They have the lowest payroll in the major leagues. They traded away half of their starting rotation at the trade deadline. They’re forced into using one game out of every five as a “bullpen day”, with no starter reliable enough to give at least five innings. And in spite of all that, the Tampa Bay Rays are playing winning baseball.
Tampa Bay is sitting on a 70-61 record. They’ve played their best baseball since the All-Star break, a period where they’ve gone 8-4 in their games against AL East heavyweights Boston and New York, including a three-game sweep of the Red Sox this past weekend. The Rays are 16-8 in August.
In the top-heavy American League, that’s not enough to make them a serious playoff contender. They’re still 8 ½ games out of the second wild-card spot. But it would be in the National League. If the Rays flipped leagues with the Miami Marlins and went to the NL East, Tampa would be in the middle of both the division and wild-card races.
And playoffs or not, the Rays’ pursuit of their first winning season since 2013 and first without Joe Maddon in the dugout, has turned into one of baseball’s nice storylines for the September stretch.
The lineup doesn’t overwhelm you, but solid years from a few key players have given Tampa enough runs to win games. Most notable is Wilson Ramos, having the best year of any American League catcher, with a .346 on-base percentage and .488 slugging percentage. Designated hitter C.J. Cron his hit 24 home runs. Mallex Smith has stepped up in the outfield, batting over .300. Second baseman Joey Wendle has provided a nice boost to the offense with his .342 OBP.
Run prevention is what really wins games in Tampa though, and the Rays ranked third in the American League in ERA. Blake Snell has had a terrific year and turned himself into a Cy Young candidate with a 16-5 record and 2.05 ERA in his 25 starts. He’s provided valuable stability to a staff that relies on its pen to pitch an entire game one time through the rotation.
The “bullpen day” is something Rays’ manager Kevin Cash is more or less forced into using as a way of making up for the front office’s lack of ability (or interest) in spending any money. Ryne Stanek is listed as having made 21 starts, but he’s only pitched 53 innings on the year.
But give the Rays props for creativity—they have a pen that’s pretty deep, with a lot of arms that are respectable, with none that are dominant. It makes perfect sense to try this rather than to futilely throw out an overmatched starter every fifth day.
Tampa Bay made its usual move of selling at the trade deadline, shipping Nathan Eovaldi to Boston and Chris Archer to Pittsburgh, moves that gutted the rotation and putting even more pressure on Snell and the Bullpen Day crew. It’s a story we’ve seen before—the Rays overachieve, get on the verge of something and then sell off the most valuable pieces. They do a terrific job of making the most of what they have and this pursuit of a winning season is a prime example. It’s enough to make you wonder what would happen if ownership actually tried to win.