For the most part, this season has been defined by staid divisional races and unpredictable Wild Card contenders. Five of the six divisions feature a leader that was highly expected: the lone holdout, the NL Central, features a battle between an upstart (the Brewers) and the defending champion Cubs that most figure will still be won by the incumbents. The Wild Cards have been much more interesting, with supposed favorites like the Blue Jays, Mets, and Giants all floundering, making room for surprise clubs to take the lead.
The Rays Are Reintroducing Themselves
The Diamondbacks and Rockies have cemented themselves as Wild Card frontrunners in the NL. In the AL, the Yankees still are clinging to a Wild Card spot despite their recent woes. Coming on strong to take the Wild Card lead have been the Rays. Three seasons removed from their most recent postseason appearance, the Rays look poised to end their short playoff drought, and perhaps open an entirely new window of contention.
From 2008-2013, the Rays were improbably among the best teams in baseball. They won 57% of their games, made the playoffs four times, and took home the pennant in 2008. They were built largely on homegrown talent. They took Carl Crawford in the second round of the 1999 MLB Draft, James Shields in the 16th round in 2000, BJ Upton in the first round in 2002, and Evan Longoria in the first round of 2006. They also acquired players like Matt Garza, Scott Kazmir, and Ben Zobrist early in their professional careers and watched them develop into productive players.
A Different Makeup Than 2008
The 2017 Rays don’t quite fit the same bill. Longoria is still here, and likely to be here for awhile, as his contract runs through at least 2022. Much of their position player talent, however, has been imported mid-career. Per Baseball Reference, Logan Morrison, Corey Dickerson, and Steven Souza lead the team in WAR. Morrison was signed on a one-year deal prior to the year, while Dickerson was acquired in a trade that Jake McGee to Colorado two offseasons ago, and Souza came over in the trade that sent Wil Myers to San Diego and Trea Turner to Washington.
Infielders Adeiny Hechevearria and Brad Miller came in trades after playing for years in Miami and Seattle, respectively. Infielder Matt Duffy established himself with the Giants before being acquired for Matt Moore at last year’s deadline, while outfielder Mallex Smith debuted last year with the Braves before coming to Tampa in a trade that sent Drew Smyly to Seattle. Catcher Wilson Ramos, who has looked strong in a handful of games since returning from ACL surgery, was acquired on a cheap two year deal in free agency last winter.
Homegrown Pitching and Depth Power This Club
While the lineup consists almost entirely of imports, the pitching staff at least resembles the homegrown rotation of the Rays’ most successful years. Alex Cobb, Blake Snell, and Alex Colome were all drafted by the team, while Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi were both acquired prior to losing their rookie eligibility.
Whether the Rays developed the players that have brought them back to contention or acquired them later in their careers isn’t all that important. What is important is that the Rays are balanced, and deep. You may have noticed that we just went through a laundry list of Major League caliber players. On both the position player and pitching side, the Rays run deep with capable contributors.
Tampa Bay features no fewer than eight players in their starting lineup with an OPS+ of at least 100, ranging from former first overall pick Tim Beckham (104) to Morrison (152), who is having a shocking breakout season. Similarly, their rotation features five starters to take the ball at least seven times and post an ERA+ of 95 or better, from Ooirizzi (95), to young left-hander Jacob Faria (208).
Dark Horses In A Very Competitive American League
The Rays are unlikely to have anyone come close to winning an MVP or Cy Young award, but have instead vaulted into the playoff race on the strength of a deep roster. What has to be most encouraging to the Rays, even beyond their suddenly strong playoff chances, is how much of this roster appears ready to contribute for the long haul.
Of all the aforementioned contributors, only two can be free agents after this season: Cobb and Morrison. That pair has been important to the Rays’ success this season, but outside of them, the Rays can return the core of this team for years to come. On the pitching side, Archer is under team control for four more years thanks to an absurdly team-friendly contract. Snell has two more years of pre-arbitration, while depth arm Matt Andriese has one. The service time clocks on Faria and top prospect Jose De Leon have hardly started. Odorizzi and Erasmo Ramirez have two years of arbitration left.
The Rays have an ace locked down, several exciting arms who are far from arbitration, as well as cheap depth options with multiple years of team control remaining. You can never have too much pitching, but the Rays certainly look like they have enough going forward.
Built For The Long Haul
Likewise, their position player cornerstones, Longoria and Kiermaier, have long-term extensions in place. Dickerson has two years of arbitration left, Souza, Beckham, and Duffy three. They might even be able to expect reinforcements next year if Cobb and Morrison walk, as Ramos will be over a full year removed from his ACL injury, and Nathan Eovaldi, who is has a $2 million team option in 2018, will be over a year removed from Tommy John surgery.
Just as importantly, the Rays are in the sweet spot of the aging curve. The only long-term contributor that is on the wrong side of 30 is Longoria, the face of the franchise who still profiles as a roughly 4-WAR player. Otherwise, the Rays’ roster is littered with players smack-dab in the middle of that prime age-24 to age-28 spot of the aging curve. It’s not so simple that all these young players will continue to improve, but given their relative youth, most of the Rays’ key performers are more likely to hold steady or get better than they are to get significantly worse.
The Rays will continue to operate on a tight budget, and their inability to haul in any high-priced names in the trade or free agent markets will make contending with the Yankees and Red Sox difficult in the near future. But they are contending with them right now, and given the shape of their roster, they’re in position to be quite solid for a while. Maybe they won’t be AL East favorites, not with potential juggernauts in New York and Boston, but the Rays have quietly set themselves up to be among the AL’s primary playoff contenders for years to come.