The calendar turns from June to July this week, meaning that the All-Star break is fast approaching. Teams who are on the fringe of contending usually decide whether to buy or sell at the trade deadline over the course of the stretch of games either before or after the Midsummer Classic, meaning that it is getting close to the time of the year where many teams will deliberately try to alter where they stand by season's end. In the midst of all this, the Tampa Bay Rays currently sit in the final AL Wild Card spot, and if the playoffs began today, they would face the AL-central-leading Minnesota Twins in a best-of-three playoff series. Are they well-equipped to move onto the ALDS, and potentially beyond?
Potential Wild Card Matchup: Minnesota Twins
The Rays have already completed their season series against the Twins this season, and it didn't go well. They went 2-4, dropping a series against them at home and on the road. Even so, in a postseason series, the Rays certainly have what it takes to come out on top. The Twins may have been a decidedly better offense (113 wRC+ compared to the Rays' 97), but injuries have killed the Rays all season, and they have the tools to acquire multiple impact bats via trade. Brandon Lowe is currently on the IL, Manuel Margot just made a second trip back there as well, and they only just got Wander Franco back after he was injured for a while. Meanwhile, newly-acquired Isaac Paredes's heroics last week suggest that he should be an everyday player. Reinforcements are already coming, and the two teams should be on a much more similar plane offensively by October.
The Rays also have a key advantage in one of the most clear-cut predictors of how a playoff series is going to go: the top of their rotation has been far better than that of Minnesota's. In hindsight, it becomes less surprising that the Red Sox brushed Tampa Bay aside in last season's ALDS despite having 8 fewer wins, since Boston's starting rotation was far deeper and the Rays' staff just did not have the endurance to keep up with their offense.
This time around, however, Shane McClanahan has emerged as a surefire Cy Young finalist, with a 1.77 ERA, 2.21 SIERA, and a ridiculous 12.1 K/9 rate through 91.1 innings in 2022. He would be the de facto game-1 starter in the postseason on nearly every roster in baseball, and while he has a losing decision to his name against the Twins from back in April, he did not receive much run support and still struck out 11 batters through 5 innings that game. Farther down the list, Corey Kluber has been a steady hand in the Rays' rotation this year, with a 3.45 ERA, 3.59 FIP, and an average of over 5 innings per start despite both his age and the notorious pitch-count-wary Rays coaching staff. Jeffrey Springs has also transitioned beautifully into his role as a starter, as he is top-10 in both ERA and Fangraphs' SIERA among pitchers with at least 60 IP in the AL.
In a hypothetical best-of-3 against the Twins, the Rays could conceivably send those three starters out to the mound and stand a great chance at winning. Kluber and Springs were the starting pitchers in the 2 games they managed to salvage versus Minnesota, and they allowed only a single run combined. The Twins are likely to finish with a better record in the regular season, but if they face each other in the playoffs, it's the Rays who have the advantage, especially with the pitching matchups.
ALDS and Beyond
Should the current AL playoff seeds stay the same, and the Rays successfully take down Minnesota, the road complicates itself after that. In that scenario, they would face the 2nd seed in the league, which is a position currently occupied by the Houston Astros, who essentially have an offense just as good as the Twins with a pitching staff just as good as the Rays. The Astros are also due to improve even more offensively since their team wRC+ ranks higher compared to the rest of the league than the amount of actual runs they've scored, which suggests that they've been getting unlucky with runners in scoring position. The Blue Jays are an example of an elite offense that was previously facing a similar problem, and they've now ascended to be the most productive hitting crew in all of baseball by wOBA.
The Astros look destined to reach their 6th straight ALCS, and it would be a much steeper task to face them in the postseason than virtually every other team in the game. As well, it seems as though any path to the World Series through the AL would intersect with the Yankees, who are not only head-and-shoulders above every other team in the standings, but they have owned the Rays this season. Despite all that, it is encouraging that in their underperforming, injury-riddled state, Tampa Bay still matches up well with their initial prospective counterparts in the postseason. When (or perhaps if) the team is fully healthy again, flanked by a few potential trades at the deadline, it wouldn't be too unrealistic for them to set their sights back towards the higher expectations they had at the start of the season.