Tonight at 8:07 PM, the Tampa Bay Rays will be playing a do-or-die game for the third consecutive contest. In the AL Wild Card Game against the Indians, however, the game has changed as the Rays will go from a 40-man active roster down to 25, forcing them to make tough decisions regarding which players to bring along. But the Wild Card roster is interesting because it’s only a one-game roster–if the Rays win, they can pick an entirely different roster for the ALDS against the Red Sox. Looking at the Rays’ Wild Card roster, it is clear that it is not the roster they will carry if they can get past Cleveland. What they did, however, was place a premium versatility and give them the ability to use every player they have to the maximum extent possible.
On the pitching side, the Rays will start Alex Cobb and will feature their signature relievers in the bullpen: Fernando Rodney, Joel Peralta, Jake McGee, Alex Torres, Jamey Wright, and Wesley Wright. What was interesting was how they decided to go with their final two pitchers. The Rays did not need to put David Price on the roster knowing that he would be unavailable to pitch after his complete game victory on Monday, but they did make both of their final two pitchers starters as well: Chris Archer and Matt Moore. Why have Archer and Moore instead of pitchers like Brandon Gomes and Jake Odorizzi?
The answer is that both Archer and Moore could appear in short relief but could also appear for longer stints as well. Archer enters the game with three days’ rest after throwing just 64 pitches his last time out, and he could be available to throw as many as three or four innings in this game. Archer’s availability will allow Joe Maddon to have a short hook with Cobb if necessary knowing that he has a quality starter behind him. Moore, meanwhile, is only on days’ rest, but he nevertheless could throw an inning and maybe two if the Rays need. No offense to Gomes and Odorizzi, but Archer and Moore have significantly better stuff and since they’re available to pitch and even provide length, they were the best pitchers for the Rays to pitch. But what if the Rays end up throwing Archer in the Wild Card Game and winning? What happens then? Either Archer or Moore could make the Game 1 start against the Red Sox, and not having Odorizzi on the roster means that he could get into a simulated game of some kind to make a Game 1 or Game 2 start if necessary if the Rays need an additional starter. The Rays’ 11 pitchers feature the best they have to offer and their ability to mix-and-match and pull Cobb early if necessary could be a huge boon to their success.
On the position player side, the Rays obviously included their starting players: James Loney, Ben Zobrist, Yunel Escobar, and Evan Longoria on the infield and Wil Myers and Desmond Jennings in the outfield. Delmon Young is set to DH while Jose Lobaton and Jose Molina will continue to split time at catcher. And in left field, the Rays will switch off David DeJesus, Matt Joyce, and Sean Rodriguez. The rest of the roster, though, is where it gets interesting. The Rays had a multiplicity of options but elected to go with the following players: Sam Fuld, Kelly Johnson, Chris Gimenez, and the biggest surprise of all, Kevin Kiermaier. Why those four?
Fuld gives the Rays options as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement. Johnson, meanwhile, is a strong pinch-hit option who also can play left field, second base, and third base, giving the Rays additional options. Gimenez is a third catcher, and he can also play the four infield spots. And then there’s Kiermaier, who is a superb defensive outfielder who could also see time as a pinch-runner. Neither of the four are so impressive. But having them all means that the Rays don’t have to worry about pinch-hitters and pinch-runners as they try to beat the Indians. Need to pinch-hit for both your catchers? No issue, you have Gimenez. Fuld coming up to the plate in a big spot? You can pinch-hit a player like Johnson or Joyce knowing that Kiermaier can play equally strong defense. This game is going to be won or lost primarily by the Rays’ pitching staff and their starting nine, but having Fuld, Johnson, Gimenez, and Kiermaier gives the Rays incredible flexibility to make moves at any point in the game. We will have to see whether the game is tight enough to make the Rays’ bench a significant factor. However, the way the Rays’ roster is constructed is yet another example of them gaining an edge in places others would not have looked, and you never know how much of an impact it could make.