Category: MLB

It’s time to respect the Rays

Rays! (MLB Gifs)

If you’ve read the series previews on this site, you’ll know that I’ve been dismissive towards the Rays on more than one occasion.

It’s not that I thought they were a bad team; I simply deemed them overrated and beatable this season before their farm system produces more star power. In fact, as the Yankees stomped past the Rays in June, I bemoaned the unlikelihood of a Yankees-Rays postseason series for that very reason.

Now, however, the Rays are one game from doing the dang thing, beating the Astros and advancing to the ALCS while making this writer look foolish. The Athletic MLB’s staff all picked the Astros to win the World Series, and the majority of the baseball writing public did the same. Whether they picked the A’s or Rays in the Wild Card Game, the expectation for the ALDS was all the same.

You may choose to dismiss the Rays’ rise as randomness. Anything can happen in a short series. Verlander was pitching on short rest. Nah, this is remarkable, even if it’s just two games. Tampa Bay just soundly beat two former Cy Young winners — including one presumably on the verge of winning his second — and have forced a winner-take-all contest with the best team in baseball.

The two wins haven’t been flukes, either. The Rays relied upon their ace, Charlie Morton, for one win and explored their identity to the fullest by conducting a pitch-perfect bullpen game in Game 4. Their scattershot offense came alive at (gulp) the Trop while they stepped up their defense.

With the Rays separated from the ALCS by just one more Cy Young contender, it’s time to issue a warning: Tampa Bay is no joke as these Rays actually get stronger as the postseason goes on.

When I ranked them at the bottom of my ALDS Opponents Fear Index, that stemmed from their pitching staff being far from stretched out. Though the Astros are still the better team, the Rays surpass the Twins, A’s and Indians in their abilities later in October. I’ll also readily admit I underestimated the team.

Despite needing Tyler Glasnow to pitch Game 5, Tampa would have Morton on full rest for Game 1 of the ALCS if he isn’t needed in relief. He’d be followed by reigning Cy Young winner Blake Snell in Game 2. Snell, despite getting a save out of the bullpen in Game 4, is about as stretched out as Luis Severino was at the end of the regular season.

Glasnow, meanwhile, is nearing full strength. The right-hander should be good for about 85-90 pitches in ALDS Game 5 and looks the same as he did before his arm injury sidelined him in May. At that time, he’d staked a claim as the early Cy Young favorite before succombing to injury against the Yankees. He’s a young power pitcher with the potential to be a thorn in the Yankees’ side for years to come.

Beyond their three starters, the Rays have the only bullpen that stacks up near the Yankees in October. After all, Tampa has beaten the Yankees with a bullpen game before and just held Houston to one run on the biggest stage. Kevin Cash might need to ride that bullpen heavy again in Game 5, so their freshness for the ALCS is undetermined.

Whether than bullpen can hold up against the Yankees’ top lineup or in a seven-game series remains to be seen. The Rays have to get there first, but they’ve earned plenty of respect just for forcing a Game 5 in Houston. As much as this blog has clowned them in recent months, they are a legitimate contender now.

Marcus Stroman, Brian Cashman and the Yankees’ playoff rotation

Postseason reliever? (MLB Gifs)

Of all the people to start a mini-controversy, Brian Cashman isn’t one you’d expect.

Yahoo Sports ran a fun profile on Cashman and how he has staying power as Yankees general manager unlike any of his predecessors. As part of the profile, Cashman was asked about the Blue Jays requesting Clint Frazier in offers for Marcus Stroman at the deadline. Here was Cashman’s response:

“We were interested in Stroman but we didn’t think he would be a difference-maker,” he said. “We felt he would be in our bullpen in the postseason.”

Cashman was likely defending Frazier and his decision to keep the still-developing outfielder and not trying to rouse controversy, yet the comment unnecessarily brought up Stroman as the counterweight. That’s why the comment drew intrigue, including from Stroman himself.

The right-hander retweeted posts that compared him favorably to the Yankees’ crop of starters. The competitive and talented Stroman rightfully took the chance to defend himself.

Cashman’s comment, however, seems reasonable on its face. With Luis Severino’s excellent return to the rotation, the Yankees have a solidified top three for October. James Paxton has pitched as well as just about anyone since the trade deadline, while Masahiro Tanaka has regained confidence in his splitter, which bodes well for his October hopes.

The Yankees don’t seem sold on the need for a fourth starter in October. J.A. Happ may start Game 4 of a series, or the team may bullpen the contest with Happ involved. Even if Domingo German were still with the team, he wasn’t going to lock down a fourth starter role. Heck, Tanaka may not act like a full-length starter.

As for Stroman, he’s been good for the Mets, though he hasn’t maintained his All-Star level. He’s pitched to a 3.86 ERA (4.45 FIP) and an 84 DRA- over 53 2/3 innings, seeing a rise in strikeouts somewhat outweighed by more walks. The Mets have gone 7-3 in his starts, for whatever that’s worth, and they have him under contract for another season.

Could the Yankees have used Stroman? Obviously. We stated that at the time of the trade deadline. He would have not only slotted into the rotation immediately but locked into a spot for 2020. He has the mentality to compete and excel in October after years in the AL East. The right-hander would have helped paper over the injuries that hurt the Yankees in the second half.

But Cashman and the Yankees chose to gamble by not acquiring another starter. Gamble on Severino getting healthy, on Paxton, Tanaka and the pitching staff turning things around. The Bombers had to walk a tightrope with their pitching staff in August and September, hoping to stay just healthy enough.

