The Rays insist they are still aiming to win the American League East, which certainly is their right and privilege, noting they have six games remaining with the division-leading Red Sox, whom they trailed by seven at the start of play Saturday, and with the Yankees ensconced between them.
While their 2011 and 2013 stretch runs proved there's no wisdom in ruling anything out, especially still on this side of mid August with 40-plus games to go, it seems much more realistic to think their more likely path to the postseason will be in winning one of the spots in the Oct. 3 AL wild-card game.
And that, given the absence of any more apt adjectives, will be a wild race.
Depending on where you draw the line, there could be as many nine teams — in addition to the three current division leaders — still considered to be in the chase. That's how many were within five games of a spot on Saturday morning, anyway.
Eventually — in theory — the field will thin out one way or another and there will be enough separation to focus on the two or three, or four or five, teams with a legitimate shot to get to the 88 or so wins necessary to get in, though that number may be coming down. (For the Rays, getting to 88 would mean playing at nearly a .650 pace the rest of the way.)
Of many mitigating factors, here are a few that stand out:
• Health: Every team has key guys hurt, so it's a matter of what teams are best built to withstand injuries. Seattle now being without its four top starters, as James Paxton joined Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma and Drew Smyly on the DL, would seem a severe test, even for Let's Make A Deal GM Jerry DiPoto. (Put another way: Writing of this column was temporarily suspended Friday night until word came back that Rays 3B Evan Longoria was not seriously hurt.)
• Schedule: While the contenders will beat each other up, the heavy dose of intra-divisional games under MLB's unbalanced schedule format creates an edge for a team like the Central-based Twins, who have 16 games left with the non-contending Tigers and White Sox.
• Moves: Teams can still make deals through waivers, and those pickups, whether to cover injuries or to add on, still can shake up a race. The Yankees already flexed their front office muscle in adding starters Sonny Gray and Jaime Garcia, 3B Todd Frazier and relievers David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle, and they may be best positioned to do more.
Here's how the Rays look (through Friday, with playoff chances based on fangraphs.com season simulations) and who we see as their biggest challengers, with the potential that the currently first-place Red Sox or Indians could drop back into the wild-card field:
Playoff chances: 27.7
Remaining games: (44) — 7 vs. Blue Jays, Orioles; 6 vs. Red Sox, Yankees; 3 vs. Mariners, Cards, Royals, White Sox, Twins; 2 vs. Cubs; 1 vs. Indians.
Key injuries: CF Kevin Kiermaier (hip, back) could be back next homestand, RHP Matt Andriese by the end of the month.
Narrative: Given all that has gone wrong in terms of injuries, inconsistent performances and spotty play, it's somewhat amazing they are still in the race. And they seem confident they can win it. The starting pitching (even with the rookie additions) has been very good, the bullpen much improved and the lineup has to — right? — get hot again soon. Their hope is getting on a long-awaited roll where they win 10 of 12 or 14 of 18 and build some momentum.
Key showdown series
vs. Mariners, Aug. 18-20
at Royals, Aug. 28-30
vs. Twins, Sept. 4-6
vs. Yankees, Sept. 11-13
at Orioles, Sept. 21-24
at Yankees, Sept. 26-28
vs. Orioles, Sept. 29-Oct. 1
Ranking the competition
Playoff chances: 74.8
Remaining games: (47) 8 vs. Red Sox; 7 vs. Orioles; 6 vs. Jays, Rays; 4 vs. Mets; 3 vs. Tigers, Mariners, Indians, Rangers, Twins; 1 vs. Royals
Key injuries: Down three starters now with RHP Masahiro Tanaka (shoulder) joining LHP CC Sabathia (knee) and RHP Michael Pineda (Tommy John surgery) on DL. Also out: 2B Starlin Castro, OF Clint Frazier, DH Matt Holliday.
vs. Rays: 8-5
Narrative: Even with the injuries, they have the most talent of the contenders and a bullpen capable of shortening games to cover for the thinned rotation. They do need Aaron Judge to start playing like front-page news again. And a lack of experience could be an issue down the stretch.
Playoff chances: 18.4
Remaining games: (46) 10 vs. Indians; 7 vs. White Sox, Twins; 6 vs. Tigers; 3 vs. A's, Rockies, Rays, Jays, D'backs; 1 vs. Yankees
Key injuries: Lost C Salvador Perez (intercostal strain) for most and maybe all of August, and now RHP Trevor Cahill.
vs. Rays: 3-1
Our take: They have the benefit of experience with their been-there, done-that veteran core and motivation/urgency knowing it's likely their last chance together. Adding OF Melky Cabrera and bullpen arms helped, but rotation seems a concern.
