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MLB Postseason 2019: The Rays path to October

It began when Evan Longoria was traded

Baltimore Orioles v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Mark Blinch/Getty Images

In December of 2017, the Tampa Bay Rays entered a new era in team history.

On the morning of December 20th, 2017, the Rays made a deal that would change everything, as they traded away the face of the franchise, Evan Longoria, to the San Francisco Giants. From a business standpoint, the deal made all too much sense not to do it...but from a fan’s perspective, it was a white flag of epic proportions.

During a winter of massive changes in the American League East, the Rays were tearing their club down. On the same day that the New York Yankees acquired Giancarlo Stanton from the Miami Marlins, the Rays acquired Joey Wendle from the Oakland Athletics

The following spring, the Rays went even further as they designated Corey Dickerson for assignment, a player who had been the AL’s starting designated hitter during the All-Star Game in 2017. He was traded for a reliever who was eventually released just over a month later. A couple of other integral veterans for the Rays were dealt around the same time as Dickerson, as Jake Odorizzi and Steven Souza Jr. were also sent off.

Fans and media alike shredded the team for their seemingly shameless tanking initiative and the MLB Players Association even went as far as filing a grievance against the Rays — and three other teams — for their too-frugal spending.

The Rays started out the 2018 season the way many expected, losing 9 of their first 9 games, and 13 of their first 17.

Then, they started winning and made it back to the .500 mark. A mark they would flirt with through the July 31st trade deadline. Along the way, the Tampa Bay Rays did what they always do: make headlines with bizarre strategy. In early May, they announced they would be starting veteran reliever, Sergio Romo, during a game against the Los Angeles Angels. Thus, the ‘Opener’ strategy was born and the Rays employed it with tremendous effect.

The youth revolution began in earnest as well, with highly touted prospects Willy Adames and Jake Bauers making their debuts. Later, several more top prospects would join the big league club as Brandon Lowe and Justin Williams also made their Major League debuts. In June, the Rays acquired first baseman Ji-Man Choi from the Milwaukee Brewers as they continued to fine tune their roster.

At the deadline, it was widely expected the would part ways with their longtime ace, Chris Archer. His contract was getting expensive, and the ever budget consciousness Rays had already traded most of their other franchise cornerstones. What no one expected, was the deal the Rays made in the early hours of July 31st, as they acquired outfielder Tommy Pham from the St. Louis Cardinals for three prospects, including the aforementioned Justin Williams.

Chris Archer was dealt to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Austin Meadows, Tyler Glasnow, and Shane Baz. Mewadows and Glasnow were former promising prospects who had been down on their luck within the Pittsburgh system. The trade revitalized the duo, as Glasnow showed that he could easily dominate a Major League lineup, and Meadows put on a power display with the Triple-A Durham Bulls.

Pham meanwhile played sensational baseball after coming to the Rays, and accrued 2.6 fWAR over just 39 games.

From July 31st through the end of the season, the Rays had the best record in all of baseball, posting a 37-19 mark and allowing them to end the season with a record of 90-72.

Blake Snell, who had been demoted for poor performance in 2017, was among the best starters in all of baseball and was rewarded for his dominance by winning the 2018 American League Cy Young award.

There was excitement surrounding the team. They had a squad full of tremendous players, and they were all under team control for several seasons. The window was opening, now the Rays just had to seize their opportunity.

During the offseason, there weren’t many glaring holes on the Rays roster, but they had money to spend and prospect capital to use. However, they once again made a puzzling move as they designated slugger C.J. Cron for assignment. A short while later, the Rays dealt outfielder Mallex Smith to the Seattle Mariners for veteran catcher Mike Zunino and outfielder Guillermo Heredia with a couple of minor leaguers also being involved in the trade.

In December, the Rays made the largest free agent acquisition in franchise history as they signed veteran starting pitcher, Charlie Morton to a two-year, $31M deal with a potential third year option.

