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American League wild card threats

Looking over the Rays top competition for the playoffs

MLB: Spring Training-Kansas City Royals at Seattle Mariners Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The Rays are set to open the American League slate Sunday at 1 p.m. EST at the Trop. The American League is stacked at the top with teams like the Boston Red Sox, the Cleveland Indians, and the Houston Astros, all of whom are heavy favorites to win their respective divisions (though the Texas Rangers might beg to differ).

For the rest of the league, (realistic) sights will be set on the wild card.

With two wild cards from each league, and the fourth and 11th-best teams in the AL FanGraphs projected standings separated by just three games, the competition will be stiff if the Rays want to reach the postseason for the first time since 2013. This undeniable glut of teams in the American League middle class right now makes the start of the 2017 season as interesting as any year in recent memory.

With all that said, let’s start with the fourth-best team in the aforementioned FanGraphs projected standings and work our way down to meet the teams the Rays will most likely be battling with for a wild card spot in 2017.

Toronto Blue Jays

After failing to make the playoffs for 22 straight seasons, the Jays have found themselves in the postseason each of the past two years, making runs to the ALCS each time, but coming up short in each. Being so close to a pennant will make the Jays hungrier than ever, but will that baseball trope be enough to push them over the edge to a third straight playoff appearance?

The club replaced Edwin Encarnacion with Kendrys Morales, a heralded move, but one that is sure to see at least a minor drop off in production. Even if Morales hits 30 home runs, there’s no way he’ll do so with as much style as Encarnacion.

The Jays starting pitchers also seem on the edge of completely falling apart at any time, as Marco Estrada is currently waging a one-man war against the statistic of BABIP; Marcus Stroman will be looking to avoid the WBC curse; and J.A. Happ is J.A. Happ.

What will it take for the Rays to top them? The Jays middle infield (Devon Travis and Troy Tulowitzki) is mighty talented but mighty injury prone. If those two miss significant time, and the pitching rotation comes back to earth a bit, the Rays should be right there with their division opponents.

Los Angeles Angels

Given the fact that the Angels are fresh off a 74-win season, it’s a bit surprising to see them projected for 84 wins and the second wild card spot right now. However, the Rays are looking to come off an even lower win total to get to the playoffs, so let’s not write off the Angels just yet. For one, they have the best player in baseball. We don’t need to go over much about Mike Trout, because he simply is The Best. Quite possibly ever.

Besides having the best player in baseball, the Angels have one of the best fielders in the entire sport (Andrelton Simmons), another valuable outfielder in his own right (Kole Calhoun), and one of the all-time greats still doing his thing with the stick (Albert Pujols).

On the pitching side of things, they have an ace looking to return to form (Garrett Richards), an ace looking to maintain his form (Matt Shoemaker), and the man with one of the greatest ERA-FIP differences in MLB history (Ricky Nolasco, yes that Ricky Nolasco).

What will it take for the Rays to top them? The Rays seem like the better team to me, but I may be biased. This question would be phrased “what do the Angels have to do to top the Rays?” if we were going by my own personal rankings, but FanGraphs has the Angels higher for now. The way the Angels top the Rays would be through a rotation that stays healthy and performs in the upper percentile of what they are capable of. Certainly doable, but not all that likely given the health risk inherent with pitchers. Otherwise, the Rays have them covered.

Seattle Mariners

This is a scary team. The Mariners spent all offseason adding depth to their lineup and bench (Jarrod Dyson, Jean Segura, Mitch Haniger), a much needed task for an offense that relied so heavily on their Big Three (Nelson Cruz, Robinson Cano, and Kyle Seager) to carry them in 2016. Those three did an amazing job, and the team actually finished 2016 with the second-best offense in baseball, per wRC+, but now that they have more depth, an injury to Cruz/Cano/Seager would no longer be a death knell.

With a rotation that looks like it may be ready to hand the keys to the ace-designation off to James Paxton, allowing King Felix to pick off opposing number two pitchers, the run prevention in Seattle should be strong as well. With Edwin Diaz and his electric slider in to close off games, there aren’t a lot of weaknesses to be found in the Pacific Northwest, even with Drew Smyly sidelined through injury.

What will it take for the Rays to top them? Let’s say for a minute we give the Mariners one of the two wild card spots. If the Rays snag the other, wouldn’t you feel good with Chris Archer going up against either Paxton or King Felix? I would. Let’s look long-term here and go for the actual playoff playoffs with a win over the Mariners in the wild card game.

