ST. PETERSBURG — Whether there is a reward for this eventful, intriguing and captivating Rays season won’t be known until the upcoming final weekend in Toronto.
That seems only fitting given all the drama along the way, the days when this team has looked like it could win the World Series and other times like it may not win another game.
But there are awards to be given out now, perhaps a tad prematurely as a product of the schedule, with the Tampa Bay chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America set to announce its choices for MVP, top rookie and champion honors at Monday’s Clutch Hitters banquet.
And here are our three annual Rays Tales acknowledgments:
Most Valuable Ray
Some years this is an obvious choice, and in down ones somewhat uninspired. This year produced a number of candidates worthy of discussion.
Consider all that Travis d’Arnaud did after being acquired in a desperate May search for catching help. The 20-20 contributions, intensity and inspiration provided daily by Tommy Pham. How Emilio Pagan didn’t make the staff out of spring training and emerged as the closer they needed when others faltered. The evolution of Willy Adames into a star with top shelf-defense and 20-homer power.
But the real debate, and it’s a dandy, is between Austin Meadows and Charlie Morton.
Here’s Meadows, sizzling when it matters most in September, with a .381 average, eight homers and a 1.330 OPS going into play Saturday, to cap a remarkable first full big-league season. He’s made the All-Star team, won two AL player of the week awards, has had a hand in several big wins, posted a team-high 32 homers, 88 RBIs and .920 OPS. And he’s only 24.
He has made 43 of his 122 starts at DH because his defense isn’t as good as his offense, went through a miserable 21-game midseason stretch hitting .150 with three RBIs and a .443 OPS, and has a 3.7 WAR rating, per baseball-reference.com, which is only fourth highest on the team, behind Morton (4.7), Pham (3.9) and Adames (3.8).
And here’s Morton, the 35-year-old veteran starter signed to a franchise record $15 million annual salary who’s been worth every penny, providing not just the direly needed stability in their injury ravaged rotation but at an elite, and All-Star, level.
And while pressed into pitching not just more than planned, but more than he ever has, with a career high 32 starts and 188 2/3 innings (with more to come) producing a 15-6 record, 3.15 ERA that is third in AL, 231 strikeouts, 18 quality starts.
Plus an unquantifiable amount of leadership, guidance, advice, positive influence, encouragement and other ancillary benefits.
After a 10-2, 2.32, .585 opponents OPS 19-start run that got him to the All-Star Game, he has dropped off, 4-4, 4.50, .712 in his last 12 starts and 2-1, 4.96, .769 in his last six. And, as a starting pitcher, he plays only once every five or six days.
Really, you couldn’t be wrong with either one.
Our take: 5. Adames, 4. Pham, 3. d’Arnaud, 2. Morton, 1. Meadows.
Most pleasant surprise
It’s hard to beat d’Arnaud, who got off a red-eye flight May 11 after being acquired from the Dodgers (for $100,000) in a scramble following injuries to Mike Zunino and Michael Perez and became one of their most clutch players. He has a team-leading .348 average with runners in scoring position, 11 game-winning RBIs (tied with Meadows), 18 more that put them ahead, 33 with two outs. Plus he’s earned raves for his quick work in learning the pitching staff, sharing advice and providing positivity, selflessness and leadership.
Then there’s Pagan, who was acquired from Oakland in a three-way trade with Texas that seemed more about the extra draft pick the Rays got, and was sent to Triple-A to open the season as Wilmer Font made the opening day roster.
Pagan got called up in mid-April and after being used in different roles worked his way to the back end of the bullpen as their most dependable closing option, converting 14 of his last 15 saves until Friday’s mis-step vs. Boston, with an eight-game run allowing one run and three hits.
There’s others, too. Brandon Lowe, who was the favorite for the AL Rookie of the Year award for a .276, 16-homer, 49 RBI, .862 OPS start that earned him a spot on the All-Star team but hasn’t returned since fouling a ball off his right leg July 2. Adames’ big steps forward at the plate and in the field. Tyler Glasnow, for his 6-1, 1.86 start before being hurt. Nick Anderson, who retired 56 of his first 68 batters since being acquired July 31 with 37 strikeouts and one unintentional walk. Yandy Diaz, who hit 14 homers in a 72-game span before being injured. Ryan Yarbrough’s emergence as a solid starter. Ji-Man Choi’s better than expected defense and improving offense. Avisail Garcia, who seemed like a settled for signing after bigger names such as Nelson Cruz and Paul Goldschmidt went elsewhere. Even the solid contributions of journeyman reliever Oliver Drake.
Our take: 3. Anderson, 2. Pagan, 1. d’Arnaud
For a team with 91 and counting wins playing into the final week for a postseason berth, there’s actually a long list in this category. And that’s judging more on performance than the impact of injuries.
Mike Zunino lost his starting job with a .171 average that is lowest in the AL for any player with 275 plate appearances, and a .560 OPS. Daniel Robertson played his way to the minors after a miserable 2 ½ months then had knee surgery. Matt Duffy. Kevin Kiermaier. Diego Castillo. Jalen Beeks. Even Blake Snell, who wasn’t doing much of a Cy Young encore (6-7, 4.28) before late July elbow surgery.
But the clear winner, for a series of circumstances, is Jose Alvarado. As one Rays person said, “There’s enough to write about him you don’t need to mention anyone else.’’
The Rays banked heavily on Alvarado being their highest leverage reliever, passing on adding more proven options to not block his path, and he dazzled the first six weeks with a 1.04 ERA, four saves, five holds and 26 Ks in 17 1/3 innings.
But then he struggled mightily for two weeks. Went home to Venezuela for four weeks to deal with personal matters he said involved his mother’s health. Came back out of shape, pitched poorly for a week and strained an oblique that sidelined him for another month. Came back again, had another rough 10 days then curiously complained of elbow discomfort that was diagnosed as tendinitis but led to season-ending placement on the 60-day injured list.
Our take: 3. Duffy, 2. Zunino, 1. Alvarado.
Nothing’s official and everything flexible, but it looks like Morton is lined up to start the AL wild-card game (or a tiebreaker) and Snell to open the division series if they advance. … A Twitter feud between former Devil Rays started with Seth McClung’s answer to a question that the “biggest turd" he played with was Aubrey Huff, and Huff’s responses including asking McClung “why do you think the clubhouse manager always put your locker away from all the talented players?’’ … Eleven games drew more than Friday’s announced 17,117 for the contending Rays and usually popular Red Sox, including Phillies at Indians (26,329) and Mets at Reds (20,576). … Blake Bivens, the minor-leaguer whose wife, son and mother-in-law were killed last month, made a quiet visit to the Trop over the weekend to see the games and visit with Rays players and staff. … If ex-Rays manager Joe Maddon is dumped by the Cubs, the Mets and Phillies could be intriguing options. Or, maybe the White Sox? Hmmm. … Manager Kevin Cash recalled only one other time before Friday’s Morton moment when he went to the mound and didn’t take out a pitcher, and it was, of all people, Chase Whitley in 2017. … There’s now 43 players in the 42-player locker home clubhouse, so bullpen catchers Misha Dworken and Jean Ramirez had to double up. … Among the craziest AL wild card scenarios: A three-way tie that could sent the Rays from Toronto to Oakland (for one tiebreaker) to Cleveland (for the other) to Oakland (for the actual wild card game) then on to Houston or New York. … Anderson was ranked the seventh-best trade deadline pickup by mlb.com’s Richard Justice, though Adam Kolarek, whom the Rays dealt to the Dodgers, was sixth.
Contact Marc Topkin at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.