The starting rotation was now set with three studs in Snell, Glasnow, and Morton, with several young players set to follow them.

However, the Rays weren’t done with their shocking moves. They were connected to sluggers for the majority of the offseason, but had just missed out on signing the likes of Josh Donaldson and Nelson Cruz. Reports soon rang out that the Rays had been involved in a three-team trade with the Seattle Mariners and Cleveland Indians, with names like Carlos Santana and Edwin Encarnacion involved.

However, the Rays would not come away with either of those sluggers. Instead they parted ways with Jake Bauers and $5M in order to bring in infielder Yandy Diaz, a ferocious looking man who had been seldom used by Cleveland the past two seasons.

Not quite finished yet, the Rays parted ways with prospects Kyle Byrd, Broke Burke, and Yoel Espinal in order to acquired Emilio Pagan from the Oakland Athletics as part of another three-team deal.

For their final major move of the offseason, the Rays finally got the slugger they had been pursuing as they signed former White Sox outfielder Avisail Garcia to a one-year deal.

And with that, the Rays were set for the 2019 season.

On Opening Day, the Rays sent their Cy Young, Blake Snell to the hill to matchup against the Cy Young runner-up Justin Verlander. The game doesn’t go the Rays way, but a bright spot for the Rays was Austin Meadows, who led the game off for Tampa Bay with a solo blast: a sign of things to come.

Meadows got off to scorching start for the Rays, along with several other players. Tyler Glasnow in particular, was pitching like a Cy Young winner in his own right...that is until a May outing when he was removed after suffering a right forearm strain that kept him benched until mid-September.

That wasn’t the end of the Rays injury troubles as several of their key players endured stays on the injured list. The likes of Jose Alvarado, Blake Snell, Diego Castillo, Joey Wendle, Matt Duffy, Yandy Diaz, and Brandon Lowe all had extended stays on the injured list this season. Tommy Pham also played injured for the majority of the season, but outright refused to stop playing.

In wake of all the injuries, the Rays relied on a multitude of players to propel them through the season. In May, the team acquired struggling catcher Travis d’Arnaud from the Los Angeles Dodgers, as their entire catching core had been ravened by injuries. Since then, d’Arnaud has been among the best catchers in all of baseball, and basically represented the Rays offense during the month of July, including a walk-off home run against the Yankees and then just a week later, an incredible three home run performance, again against the Yankees.

Ryan Yarbrough was heavily relied upon with the injuries to Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow. After struggling early on and enduring a demotion to Triple-A, Yarbrough returned in mid-July to give the Rays dependable outings every time he took the mound. During a two month stretch, Yarbrough yielded just 18 earned runs over 11 appearances (65 innings pitched).

As the trade deadline neared, the Rays were looking to be buyers, but they didn’t go after the big names on the market. The Rays pulled off a small flurry of under-the-radar deals, snagging Jesus Aguilar from the Milwaukee Brewers, Eric Sogard from the Toronto Blue Jays, and then in their most notable deal, they sent off top prospect Jesus Sanchez and Ryne Stanek to the Miami Marlins for pitcher Trevor Richards and Nick Anderson.

Anderson has been simply incredible for the Rays, striking out 52.6% of opposing hitters over his 21 13 innings pitched.

During the month of September, the Rays saw the return of Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow, and Brandon Lowe as they finally neared full strength for the first time since May. These additions to the roster, along with an epic month of September from Austin Meadows helped the Rays to keep control of the second Wild Card spot.

As the calendar approaches October and with it, the MLB postseason, the Rays have clinched their part of it for the first time since 2013. There are many reasons for the Rays success this season and it would be nearly impossible to list them all, but we wanted to spotlight some of the moves that made October baseball a reality for Tampa Bay.

The Rays will take on the Oakland Athletics on Wednesday, October 2nd at 8:09 ET; where the game will be played is still to be determined over the final two days of the regular season.