For the first time in nearly six years, the Tampa Bay Rays are on the verge of popping bottles in celebration of a playoff berth. But, how did they get here? They have a string of trades and signings to thank…
The dates stand out glaringly. June 10th, July 31st, December 13th, December 21st, January 18th, and May 10th. These six days, spread across two seasons and a crucial offseason largely account for the position the Tampa Bay Rays are in today, staring down October baseball for the first time since 2013. Sure, any number of crucial dates will get lost in this discussion, but if you want to know how the Rays, who sport the leagues lowest payroll, put together a team that has already won 95 games, then look no further than these six dates.
On the morning of July 31st, 2018 the Tampa Bay Rays stood at 54-53, 20 games behind the first place Red Sox and on track for another middling season, the type that Rays fans had gotten used to over the past five seasons. By 4 P.M. eastern time, the Rays front office had set the table for what would be a 36-19 sprint to the finish. The Rays would enter the offseason, having won 90 games for the first time since 2013, with a renewed hope and energy around the franchise.
In the final hours and minutes leading up to that fateful deadline, the Rays would part ways with an underperforming Chris Archer and a handful of prospects netting Tommy Pham, Tyler Glasnow, and Austin Meadows in return. The overhaul was underway and the future looked brighter than it had in years.
Just a month earlier on June 10th, the Rays had swung an under the radar trade to acquire a soon-to-be fan favorite and hero, Ji-Man Choi.
Then, five months later on December 13th during the Winter Meetings, the Rays would mortgage a portion of their seemingly bright future in hopes that they could transform Yandy Diaz, a ground ball machine, into a true power threat. Fast forward a week, and on December 21st the Rays would make a splash in free agency, signing Charlie Morton to a two year, 30 million dollar deal. Just 28 days later on January 18th, they would buy low on the powerful and imposing Avisail Garcia .
The reinforcements were arriving in force and stature. Pham, an MVP candidate in 2017. Meadows and Glasnow, a pair of highly touted prospects shrouded in uncertainty yet brimming with untapped potential. Morton, a reinvented dominant starting pitcher and hero of the 2017 World Series. Garcia, Diaz, and Choi, a trio of imposing bats with tremendous upside.
Pair these additions with the the 2018 Cy Young award winning Blake Snell, Brandon Lowe, Kevin Kiermaier, and Willy Adames and you couldn’t help but sit back and day dream of the endless possibilities.
Fast forward to May 10th, 2019 a day in which the Rays would fall to the Yankees 4-3 and see their early AL East lead over the eventual division champions whittled down to just half a game. The loss wouldn’t define this day however. Instead the acquisition of Travis d’Arnaud, a catcher trying to return to form after Tommy John surgery would make this day one of the most crucial points in the 2019 season.
Prior to d’Arnaud’s arrival, the Rays had run through a gamut of catchers with a handful failing to produce or stay healthy, just a month into the season. Travis d’Arnaud would emerge as one of the the final pivotal reinforcements of the 2019 season.
The results are indisputable. With any of the players mentioned above in the starting lineup, the Rays have found a way to win.
Since Pham’s arrival last August, during games in which he starts, the Rays have gone 155-115, good for a .674% winning percentage. This season, he leads the team in stolen bases (23), walks (79), and doubles (32).
With Meadows starting in 2019, the Rays have cruised to a 72-55 record. In what has turned out to be a breakout campaign for the longtime top prospect, Meadows leads the Rays in home runs (32), RBI (88), AVG (.293), OPS+ (143), and hits (153).
If Charlie “Freaking” Morton is on the bump, then there is a pretty good chance the Rays will end the day victorious. Across his 33 starts, a career high, the Rays have gone 22-11. Morton emerged as the de facto ace on a staff decimated by countless injuries to stars Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow as well as Yonny Chirinos and prospect Brent Honeywell (Spring Training).
With Ji-Man Choi comes “Ji-Man Magic”. The magic isn’t mythical either. Since his Rays debut in 2018, the Rays are 105-70 when Choi makes an appearance.
With the imposing bat of Avisail Garcia in the starting lineup, the Rays are 78-42. Garcia has slugged a career high 20 bombs in only 123 games, hitting .282 in the process. When healthy, Yandy Diaz has had a similar affect on the eventual outcome of games in which he starts. During those games, the Rays are 44-35. The Rays bet on the possibility they could fix Diaz’s swing and they succeeded, leading to a career high 14 bombs despite the fact that Diaz has been hurt since the end of July.
But, quite possibly the most crucial addition came just a mere handful of months ago in the form of Travis d’Arnaud. In games that he starts, the Rays are at 51-33 and a number of those wins can be largely attributed to his clutch performances at the plate. Since arriving in Tampa Bay, the castaway catcher has slugged 16 homers and has made the prolonged struggles of Mike Zunino easier to swallow.
More recently, the Rays added Eric Sogard, Jesus Aguilar, and Nick Anderson to further solidify their postseason push and without their contributions we may very well not be having this conversation.
Nick Anderson has been dominant late in games since coming over from Miami. Similarly, Emilio Pagan who was acquired this past offseason has also proven to be a huge asset out of the pen for Kevin Cash.
It should go without saying that the contributions of Willy Adames, Brandon Lowe, Ryan Yarbrough and others cannot be understated either. But, without the contributions made by the players acquired on the various dates discussed above the Rays quite simply wouldn’t be in a position to be popping bottles of champaign in the visitor clubhouse in Toronto this weekend.
Pick any one day and the trajectory of the 2019 season and perhaps the franchise was forever altered, specifically July 31st, 2018 a day that saw the arrival of Tommy Pham, Austin Meadows, and Tyler Glasnow.
This overhaul didn’t happen over night and it most certainly didn’t begin with the trading away of Chris Archer. It began much before that with the departures of Evan Longoria, Steven Souza Jr., Jake Odorizzi, and others seasons ago. You could even argue that it started in 2011 when the Rays drafted Blake Snell or in 2014 when the Rays traded away David Price, receiving Willy “The Kid” Adames in return.
The pivotal points to which this season’s successes can be drawn back to are numerous and sometimes so far in the past that they are easily forgotten. But, the string of trades and signings that started June 10th, 2018 catapulted this team to at least 95 wins and a possible and seemingly probable Wildcard birth.