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Reality check leads Rays to reassess goals, plans

Rays Tales | Injuries and inconsistent play plus the Yankees’ historic start may make this season more of a wild card.
The New York Yankees' Anthony Rizzo watches his game-ending home run against the Rays during the ninth inning Thursday.
The New York Yankees' Anthony Rizzo watches his game-ending home run against the Rays during the ninth inning Thursday. [ BEBETO MATTHEWS | AP ]
Published Jun. 18

BALTIMORE — Rays officials aren’t going to say the quiet part out loud, but the combination of the Yankees’ record start and their own injuries and issues have them refocusing their goals for this season.

“We’re No. 4!” anyone?

Barring what would be a massive historic collapse given their current pace for 122 victories, the Yankees are going to re-claim the American League East that the Rays won the last two seasons.

Which, under the new playoff format that includes six teams from each league, now makes the Rays’ primary goal to be the top wild-card team.

(Obligatory PSA: It’s baseball, it’s only mid-June, crazier things have happened.)

Being the best of the three wild cards, and thus the No. 4 seed, is important.

The top two division winners get byes into the Division Series, so the remaining division winner and the top wild card get to host the Wild Card Series.

That’s a big deal because those are now best-of-three affairs, rather than winner-take-all matchups, and ALL games are played at the higher-ranked team’s stadium. The No. 3 division winner hosts the last wild card team (the No. 6 seed), the No. 4-seeded top wild card hosts the second best, seeded No. 5. Survivors face the two division winners who got the byes with no re-seeding, so the 4-5 winner faces the top seed, the 3-6 winner the No. 2 in best-of-five Division Series.

This seems like an October, or at least late September, issue.

But the reality of the situation — along with the Rays’ overall inconsistent play, timetable for when the key injured players return and how the young players who are getting chances to fill in show — will drive some of what the Rays do between now and the Aug. 2 trade deadline.

“A lot of that is just to be decided thinking about the playoff format, what that looks like and where we sit,” baseball operations president Erik Neander said at Yankee Stadium. “Between health and the number of younger players getting opportunities in many cases for the first time, there’s just a lot to learn. That will inform what our plans are throughout the summer.”

Most importantly, will they be sellers or buyers?

If they don’t feel good about their postseason chances, they could use July to start shedding some of their increasingly expensive mid-range veterans and/or move on from some of the younger players they don’t see fitting in.

If they are shopping, how much will they invest just to better their wild-card standing, or will they start looking ahead to fill anticipated future holes?

Or, in typical Rays style, can they do all of the above?

The next month will be important for the Rays’ evaluations, with trade talks most likely to not get heavy until after the draft, once again being held at the start of the All-Star break, July 17-19.

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“I think we need to focus on our own business,” Neander said. “We’ve got some opportunity right now for younger players to establish themselves and find their footing as major-league contributors, and that’s something that we’re committed to seeing through. Beyond that, we’ve got to try to keep what we have healthy and get some guys back.

“But there’s a lot about the course of the season I think will be determined by kind of where some of our young players settle in, and then how quickly we’re able to get some of the guys back that are on (the injured list) that have been big contributors for us this year and in recent years.”

New York, New York

WFAN radio talker Brandon Tierney was all worked up that during Wednesday’s 16-minute delay in New York that Rays outfielder Randy Arozarena, on first after being hit by a pitch, walked over to lean on the Yankees dugout railing and chat with fellow Cuban Nestor Cortes (who was already done pitching): “That bothered me. Get away from the Yankee dugout. Get lost. They’re your enemy. It’s a bad look.” Also, that “Nestor should know better and if not, (Yankees team leader Aaron) Judge should have ended it.”

... Interesting New York Post headline: “How the Yankees became the deluxe version of the Rays and regained the upper hand,” with Joel Sherman noting their improved defense and that by supplementing their staff with lesser-known pitchers they maximize contributions, which “feels straight from a Rays pitching manifesto.”

Rays rumblings

On June 21, the Rays will give away a "Florida Man" bobblehead in honor of catcher Mike Zunino, an inductee in the University of Florida Athletic Hall of Fame.
On June 21, the Rays will give away a "Florida Man" bobblehead in honor of catcher Mike Zunino, an inductee in the University of Florida Athletic Hall of Fame. [ Tampa Bay Rays ]

With commissioner Rob Manfred calling for action, it sure seems like there is more talk on the St. Petersburg side than Tampa for a potential new stadium; more important will be to see how that translates financially in terms of costs and revenue projections. … Would have been a good storyline for Shane Baz — acquired with Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows for Chris Archer — to pitch against his ex-Pirates mates this week. … The Rays are offering $9 standing room only tickets to college students (with a valid .edu email address) for Monday-Thursday home games, including the upcoming Yankees series. See raysbaseball.com. … Though Mike Zunino is injured, his “Florida Man” bobblehead is being given out Tuesday and is one of the team’s better promo items. … Playing important mid-June games at Yankee Stadium with lineups including Vidal Brujan leading off, Isaac Paredes hitting fifth and Rene Pinto sixth is something. .... Editors at Los Angeles magazine, which called Dodgers first baseman Freddie Freeman “the least surly, most friendly player in the majors,” might want to meet Brett Phillips. ... Rays relievers are passing around a small trophy to whoever correctly predicts a home run; with each getting one chance per game. Jason Adam is the most recent winner, calling Ji-Man Choi’s June 9 shot. … MLB.com’s latest mock draft has the Rays taking Hammond (S.C.) High third baseman Tucker Toman with the No. 29 pick; Baseball America has them on Brandon Barriera, a lefty from Plantation’s American Heritage High. … For what it’s worth: Austin Meadows, 147 plate appearances for Detroit, zero home runs; Paredes, 82 for the Rays, five homers.

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