As June rolls on, and we approach the halfway mark of the season (seriously, we are 14 games away from the Rays official halfway point), the Rays find themselves in a weird spot. They are currently in the squishy middle of an American League that, for the most part, has separated itself into haves and have-nots faster than a jar of oil and water.
There are currently five teams on pace for 100 wins and three teams on pace for 100 losses. That’s over half the league right there. And the Rangers are on pace for 99 losses themselves.
Before Wednesday’s win, they were 11.0 games out of the second Wild Card spot and 12.0 games out of the race for the number one pick for the 2019 Draft.
You don’t get more squishy middle than that.
Often we hear that this middle ground, or the Treadmill of Mediocrity as Zach Lowe used to describe it in the NBA, is the worst place to be. If you’re going to lose, lose hard! (ala the 2012 Cubs or the 2014 Astros) Do that for a couple years, land some elite top draft picks, add water, and break a multi-decade title drought. It’s easy.
Of course, things are not that easy for the Rays.
The Cubs carried a payroll of $188 million in 2016 when they broke their drought. The Astros carried a payroll of $150 million when the won their first-ever title in 2017. As one brave Redditor found, only one team in the last 25 years has won a title with a payroll in the bottom half of the league: the 2003 Marlins.
Plus, there’s the added factor that the many around the league (including a suspicious contingent who happen to root for Boston when they’re not “professional” writers) seem to have the Rays in the crosshairs every chance they get.
If the Rays were to truly tank, the line to take shots at the franchise would stretch all the way back to its likely origins next to the Charles. (Don’t worry, Boston. We’ll keep ignoring the $250 million salary dump you pulled off in 2012, allowing you to reset and end up with the stacked roster you currently have.)
There’s also the fact of the matter that (although the young Cubbies and Astros have proven that you can lose a bit in your early years and not see any negative impact) you would rather not have Willy Adames, Jake Bauers, et al. riding out 10-game losing streaks on the regular.
Meanwhile, at least the Rays have showed that, although they may typically run one of the lowest payrolls in baseball, they aren’t afraid to spend money when it comes to the draft anymore.
And this ties back to the Treadmill of Mediocrity comment. In the NBA, a top-three draft pick is an otherworldly asset. In baseball, it’s just not the same. One player can’t drag a team to the playoffs (why hello, Mike Trout), and even if you’re picking in the middle of the first round, like the Rays did this season, you can still end up with a consensus top-five draft pick because of the way MLB structures its draft.
The Rays just got a player, Michael Liberatore, who was ranked as high as second, and no lower than sixth, on any pre-draft rankings, and they got him with the 15th pick.
Would the Rays really have been any better off to lose an extra 15 games last season? There’s a decent chance they would have ended up with the exact same player. And instead of a losing vibe around the team, it was a bounceback season after a rare big-loss season from the (no-longer-Devil) Rays.
This is a team that, once again, would be a playoff team by third-order winning percentage, or even if you just swapped their record in one-run games with the Mariners.
It doesn’t take much squinting to make this team a playoff team -- even in the American League. Give the kids their time to shine in the second half of this season; sign a couple stud relievers in the off-season; make a move for one middle-of-the-rotation-super-boring-but-super-reliable starting pitcher before the 2019 season starts, and I’d put the Rays chances of nabbing that second Wild Card spot up there with any other team in the AL.
The squishy middle is often thought of as a dirty word, but the 2018 Rays are doing their best to show that it is far from a death knell.