With less than a week to go in the 2020 truncated regular season, the Tampa Bay Rays have clinched a playoff spot and are one win or Yankee loss away from clinching the American League East. October baseball in the Bay Area for the second straight year, and now the question becomes: What does the Rays path to a second-ever pennant and potentially first-ever title look like?
There’s plenty that can change in the final week, but with the Yankees three games ahead of Toronto, Minnesota two and a half games ahead of Cleveland, and the Rays two games ahead of Oakland, the Rays first-round opponent is more than likely going to be one of two teams: Cleveland or Toronto.
The Rays have far more foreknowledge of the Jays, having faced off with their division rivals 10 times already this season. The Rays hold a slight 6-4 advantage in those games, but the Jays actually outscored the Rays by four runs in those 10 games, and as any Rays fan will tell you, Tampa Bay was ready to be done with Toronto by the end of their final season series.
To speak in cliches for a second: the Jays are a young and hungry team who has dealt incredibly well with the chaos of being displaced from their home stadium at the dawn of the season, and have arrived earlier to the playoff table than many would have predicted (helped of course by the expansion of said playoff table).
To speak more analytically: the Jays own the fifth-best offense in the American League by wRC+ (107) and the 11th-best offense overall. The team has nine regulars with a wRC+ of at least 100, but two of those players are currently on the shelf, in the form of Rowdy Tellez and Derek Fisher—neither of whom seem likely to return before the end of the season.
But that still leaves a potent lineup of guys like Teoscar Hernandez (164 wRC+), Bo Bichette (133), Lourdes Gurriel Jr. (131), Cavan Biggio (120), and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (107).
On the run prevention side of things, it gets a little sloppier. The Jays are bottom half of the league in basically every run prevention metric, and it’s not as if they have a dominant top half of the rotation that might scare the Rays.
Hyun-Jin Ryu (3.00/3.02/3.06 ERA/FIP/xFIP) would make for a difficult Game 1 matchup, but it would also be the Rays third time getting to see the lefty this year, and even if they lost Game 1, it gets real ugly quick after Ryu. Tanner Roark has made the second-most starts on the team but is rocking a nasty 6.41 ERA that is under girded by a 7.71 FIP. Chase Anderson has made the third-most starts and has a 7.45 ERA and 7.15 FIP.
Out of the bullpen, their top arm in theory, Ken Giles, is out for the year (after posting a brutal 9.82 ERA, anyways), meaning that names like Julian Merryweather and Rafael Dolis would be soaking up those important late-game playoff innings.
Cleveland in many ways is the antithesis to Toronto and therefore makes an interesting comparison. Instead of offense and depth, they have pitching and elite talent. Whereas Toronto can build almost an entire lineup of better than league average hitters, Cleveland has Jose Ramirez (156 wRC+), Franmil Reyes (116), and Francisco Lindor (106) as the only above 100 wRC+ hitters in their lineup, but those are three bats you don’t want to mess with.
Where Toronto has no defined ace, Cleveland has the presumptive AL Cy Young winner in the form of Shane Bieber, sporting an absolutely insane 1.74 ERA, 0.857 WHIP, and 13.94 K/9.
Good luck with that in Game 1.
However, you can’t win if you can’t score, and Cleveland’s 86 wRC+ as a team ranks 26th in baseball, with only the lowly Rnagers finishing lower in the entire American League. The Rays showed on Monday how you defeat an ace, even in a bullpen game, as they got one key hit from Joey Wendle, one laser blast from Nate Lowe, and were able to cobble together nine dominant innings on the mound to take down Jacob deGrom, the Bieber of the National League.
Unfortunately, the elite run prevention doesn’t begin and end with Bieber.
Carlos Carrasco is having an excellent bounceback season (2.90/3.52/3.70 ERA/FIP/xFIP), Zach Plesac (1.85/3.31/3.41) made Mike Clevinger expendable, and Aaron Civale (3.99/3.63/3.87) would be perfectly acceptable in a playoff game. The bullpen has been excellent as well, with James Karinchak (2.52/1.79/2.65) a scary stopper and Brad Hand (2.41/1.47/4.15) one of the few truly elite closers in the game.
The Rays have all this though
The Rays function as a combination of both teams: Cleveland has the second-best ERA in baseball; the Rays join them in the top five. Cleveland has a trio of starters hand-selected for a three-game series; the Rays have Blake Snell-Tyler Glasnow-Charlie Morton. The Jays have a lineup full of 100 wRC+ guys; the Rays have 10 players with at least 50 PA and a wRC+ over 100. The Jays have a top-five offense in the AL; the Rays are fourth.
Even more importantly, they cover both teams’ weaknesses: Cleveland has a bottom-ten offense by wRC+; Tampa Bay has a top-ten offense by wRC+. The Jays are the seventh-worst bullpen by xFIP; the Rays have the seventh-best bullpen by xFIP.
That’s what happens when you’re the top seed. You have an elite team and you get to play a flawed team in the first round. So which flaw do you prefer?
(No, seriously, let us know in the comments.)