ST. PETERSBURG — A simple question: Are you buying it?
Baseball’s hipsters seem to agree the Rays are the chic pick to win the World Series this fall. Maybe it’s because Tampa Bay isn’t an obvious choice like baseball’s big spenders. Maybe it’s the allure of an unconventional team that takes the road less traveled.
Whatever the reason, the Rays are making headlines everywhere. ESPN senior writer David Schoenfield says the Rays “will be the last team standing.” ESPN analyst Buster Olney says the Rays are “my World Series favorite.” Sports Illustrated senior baseball writer Tom Verducci calls the Rays “the most dangerous team in a shortened baseball season,” and CBSSports.com chose the Rays as a good value for Vegas betting odds.
Does it mean anything? Not really. The computer models still favor the Astros, Yankees and Dodgers. And the 60-game season brings hot streaks and aberrations into play like never before.
But making a case for a Rays celebration in late October is not as difficult as you might think for a team that is projected to have the fourth-smallest payroll in the majors. So let’s look at five factors that could benefit the Rays in an unprecedented season, and each time you can answer the question yourself:
Are you buying it?
An army of arms
A normal spring training runs for six weeks and includes as many as 30 exhibition games. Not so, for 2020′s baseball summer camp. Pitchers have three weeks to get game ready, and a lot of teams are bypassing exhibition games completely.
That means starting pitchers are not likely to be throwing a ton of innings in the first weeks of the regular season. The closest comparison to this season’s quick startup is 1995 when a labor agreement was reached in late spring, and teams had barely three weeks to gear up.
During the first month of that regular season, starting pitchers threw at least six innings in less than half of their outings (46.1 percent). By comparison, starters lasted six innings or more in nearly two-thirds of their outings (64.3 percent) in the first month of 1994.
Twenty-five years later, managers and front offices are even more protective of pitchers’ arms and so the likelihood of a lot of 4- or 5-inning outings early in the season seems like a safe bet.
And the Rays, naturally, are well-equipped for that eventuality. Run prevention has always been cheaper than run production, so collecting young pitchers has been a Tampa Bay philosophy for the past 15 seasons. From Diego Castillo to Nick Anderson, from Colin Poche to Oliver Drake, from Chaz Roe to Pete Fairbanks, the Rays are loaded with talented relievers.
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No team in baseball is better prepared to call on the bullpen in the fifth inning night after night.
Are you buying it? In this case, I definitely am.
Mix and match
You can count on Willy Adames daily. Austin Meadows, too. Probably Kevin Kiermaier.
After that, the Rays will have a revolving door of characters in the lineup. And they consider it a strength.
Unlike the Yankees or other big spenders, the Rays cannot afford to spend $15 million a year on position players. So they have collected a group of, shall we say, specialized players for specific roles.
Yandy Diaz, Hunter Renfroe and Jose Martinez mash left-handed pitching. Ji-Man Choi, Brandon Lowe and Yoshi Tsutsugo should tear up right-handers. Defense might be shakier than preferred with this group, but the Rays caught a break with the league using the designated hitter in all games during the shortened season.
The Rays were slightly below league average when it came to scoring in 2019. With all this depth, they expect to be better in 2020.
Are you buying it? I’m not so sure.
On the upswing
You can’t assume Adames and Meadows will build on their 2019 breakout seasons.
But you can always hope.
The improvement of the offense could be tied to Adames, Meadows, Choi and Brandon Lowe continuing their upward trajectories. That means more consistency. That means staying healthy. That means growing their power.
It’s not out of the question that all four could be better hitters in 2020 than they were in 2019.
Are you buying it? I’m willing.
Timing is everything
When you play in the American League East, looking over your shoulder is a fact of life.
Since 2010, three of baseball’s top six teams in the regular season have come from the AL East. The good news is the Rays are one of them. The bad news is the other two keep getting in Tampa Bay’s way.
Here’s a simple way of looking at it:
In the past 10 years, a team that wins 90 or more games in the regular season has a 93 percent chance of making the playoffs. The Rays have won 90 or more six times in that span, and only made the playoffs 67 percent of the time.
So, yeah, it’s a big deal that Boston looks like it is in rebuilding mode in 2020.
Are you buying it? Oh, heck yeah.
The big three
Surviving the regular season is just the first part of the equation. Once into the playoffs, a team needs to win best-of-five and best-of-seven game matchups against the league’s best competition.
That’s where the Rays have struggled. Their last four postseason appearances have all ended in the divisional series. And most times it was because the opponents got much better pitching from their aces. Last year, it was Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander. In 2013, it was Jon Lester and John Lackey. In 2010, it was Cliff Lee and C.J. Wilson.
On paper, the Rays are better equipped in 2020. The big three of Charlie Morton, Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow give the Rays a top-heavy rotation as good as almost any in baseball. And with a 60-game season, they shouldn’t have any workload considerations.
But, still, there is reason for concern. Glasnow had a forearm strain that kept him out more than half of last season. Snell had minor elbow surgery. And Morton threw a career-high number of innings at age 35 last season.
Are you buying it? I’m skeptical.
The final word
It’s easy to see why experts are in love with the Rays.
The pitching staff is as deep as any in baseball, and the lineup is versatile if not explosive. The window of opportunity might be there both in a shortened season, and with a division in transition.
I’d bet heavily that Tampa Bay makes the playoffs. I’d even go so far as to say they will upset the Yankees and win the division. But the hypothesis suggested by others is that the Rays are the best bet to win the World Series.
I think that’s a stretch.
But are you buying it?
In case you’ve lost count, I’ve asked seven times whether you’re buying this idea of the Rays as World Series favorites. So, yeah, I’d really like to know. Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or hit me up on twitter at @romano_tbimes and tell me what you think. Please include your name and city; responses could be published.