Playoff chances: 19.9
Remaining schedule: (44) 7 vs. Angels, Rangers; 6 vs. Orioles, A's, Astros; 3 vs. Rays, Braves, Yankees, Indians
Key injuries: They have an elite-level rotation on the DL, with James Paxton joining Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma and Drew Smyly. Also missing key reliever David Phelps.
vs. Rays: 3-0
Our take: Hard to imagine they can keep battling through the loss of their top starters unless front office makes a big deal rather than patches, but having Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz in the middle of the lineup covers a lot.
Playoff chances: 7.0
Remaining schedule: (45) 7 vs. Blue Jays, Yankees, Rays; 6 vs. Mariners, Red Sox; 4 vs. A's; 3 vs. Angels, Indians; 2 vs. Pirates
Key injuries: SS JJ Hardy is expected back soon, starter Ubaldo Jimenez as well.
vs. Rays: 6-6
Our take: Boosted by the addition of "Lord Baltimore" Tim Beckham (22-for-44 in his first 11 games), they have to hope their potent lineup can out-hit their AL-worst starting pitching (5.50 ERA) and let their dominant-when-healthy bullpen do its thing.
Playoff chances: 23.3
Remaining schedule: (47) 8 vs. Tigers, White Sox; 7 vs. Blue Jays, Royals; 6 vs. Indians; 3 vs. D'backs, Rays, Yankees; 2 vs. Padres
Key injuries: Former closer Glen Perkins is on the rehab trail.
vs. Rays: 1-2
Our take: Seemed to surrender in dealing closer Brandon Kintzler and flipping starter Jaime Garcia at the deadline, then played their way back into race by winning eight of 10. And they might have the softest schedule of the group, with 25 games against the non-contending Tigers, White Sox, Blue Jays and Padres.
Playoff chances: 21.3
Remaining schedule: (44) 10 vs. Rangers; 9 vs. Astros; 7 vs. Mariners; 6 vs. A's; 4 vs. White Sox; 3 vs. Indians, Orioles; 2 vs. Nationals
Key injuries: Missing 3B Yunel Escobar for a few more weeks and down several pitchers, though getting veteran RHP Andrew Bailey back in bullpen.
vs. Rays: 3-4
Our take: There's really nothing about this team that makes you think it can make the playoffs except Mike Trout — and he's so good that it could be enough to make a difference.
Some things we think we know
1. The Marlins (finally) selling for $1.2 billion to the Derek Jeter group ends talk of the Tampa resident buying into his adopted-hometown team but also starts speculation on how much — and some smart folks think it's how much more — the Rays could be worth with the potential for a new stadium, rich TV deal (and growing market with Orlando), better farm system and less debt.
2. To whatever degree turf toe was ailing RHP Alex Cobb, the 10-or-so day DL break conveniently provided a good rest. In his first full season coming off May 2015 Tommy John elbow surgery, Cobb had already thrown 147 innings in 23 starts and was on pace for 200-plus. His big-league career high is 1661/3 in 2014.
3. The Rays are said to be still looking for a right-handed hitter to boost the lineup. You'd think the recent skid would accelerate the urgency, but could it also make them less likely to pay much?
Long-time Trop concessionaire Centerplate, which was responsible for last week's food safety rating concerns, is in the final year of its contract and will be replaced. … Expect to see a 20th anniversary patch on next year's uniforms. … In a Players Tribune piece saying goodbye to Mets fans, Lucas Duda also wrote that he's excited to join the Rays in the playoff race and hopes to "find a decent dumpling place in Tampa." … Most creative nickname for the Aug. 25-27 Players Weekend jerseys had to be TOMMY TWO TOWEL for RHP Tommy Hunter, which was based on the size of the clubhouse cottons. And Abbott and Costello fans can only hope RHP Chih Wei Hu is called back up — and somehow gets on base — with WHO? on his back. … Among nicknames MLB rejected was Chris Archer's first choice of STICK N' MOVE, which is what former 1B coach George Hendrick called him. … Tommy John-rehabbing RHP Nathan Eovaldi was said to be clocked at 97 mph in a Friday bullpen session. He could be an interesting late September bullpen addition. … Baseball America's annual Best Tools survey named RHP Alex Cobb (left) with the AL's best pickoff move, Kevin Kiermaier best defensive outfielder and second best arm, Archer second best slider, 3B Evan Longoria and 1B Logan Morrison third best defenders at their positions, Kevin Cash third best manager. … Also, Triple-A Durham's Jared Sandberg was voted International League best manager prospect. … Rays wives are hosting an Aug. 20 Rock the Block charity event benefitting the Adopt A Block program helping families in need; $125 tickets available through floridadreamcenter.org. … RHP Alex Colome, headed to arbitration for the first time, changed agencies, staying with agent Rafa Nieves as he moved from Beverly Hills Sports Council to Wasserman Media Group. … Indians manager Terry Francona agreed that Cash is the more mature of the two: "No one ever accused me of being mature."