Texas Rangers

The Rangers are the new Royals. (Or is it the new Orioles?) Either way, despite winning 95 games in 2016, the Rangers are projected to finish just barely above .500 in 2017.

By this point we all know the story of the 2016 Rangers. They were basically the anti-Rays, winning all of their close games, and actually finishing with a worse third-order winning percentage than the 68-win Rays. Now Rangers fans will hoot and holler about what actually happened on the field being far more important than what happened in the fantasy world of advanced metrics, but, like death, third order winning percentage comes for us all.

What will it take for the Rays to top them? Regression to the mean.

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We take a break in your regularly scheduled article to let you know that this is where the Rays slot into these FanGraphs preseason projections, at 83-79.

On to the rest of the AL wild card contenders.

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Tampa Bay Rays v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

Baltimore Orioles

The OG projections-hate-us team; the projections once again hate the Orioles.

FanGraphs projects an eight-win drop from last season, and of all the teams in baseball, the Orioles seem the hardest to predict. They have alternated playoffs/no playoffs each of the past three seasons, with two of those appearances coming via the wild card. They are clearly prime “wild card competition” fodder, and asking them to fall out of the picture seems like a fool’s errand.

Although they have missed the playoffs twice in the past five years, the Orioles haven’t finished below .500 since 2011, and they have averaged nearly 90 wins over those past five seasons. They still have vaunted manager/possible real-life Dumbledore, Buck Showalter, in addition to a lineup that can outslug nearly anyone.

What will it take for the Rays to top them? The Orioles rotation needs to perform at a level that actually makes sense. The Orioles seem to be tempting fate year after year with some of the worst rotations in baseball, but it never truly burns them. Comparing the Rays’ rotation to that of the Orioles is a joke, and when you add in the fact that the Rays were quite good last year at the one thing the Orioles do well (BAL: 253 HR; TB: 215 HR), and it suddenly makes sense why the Rays are projected ahead of Baltimore.

Detroit Tigers

The Tigers are an interesting team. After four straight division titles from 2011-2014, the team supposedly collapsed in 2015. It made perfect sense. Their owner had sold out the future for the present, and 2015 was the reckoning. They appeared to be in for a decade of sorrow.

Then the club went out and won 86 games in 2016, putting them right back in the playoff picture and calling into doubt whether this iteration of the Tigers was actually dead or not. They still have Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler, and Justin Verlander — as strong a core three as you’ll find in the sport.

What will it take for the Rays to top them? Aging to happen at its normal pace. Those three players listed above? Miggy, Kinsler, and Verlander - they are 33, 34, and 34 respectively. They are big names, but how long will they be able to talk a big game? J.D. Martinez (not quite on their level, but a 10+ WAR player over the past three years) has already picked up an injury, and it would not at all surprise me if this was the year the bottom fell out on this Tigers’ club. This time for good.

New York Yankees

You know the famous “Omar’s coming” scene in The Wire?

That’s what the American League kind of feels like right now. With the absurd young talent this team has (Gary Sanchez, Aaron Judge, Clint Frazier, Gleyber Torres, the list goes on), and the sway the Yankees hold in the free agent market (there have been Bryce-Harper-to-the-Yankees rumors swirling since he was in, like, third grade), the Yankees may well rule the AL for all of the 2020s.

We may well be safe in 2017, though. While Sanchez and Judge have arrived, there’s no Frazier, Torres, or Harper just yet.

What will it take for the Rays to top them? We need to be at this part of the scene.

And not this part of the scene.

The Rest: A’s, Royals, Twins, White Sox

Yes, the 2015 World Series winners are again sitting near-the-bottom in the AL projected standings for 2017.

The projection systems have hated the Royals for a while now, and 2016 seemed to be at least one tally in the ledger for those projection systems. The Royals fell to 81-81 and missed the playoffs entirely. It may have been a World Series hangover, but whatever the cause, the Royals will almost certainly be back in the thick of the playoff race in 2017, despite what the projection systems say. This could well be the final run with their World Series-winning core (Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar, and Lorenzo Cain are all free agents after the season), and they’ll be highly-motivated.

The other three (A’s, Twins, and White Sox) are much more likely to be in rebuilding mode than contention mode, but you never know. That’s the beauty of April. Hope springs eternal for all, and every team believes they have a shot. Let’s just hope the Rays’ shot actually goes in.