Let’s say you’re just tuning in. Maybe you’re not a baseball fan, most of the time. Go Rowdies! Maybe you’re not a Rays fan, most of the time. We too are sorry that Detroit didn’t make the playoffs! Maybe next time. Maybe you were just very busy this year—for totally legitimate reasons—and you don’t wish to be shamed for them. That’s cool.
But now you’ve heard that the Rays are in the playoffs, and you decided to hop on the bandwagon. That’s also cool. Welcome aboard.
We watched all 162 games, so that you don’t need to! Here is everything you need to know, for a comfy, and hopefully lengthy, playoff ride.
The Rays are a versatile team, with—when healthy—multiple MLB-caliber options at every position. That gives manager Kevin Cash the ability to mix and match, and play the matchups. There are, however, a few players who are pretty much guaranteed to start every game they’re physically able.
Here they are, ranked by their plate appearances.
LF Tommy Pham - 654 PA, .273/.369/.450, 122 wRC+, 3.3 fWAR
Tommy Pham is the Rays best player, and he takes that responsibility seriously. He can run (25 stolen bases), he can defend (he graded out as an average left fielder this year, but has been well above average as recently as 2017), and he can hit for power (over 20 home runs in each of his past three seasons). His best skill, however, is probably an elite sense for the strike zone.
Or maybe his best skill is toughness. See, Pham played the end of the season with a broken hand. Probably he should have gone on IL. For a bit over a week, it looked like he definitely should have shut it down—he couldn’t swing, so he tried to will himself into walks, and pitchers figured that out and pounded the zone without fear. Then, on August 14, he figured out how to swing through the pain, pulled a monster home run in San Diego, and never looked back, hitting .295/.379/.477 over the last 169 PAs of the season.
Tommy Pham plays with a chip on his shoulder. Success is revenge.
OF/DH Austin Meadows - 591 PA, .291/.364/.558, 142 wRC+, 4.0 fWAR
The Rays acquired Austin Meadows as part of the Chris Archer trade in 2018. He was a former top prospect whose star had dimmed after a series of injuries sapped his power. But in a cup of coffee with Pittsburgh, he flashed that easy power, and the Rays thought there was more there. They were right. He’s the best hitter on the Rays, and has been the 11th best in all of baseball by wRC+ this year.
Meadows has speed, but is tentative and awkward in the outfield, which would be a problem if his bat was less good, or if the youngster wasn’t able to handle DH (many players struggle when not able to play the field). But it is, and he can.
SS Willy Adames - 584 PA, .254/.317/.418, 97 wRC+, 2.8 fWAR
If you just look at basic numbers, you might think that Willy Adames only had an okay season this year. He hit .254/.317/.418 (though he almost doubled his at bats, and was one of the few Rays players who didn’t miss extensive time due to injury). He also hit an impressive 20 home runs. But where Adames really shone was his impressive defensive turnaround. A player who made some ugly mistakes on the field last year, he went from negative defensive numbers, to a Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) of 12 and a 2.2 UZR. That’s precisely the kind of turnaround you want to see from a guy who, it is assume, will anchor the middle infield for the coming years. His offense might have dwindled slightly from his rookie season, and he’s carried some really strange splits, but his 97 wRC+ still beat out most projections, and is pretty good for a shortstop. Plus he’s just REALLY fun to watch.
CF Kevin Kiermaier - 480 PA, .228/.278/.398, 78 wRC+, 1.5 fWAR
Kevin Kiermaier is the best defensive center fielder in baseball, with 29 more (DRS) since 2014 when he entered the league than the next most highly rated center fielder, Lorenzo Cain. So it doesn’t really matter all that much if he hits. Which is fortunate, because he hasn’t much, over the past two years.
Kiermaier has had a hard time staying healthy, in part because he plays the game so hard. He’s not completely healthy now, recently missing time with a neck injury. But he can still cover the outfield.
C Travis d’Arnaud - 391 PA, .251/.312/.433, 98 wRC+, 1.6 fWAR
When the Rays picked up catcher Travis d’Arnaud from the Dodgers, he had only appeared in a single at-bat for the LA team. He had started the season with the Mets, where he had spent most of his career. Although he’s had strong seasons in the past, he was struggling after returning from injury; the Rays picked him up for cash only because every single one of their catchers was injured. No reasonable person thought his acquisition would make a difference — he was just there to make sure the ball didn’t roll all the way to the backstop until Mike Zunino returned.
We were very wrong. d’Arnaud went on to hit .263/.323/.459 with the Rays over 92 games, knocked in 16 home runs, and just generally made himself at home as the team’s starting catcher. We know “clutch” maybe isn’t a thing, but yet we also know that d’Arnaud has a .320 batting average with runners in scoring position. And he took Aroldis Chapman long in Yankee stadium when the Rays absolutely needed a win. Sometimes a change of scenery can rejuvenate a player, and with d’Arnaud, it was a renaissance.