It wasn’t just Stroman. The D-backs reportedly asked for Frazier and Clarke Schmidt for Robbie Ray. The Yankees don’t want to sell low on Frazier, or they may have a plan to give him a consistent chance to have an MLB role. Either way, they valued him over pitching upgrades that would have helped the team immediately. That’s one of Cashman’s most difficult tasks: weighing the future vs. present as the team competes year after year.

Stroman or Ray or whatever starter Frazier brought back in a trade might have been a reliever in October, yet perhaps an extremely valuable reliever at that. The team didn’t have any backup plan for injury or if, hey, a pitcher was sidelined indefinitely with a domestic violence inquiry.

The Yankees are talented enough to win anyway. Is Frazier worth a backup plan? No. But trading him might have been worth that security blanket in addition to adding a contributor for the 2020 roster. Cashman opened himself up for second guessing on July 31 and again now, but he’s never one to take public reaction into account. He’s going to stay the course, Stroman, Frazier or otherwise.

The Yankees need to maximize 2019 because the Rays aren’t going away

Yandy Diaz isn’t amused.

After a thrilling victory Tuesday night, the Yankees have a six-game AL East lead on the Rays. Better yet, they have a two-game advantage on the Twins for the American League’s best record.

It’s remarkable to think the Yankees are off to a 60-33 start with injury after injury overtaking this roster. By all appearances, this team is right in the middle of its contention window with a core of Gleyber Torres, Aaron Judge, Luis Severino, Gary Sanchez and more.

Though the Yankees are one of the favorites this season, you can easily argue team will be a favorite for years to come, and perhaps the singular favorite with improvements to the starting rotation. The Bombers have yet to sacrifice a significant prospect to upgrade their roster, yet they are poised for a third straight playoff appearance.

They have a chance for a special run. But so do the Rays.

Tampa Bay had a ragtag approach to win 90 games in 2018 with a rotation strung together by openers, followers and cheap, young talent. This year’s team has built upon that while slowly adding prospects like Brendan McKay to the roster, all while seeing Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows and others blossom. Their only big free agent acquisition, Charlie Morton, is an AL Cy Young favorite.

Meanwhile, they still have either the best or second-best farm system in baseball, depending on how you view the Padres. Wander Samuel Franco is the top prospect in baseball and might be just 12 months from contributing. We’ve already seen Nate Lowe and McKay, and players like Jesus Sanchez aren’t too far behind.

That’s all to say that the Rays have a pipeline of talent ready to fix the weak spots on their roster, or replace key contributors when they get too expensive. In all, the Rays have a chance to keep getting better and challenge the Yankees, Astros and Red Sox for the title of best AL roster.

That doesn’t mean the Yankees need to go all-in on 2019, but the Bombers need to make the most of their opportunity. This season’s division chase could get close, but they won’t start 2020 with a six-game advantage, not to mention the 10-game lead they hold on Boston.

If anything, the Yankees could follow the Dodgers’ model: Use their financial advantage to maintain a core and excel in player development while making necessary upgrades each summer without sacrificing the core. Los Angeles has added Rich Hill, Yu Darvish and Manny Machado on rental deals at the last three deadlines, yet they’re looking ready to make a third straight World Series, all while holding off any rising challengers in their division.

The Yankees have enough prospects to make whatever upgrades they need this year without mortgaging the future. However, the top-line starter they’d want is either on their IL (Luis Severino), unavailable due to #Mets (Syndergaard) or tough to find. They made need to make incremental upgrades or add to the bullpen instead.

Regardless of how Brian Cashman handles the trade deadline, the Yankees will be a top-end team come October. This could be their year, even without a Madison Bumgarner in tow.

But next year might be the Rays’ year. Or the Red Sox’s year. The lack of a dynasty coming after the 2016 Cubs or 2017 Astros showed how fleeting success can be, even when you have what appears to be a sustainable future.

So what appears to be a wide-open window could be a mirage. The Yankees need to treat it as such and not leave it to the future. In other words, hold off all challengers before they can properly form and beat you.

Vote Gio Urshela (and Five Other Yankees) for All-Star Starter!

Gio Time! (MLB.tv)

The 28-hour period of voting on the final three at each spot in the starting lineup for next month’s All-Star Game is underway!

The Yankees have players in the top three of voting at every infield position: Gary Sanchez at catcher, Luke Voit at first base, DJ LeMahieu at second, Gio Urshela at third and Gleyber Torres at short. Furthermore,

Aaron Judge is one of nine finalists for the three outfield positions despite missing two months. Here’s the voting totals at each position.

You can vote here for the Yankees (or for other players, that’s your prerogative). Former Yankee Brian McCann is a finalist for National League catcher, so that’s cool.

I’m guessing Sanchez and Voit will get through among the aforementioned players, but I will make a brief plea: Vote for Urshela at third base! If you’re going by true talent and performance, Alex Bregman is a no-brainer at third base. He’s a star and was even All-Star Game MVP a year ago.

But there’s a good chance this is Urshela’s only opportunity to make the All-Star Game. His fellow players are more apt to recognize Rafael Devers or Matt Chapman for the non-starting spots. Urshela has likely put together the best first half of his career and may never see as much meaningful playing time again. He’s produced some of the most iconic moments of this season thus far.

Even better, this Midsummer Classic takes place in Cleveland, home of the team that cast him aside a year ago. How sweet would it be for him to show up as an All-Star as a homecoming?

I don’t think he’ll win, but I do hope you cast your ballot for him. I know I will!

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