The poor kid was getting shelled. Only a week later, this unlucky lefty was traded to the Tampa Bay Rays for veteran Nathan Eovaldi. As a Red Sox fan, I was overridden with joy, thinking the Sox had just gotten away with the deal of the century. Yet, as this young gun blossomed, the Rays front office did too. One of a plethora of deals acquiring pitching and prospects, the Rays knew exactly what they wanted. Through five regular season innings, Beeks has yet to give up a run – who’s laughing now?
Living in the post-Longoria era, the Rays embraced a culture change, welcoming youth and arms instead of veterans and surgeries. In mid-2018, when they acquired Tommy Pham and traded away Wilson Ramos, Chris Archer, and Mallex Smith, nobody knew which direction the team was headed. After trading away all these hitters, you’d think their arms would have to put up zeroes to give them any chance to win, right? Well, they practically did. From May to the beginning of July, the Rays ranked: first in ERA (2.87), batting average against (.205), on-base percentage against (.282), slugging percentage against (.338), opponent wOBA (.271), and ground ball rate (46.6 percent). It seemed as if this team was ready to ride off into the sunset and reach their first World Series appearance since 2008.
However, before arriving at this glorious sunset, the dark and scary Yankees loomed ahead, and their fluorescent green and gold companions snatched the Rays’ spot in the American League Wild Card game. The Rays finished 90-72, a whopping 18 games behind the Red Sox, but only seven behind the Oakland Athletics. To put into perspective how well this underrated bunch ranked in 2018, the Rays would have finished one game behind the Indians in the AL Central, tied with the Braves for the NL East, and just two short of the Dodgers in the NL West. For the next several years, the Rays are going to have to go up against the best of the best in their own division, the Red Sox and the Yankees. Still, in 2018 this team showed they belonged; in thirty eight games against Boston and New York, they emerged victorious seventeen times, amounting to a not-so-shabby .450 winning percentage against the two best teams in baseball. Last year they won 90 games in total, but this team went 47-26 in the final 73 games of the year. If they keep up that pace in 2019, it is very likely they will clinch a postseason spot.
What got the Rays to this position? Two words: Blake. Snell. Setting the franchise record for wins, the Cy Young-winning lefty propelled the Rays to a 21-4 record when on the bump. When Snell wasn’t pitching, the Rays often employed the opener strategy. In 2018 they were 23-22 when their “starter” went two innings or less, while the rest of the league was 28-90 in such situations. By acquiring Charlie Morton, trusting in Tyler Glasnow, and having faith in Ryan Yarbrough, the Rays’ rotation has been extremely solidified. The result of dealing Chris Archer, Glasnow’s increased peripherals since arriving in Tampa are undeniable. The 25-year-old cut his BB/9 in half and increased his K/BB ratio from 2.12 to 3.37. Although the hits and home runs numbers have slightly increased, the kid is throwing strikes and that is a step in the right direction. In his first start of 2019, he faced the Astros and struck out four over five solid innings, giving up six hits and just one run. 35-year-old Morton was one of the best additions to the squad this offseason, and when his curveball is on he quickly turns into one of the best pitchers in the league. Behind him is rookie Ryan Yarborough, a potential ace ready to show off his true talent. Among others, the youth this team showcases leaves a lot to be desired, and a lot to be excited about.
With an infield infiltrated with youth, such as Matt Duffy and Willy Adames, the future looks bright in the tropics of Tampa. The fourth-place rookie of the year Joey Wendle batted .300 last year and has justly earned a spot in the lineup. Perennial Gold Glove winner Kevin Kiermaier stays in center field, sure to be camped under any fly ball in a four-mile radius. Newly acquired Mike Zunino is behind the plate with the potential to hit more than twenty home runs, his total from last year.
My prediction for the Rays this year is that they fall a few games short of the wild card, but earn a wild card spot in 2020 and win the ALDS before falling in the ALCS. Bold prediction: Snell isn’t the only Rays pitcher to finish top five in Cy Young voting within the next two years. The expectations having been so low for the last few years, hope is at an all time high for Tampa right now.
Featured Photo: Mike Carlson, Getty Images