There’s no question that the Yankees need to bolster the starting rotation. A team that resorts to smoke and mirrors in Game 2 of a playoff series is a team in need of pitching help. The Yankees may have Gerrit Cole, but things thin out really quickly after him, even with the promising Deivi García and Clarke Schmidt in the wings. Bringing back Masahiro Tanaka will help, but frankly, the Yankees need to do more than just that. That’s where someone like free agent Charlie Morton comes in.
Background & Performance
Morton was born in New Jersey but grew up in Connecticut and apparently was a big Yankees fan. The Braves drafted him out of high school in the third round of the 2002 draft, but it took him a while to make the big leagues. He debuted for Atlanta in 2008, but was dealt to Pittsburgh the following summer for Nate McLouth.
The righty put together some solid yet unspectacular seasons in Pittsburgh before a brief stay in Philadelphia. It wasn’t until 2017 with Houston that he truly broke out at 33 years of age. Since, Morton owns a 3.34 ERA and 3.27 FIP in 546 1/3 innings. He doesn’t necessarily go deep into games (5.6 innigns per start in that timeframe), but he’s undoubtedly effective when on the mound. During that same timespan, he’s fanned 28.4 percent of batters, walked 8.0 percent of opponents, and allowed just 0.84 homers per nine innings.
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.
It’s spoiler season. With a playoff spot wrapped up, the Yankees can put the kibosh on the Rays’ postseason hopes with a two-game series at Tropicana Field.
Their Story So Far
At 93-64, the Rays have exceeded last year’s win total and are in the thick of the wild card race. They’re currently in the second wild card spot, half a game ahead of the Indians with five games left. They close out their season with three games in Toronto after hosting the Yankees.
Tampa Bay leads baseball in pitching fWAR and is third in ERA, behind only the Dodgers and Indians. Their offense is middle of the pack and received boosts since the Yankees last faced them as Brandon Lowe came off the IL and Jesus Aguilar was acquired at the trade deadline.
Going from mid-2018 to June 10 this year, the Rays had the best 162-game stretch in their franchise history. When the Rays tweeted this, they had a half-game lead in the division. The Yankees promptly swept them and took control of the division. Wouldn’t it be funny if the Rays bookended the best season-length stretch of their history by missing the postseason twice?
Left-handed relievers Jose Alvarado and Hoby Milner are out for the season while infielders Yandy Diaz and Eric Sogard are out indefinitely with foot injuries.
Spotlight: State of the Rays’ staff
The Rays’ rotation has been in a state of flux for several months as the non-Charlie Morton starting pitchers went on the IL. The team lost Blake Snel (elbow), Tyler Glasnow (elbow) and Yonny Chirinos (finger) for extended stretches.
Morton still fronts the rotation (more on him in the Wednesday game capsule) and the other three have returned from the IL. Just in the nick of time? Well, not fully. None of the three are fully stretched out are limited to multi-inning bursts rather than full-length starts. Chirinos just returned last weekend and didn’t have Minor League rehab games to get ready.
Meanwhile, left-hander Ryan Yarbrough has stepped up in their absences. After a poor start to the season that earned him a demotion to Triple-A, he’s been excellent since coming back to the Majors in late May. That is, outside of back-to-back six-run outings in his most recent starts. But overall, he’s shed the opener and turned into a successful starter on his own.
How would the Rays handle this in October? That’s an open question. The team can’t rely on its depth and the 40-man roster in the postseason, so they would be limited in the number of pitchers they can field. Would Glasnow and Snell piggyback starts? Would Morton and Yarbrough front the rotation?
First, the Rays have get to the postseason and an ALDS. Then they can worry about those questions in earnest.
I wrote about this yesterday, but this is a prime opportunity for the Yankees to stick it to their division rivals. The Bombers have dispatched with the Rays consistently this season, going 12-5 in their first 17 matchups.
In fact, the Rays have yet to win a series against the Yankees this season, holding a 0-4-1 mark in previous duels. For the most part, every starter and reliever on the Rays’ roster has been touched up by the Yankees’ offense at some point.
With Oakland facing an easy schedule, it’s mostly between the Rays and Indians for the final wild card spot. Cleveland has a series remaining with the Nationals, so the strength of schedule is about even. These two games loom large in the Rays’ postseason hopes.
On the bench, the Rays have catchers Michael Perez (66 wRC+) and Mike Zunino (47 wRC+), 1B Jesús Aguilar (93 wRC+, 120 wRC+ with Rays), 1B Nate Lowe (109 wRC+), INF Michael Brousseau (112 wRC+), INF Matt Duffy (80 wRC+), INF Daniel Robertson (72 wRC+) and OF Guillermo Heredia (83 wRC+).
OF Johnny Davis is the designated pinch runner.
Tuesday (7:10 PM ET) TBD vs. Yonny Chirinos (vs. Yankees)
Chirinos was activated form the 10-day IL over the weekend after suffering inflammation in his middle finger that kept him out for 1.5 months. He pitched an inning Saturday, giving up a solo homer and striking out two on 16 total pitches.
Presumably, this will be a bullpen game on both sides with Chirinos perhaps extending to 2-3 innings. We could easily see 7-9 pitchers a side. As for Chirinos, he’s faced the Yankees five times already this season with the Rays going 1-4 in those starts. However, over 26 2/3 innings, he’s put up a respectable 4.05 ERA and held his own with the Yankees.
Chirinos is still primarily a sinker-baller with a splitter and slider as his primary offspeed offerings.
Wednesday (7:10 PM ET) TBD vs. Charlie Morton (vs. Yankees)
Morton has had an excellent debut season with the Rays, but his overall numbers haven’t held up as well in the second half
Morton’s peripherals are pretty similar, albeit with more balls in play. It seems he’s allowing more flyballs and line drives, but some of this might be pure luck. The right-hander’s exit velocity allowed hasn’t noticeably changed. His fastball velocity is down from 2018 but has stayed steady this season.
Regardless, he’s throwing his curveball more than ever, over a third of the time. He’s been highly successful against the Yankees over the years, but he has a 5.28 ERA in three starts against them in 2019. Brett Gardner owns him.
With his start Wednesday, Morton could start on short rest in Game 162 (unlikely), be on turn for a Game 163 or get two extra days of rest for the Wild Card Game if the Rays make it.
Snell lasted just five outs in his abbreviated start Monday, so the Rays needed 22 outs from their bullpen to beat the Red Sox on Monday. Oliver Drake tossed two innings while Chaz Roe, Peter Fairbanks, Austin Pruitt, Nick Anderson, Diego Castillo, Emilio Pagan and Colin Poche also worked. Yup, a nine-pitcher night.
Since it’s September, they, of course, have five relievers who didn’t work and had a day off going into Tuesday.
Here’s the full staff:
RHPs: Emilio Pagan, Chaz Roe, Diego Castillo, Nick Anderson, Oliver Drake, Andrew Kittredge, Trevor Richards, Austin Pruitt, Peter Fairbanks, Cole Sulser
LHPs: Colin Poche, Jalen Beeks, Anthony Banda
Pagan has been the team’s closer, racking up 20 saves. Castillo is the same 100-mph fireballer Yankee fans should remember while Roe fires off his wicked slider as a right-specialist of sorts. Poche gets OK results from his fastball-heavy approach when he isn’t facing the Bombers.
Among the new faces is Nick Anderson, who has been a high-leverage savant for Kevin Cash. In 21 innings with the Rays, he has a 2.14 ERA with 40 strikeouts and just two walks. He was acquired from the Marlins at the deadline and will certainly factor into this series in big spots with his 99th percentile strikeout rate.