$63M Rays Could Upset Astros, Yankees or Twins After AL Wild Card Game Win

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistOctober 3, 2019

OAKLAND, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 02: Kevin Cash #16 of the Tampa Bay Rays celebrates in the locker room after defeating the Oakland Athletics 5-1 in the American League Wild Card Game at RingCentral Coliseum on October 02, 2019 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The Tampa Bay Rays weren't supposed to be here. They're perennial small-market underdogs, toiling in a division with massive spenders such as the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox

Yet with the MLB postseason upon us, here they are: winners of the American League Wild Card Game and one of six teams left standing in the scramble for the 2019 Commissioner's Trophy.

After defeating the Oakland Athletics 5-1 Wednesday night at RingCentral Coliseum in Oakland, Tampa Bay will advance to a division series clash with the Houston Astros. We'll delve into that matchup in a moment and examine how the Rays could be a credible threat to the Junior Circuit's other contenders.

For now, let's pause and admire what they've accomplished thus far.

Prior to the season, FanGraphs gave the Rays a 28.2 percent chance of making the playoffs and a 14.3 percent chance of advancing as far as the division series.

That might have been a tad harsh. The Rays were coming off a 90-win campaign in 2018, missing the playoffs but flashing their potential as slingshot-wielding Davids capable of at least rattling the Goliaths of the AL.

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But with a scant $63 million payroll, per Spotrac, could Tampa Bay realistically compete deep into October? The Red Sox, who won the title in 2018, dished out more than that this year on starting pitchers David Price (4.28 ERA), Rick Porcello (5.52 ERA) and Nathan Eovaldi (5.99 ERA).

Then again, maybe that's less a shot against Tampa Bay's penny-pinching ways and more an indictment of the free-spending Sox, who won another trophy but are now saddled with crippling payroll obligations going forward.

The Rays, on the other hand, are charging ahead despite their comparatively minuscule bottom line.

Yandy Diaz, Tommy Pham and Avisail Garcia, who combined for six hits and four home runs (two from Diaz) in Wednesday's victory over the A's, are making less than $9 million between them.

Ben Margot/Associated Press

Veteran right-hander Charlie Morton, who threw five innings of one-run ball and earned the win, is the club's highest-paid player at $15 million in 2019. After that, no one is making more than $8 million and change. 

Burgeoning stars such as reigning Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell, left fielder Austin Meadows, right-hander Tyler Glasnow, shortstop Willy Adames and infielder/outfielder Brandon Lowe are all earning $1.6 million or under. 

It's the Rays' way. Since their inception, they've spread their dough thin, yet they still won an AL pennant in 2008 and appeared in the division series in 2010, 2011 and 2013.

Now, they're back, pesky as ever.

First, they'll lock horns with the Astros, who won an MLB-high 107 games this season and boast a deep lineup and a stacked starting rotation helmed by Cy Young Award front-runners Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole.

The 'Stros, by any measure, are a juggernaut. Put the champagne on ice. Cast the Rays aside. Minute Maid Park is going to squeeze the life out of Tropicana Field.

Hang on a second, though.

First, Tampa Bay won the season series against Houston, 4-3. And while the Astros (and any future Rays opponents) will have home-field advantage, the Rays also posted the second-best road record in either league at 48-33.

More than anything, the Rays bring a pitching staff that paced the AL with a 3.65 ERA. That's just one point above Houston's 3.66 ERA, but it shows Tampa Bay can sling it with the best of them.

They may not have the pedigree and star wattage of the Astros' top arms, but the likes of Morton, Snell and Glasnow and a sterling bullpen that led MLB with a 3.66 ERA make them a force to be reckoned with.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

That'll come in handy against Houston's lineup, and it would benefit Tampa Bay in a theoretical American League Championship Series against either New York or the Minnesota Twins.

The 2019 Twins set the all-time record for home runs by a team with 307. The Yanks finished second with 306.

As for Rays hurlers? They surrendered the fewest dingers in baseball at 181.

The safe money is on the Rays folding before the champagne-and-confetti finish line. They've never won it before. Any and all future 2019 postseason foes will have deeper pockets and probably more thump.

Tampa Bay, though, has a power-squelching pitching staff and enough offense to get the job done, as it demonstrated Wednesday against an Oakland team that finished sixth in the game with a 3.97 ERA.

Credit skipper Kevin Cash for pulling the right levers. Among them? Starting Diaz, who is recovering from a foot injury suffered in July and could have been relegated to bench duty.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

And credit the Rays for fearlessly donning the team-of-destiny mantle.

"I don't think it can hurt to have confidence and feel like you've got a little bit of magic on your side going into this thing," third baseman Matt Duffy told reporters prior to the Rays' wild-card triumph. "I think it's certainly going to help."

The Rays weren't supposed to be here. But they are.

They drew the second-fewest fans in baseball during the regular season (14,734 on average, ahead of only the Miami Marlins' 10,016).  But watch that number increase exponentially as long as they keep proving they belong.

And watch opposing clubs take them very, very seriously.

   

All statistics current as of Wednesday and courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.