Rays Tales: And the winners are …

Blake Snell takes a drink during the third inning of the Rays' victory over the Rangers Tuesday in Arlington, Tex. [AP Photo/Mike Stone]
Blake Snell takes a drink during the third inning of the Rays' victory over the Rangers Tuesday in Arlington, Tex. [AP Photo/Mike Stone]
Published September 22 2018

This season won't end up among the most successful in the Rays' 21-year franchise history, but I'd make the case it might be the most interesting.

From the winter/spring purge of the veterans, dire predictions for 100-plus losses, frigid 1-8/4-13 start, rash of pitcher injuries, introduction and implementation of the opener stratagem, big deals at the trade deadline, transition to the young core, August-September surge into the fringe of the AL wild-card race and, most unexpectedly, the chance to finish with 90-plus wins. As much as the Rays (and their fans) are in the unusual position of not wanting it to end, we are down to the final week.

So as we head toward the finale, and the reveal of the Baseball Writers' Association of America Tampa Bay chapter awards at Friday's annual Clutch Hitters banquet, here is my review of the good, bad and, well, interesting:

Most valuable Ray

In many years, it's hard to view someone who played in less than 20 percent of a team's games as its most valuable contributor.

Not this year.

The performance of LHP Blake Snell, who takes the mound Sunday with a majors-most 20 wins and an American League-low 1.97 ERA, has been that good, a showcase of virtuoso pitching and metronome consistency.

Off all the assorted statistical indicators, basic to advanced, one of the simplest might be the most telling: He gave the Rays a chance to win almost every time he pitched.

In Snell's first 29 starts, there were only three when he allowed more than three runs (and never more than five), and 19 times, just one or none.

Also, his impact goes beyond the games he pitched. Besides assuming the scepter as staff leader and example-setter passed on by Chris Archer from David Price and James Shields, Snell's dependability has allowed the Rays to operate differently between his starts, specifically, to be more aggressive in using their bullpen those other days, which factored into the success they've had with the opener.

For those reasons, and more, it's not difficult to make this kind of different decision and pick a starting pitcher. If Snell wins the BBWAA award, it will be just the third time for a starter, joining Shields (2011) and … Tanyon Sturtze (2001).

(One other thing that should be different: None of the past four Rays MVPs — Steven Souza Jr., Evan Longoria, Logan Forsythe, Ben Zobrist — lasted more than one additional season with the team before being traded.)

RUNNERSUP
• INF Joey Wendle. Picked up to compete for a utility infield job, Wendle emerged as one of their most impactful and consistent performers, and among the game's top rookies, playing multiple positions well, repeatedly delivering quality at-bats, always hustling, posting a position-player-leading 4.4 WAR.

• OF Mallex Smith. He showed flashes of potential last year amid some mistakes, but the overall improvement — hitting, fielding, baserunning — has been impressive as he has developed into a top leadoff man, with a .301 average and .373 on-base percentage.

ALSO WORTH MENTIONING
LHP Jose Alvarado, who showed the ability to dominate at the back end of the bullpen; Matt Duffy, who provided consistency at third and the plate; INF Daniel Robertson, who had an impressive breakout season cut short by injuries; manager Kevin Cash, who kept the team positive through the roster makeover, rough start, implementation of the opener and transition to the young core.

Most pleasant surprise

Whereas the MVP field was narrow, there are a bunch of candidates worthy of discussion here, between players emerging as rookies, taking advantage of expanded opportunity, benefiting from a change of scenery, assuming new roles.

But it's hard to be more of a pleasant surprise than the 28-year-old who had played just 36 big-league games, was picked up off Oakland's scrap heap to compete in a crowded field for a utility infield job, and who emerged as the Rays' most valuable position player and one of the top candidates for AL rookie of the year.

Meet Joey Wendle, or, if as seems fitting, Joey Ballgame. Going into the season, the Rays didn't know what he could do. Now the question is what can't he do.

RUNNERSUP
• DH Ji-Man Choi. Another low-end pickup, Choi has shown the potential to be a mid-lineup force with 30-homer potential, kind of like the Dodgers' Max Muncy.

• 3B Matt Duffy. After missing all off 2017 due to injury, it was uncertain what the team could expect from him; solid defense, an average around .300 and a good case for comeback player of the year isn't bad.

• The opener. Be honest, did you really think it would work this well? And lead to the success guys such as Diego Castillo, Yonny Chirinos, Ryne Stanek, Ryan Yarbrough are having?

ALSO WORTH MENTIONING
RHP Tyler Glasnow, who has looked very much like a potential frontline starter since being acquired in the Chris Archer trade; INF Brandon Lowe, who made an impressive rise from Double A that made us notice his swing and learn how to pronounce his name (rhymes with wow); OF Tommy Pham, who since coming over (and getting off the DL) is raking like he did for St. Louis last year; C Michael Perez; who looked like he could play, albeit in a small sample due to injury; OF Denard Span, who, though it seems like years not months since the trade to the Mariners, showed the old guy could still play.

Biggest disappointment

With all the good the Rays did, there, as always, was some bad. What was interesting was that it was arguably their two best remaining players who let them down the most. RHP Chris Archer was muddling through another middling season at 3-5, 4.17 when the team decided it was finally time to trade him July 31, getting what seems like a sturdy — or maybe "studly" — return. Archer should benefit from the change of scenery in Pittsburgh, though he didn't initially, going 2-3, 4.86. Meanwhile, CF Kevin Kiermaier had two issues: staying on the field, and playing better when he was. He got off to a cold start, was sick, hurt his right foot, then tore a thumb ligament that sidelined him for two months. He came back early in mid-June, kept struggling, missed a few more games due to foot, back and other issues, and, finally, in the past month, after moving down in the order, got hot. He raised his average 50 points — though only to .225, through Friday — was driving the ball, running free and playing his usual top-notch defense. Given Kiermaier's rebound, we'll give the "honor" to Archer.

ALSO WORTH MENTIONING
RHP Jake Faria, who looked like a legit starter last year but whose role is now in question due to injuries and inconsistencies; OF Carlos Gomez, who has been a positive force in the clubhouse but hasn't done much on the field; INF Brad Miller, who was nowhere near his 30-homer form as promised but did at least get Choi on the Rays; LHP Anthony Banda and RHPs Brent Honeywell and Jose De Leon, who all were sidelined due to Tommy John surgery.

Rays rumblings

Friday's firing of Jeff Banister in Texas reminded that Kevin Cash was a candidate for that job, and it was his strong interview there that got the Rays more interested. … Ji-Man Choi declined an offer from the Rays last offseason and signed a minor-league deal with the Brewers because he didn't like the Florida spring training experience he had with the Yankees in 2017, preferring to stay in Arizona, where he has a home. Just wait for Port Charlotte. … The Rays' versatility spreads to the broadcast teams as radio man Neil Solondz filled in on TV during Dewayne Staats' absence, calling one game and doing the pregame and postgame shows last week when Rich Hollenberg was with the team. … The legend returns to the Trop on Saturday as Dan Johnson will be on hand for his dual bobbleheads (one for each memorable homer). … The 20th anniversary merchandise is being discounted at the team store.

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