The Yankees now take a three game trip to the turf of the Tropicana Field (UGH!), where they will visit Tampa Bay for the Rays first homestand. Fresh from getting swept by the Red Sox (LOL), let’s see how the current bottom dweller of the AL East is doing.
Their story so far
The Rays have lost four straight games after starting 2-0 in the season. In their previous series, the Red Sox outscored them 26-9 sending them straight to the last place of the ALE.
So far in the season the Rays have used four starters. Tyler Glasnow has been amazing in his two starts with just one earned run in 12 innings. The other guys? Not so much: Ryan Yarbrough has allowed six runs in 10.2 (although all of them against the Red Sox on Wednesday), and Michael Wacha and Rich Hill have combined for eight earned runs in nine innings. It seems that replacing two of the club’s three best starters is not looking good already huh? Who would have thunk it? (Not us, definitely not)
Chris Archer, the third addition to the Frankenstein triumvirate to try and replace Snell and Morton, has only appeared one time out of the bullpen, allowing four runs (three earned) in 2 innings pitched. He is expected to make his first start of the season this series.
Offensively, the story is not much better. The Rays hold a 88 OPS+ value as a team. Most of their damage in the early going has been from Brandon Lowe, Manuel Margot, Joey Wendle, and Francisco Mejía; they have values of 164, 171, 135 and 123 of OPS+ respectively. The other starters have been either around average hitters or straight up black holes in the offense like Yoshi Tsutsugo (-18) and Kevin Kiermaier (-45).
The Rays are in a early season bad streak and the Yankees also catch a break in not having to face their best pitcher in Tyler Glasnow. This would be a good opportunity to drop them a bit deeper in the standings in the early going. How about the Yanks do just that?
The defending AL pennant champion Rays accomplished a lot last year. They went 40-20 in the regular season, won the division (ugh), and went to the World Series for the second time in franchise history. They disposed of the Blue Jays, the Yankees (double ugh) and the Astros (yay! I guess?) before their showdown with the Dodgers where they lost in 6 games.
So, surely they took the base of a team that won the pennant and added more pieces to compete for the championship in 2021. That’s how it works, right? Well…not exactly.
The Rays celebrated their pennant by letting go two of their three best pitchers in Blake Snell and Charlie Morton. From a Yankees fan perspective I can only say: Way to go Rays!
After that quite nice celebration, how does this new season look for the Rays?
We have four mailbag questions to answer this week. As always, send what’s on your mind to viewsfrom314 [at] gmail [dot] com for a chance to have your question answered in a future edition. Let’s jump right into today’s selected questions.
A couple of folks ask: How about a Didi Gregorius reunion?
Didi just turned 30 and is a free agent for the second consecutive season. He was quite good for Joe Girardi’s Phillies this season. Gregorius played in all 60 games and hit .284/.339/.488 (116 wRC+/112 DRC+/119 OPS+). He displayed good power (10 homers, .205 ISO), walked 6.3 percent of the time, had a career low (read: best) 11.8 percent strikeout rate. Defensive metrics on his performance, though his reputation at shortstop is sterling. Depending on your WAR metric of preference, Didi was worth +1 WAR in 2020.
Who wouldn’t want to bring him back? He checks a ton of boxes performance-wise, but we also have the benefit of already knowing that he can succeed in the Bronx. I probably should have mentioned him in my piece earlier this week, in fact.
By the end of this week, it sure would be nice to look back and laugh at the Yankees’ 2-8 record against the Rays during the regular season. These two sides meet yet again in a best-of-five Division Series in San Diego. That means no Tropicana Field (yes!) but also no Yankee Stadium (sigh). It should be an intense series between two teams that have no love lost between one another.
Credit where credit is due: the Rays have taken care of business thus far in 2020. In the regular season, Tampa Bay had the best record in the American League and handily won the East division. Then, in the first round of the playoffs, the Rays dispatched the Blue Jays in two games.
Tampa Bay has gotten to this point in spite of a slow start. Through August 5th, the Rays were 5-7 and 4.5 games behind the Yankees for first place in the division. It was starting to look like the Rays would fall short of expectations this year. At the time, the Yankees were riding high into Tropicana Field for a weekend series where the Bombers could have buried the Rays. Instead, Tampa Bay took three of four and effectively turned its season around. That series against the Yankees was a harbinger of things to come in the regular season vs. New York. Tampa Bay was victorious in eight of ten head-to-head matchups, including a three game sweep at Yankee Stadium later in August to take over first place for good.
Tampa Bay got to this point on the back of its pitching staff. Pitching has been the name of the game for the Rays for a while now, and 2020 was no different. Tampa Bay had a 3.56 ERA, third-best in MLB. But don’t let that scare you too much: the Yankees just handled Cleveland, who had an even better team ERA of 3.29. Different regular season competition of course, but let’s not pretend this Yankees’ lineup can’t handle good pitching.
Everyone expected the Rays to pitch well, but there were doubts about how much they’d hit this season. On paper, the offense looked mediocre. They were 16th in runs scored last year and subtracted Tommy Pham from the equation. PECOTA projected them to score 291 runs this season, and what do you know: they scored 289, which was 12th-best in MLB. Additionally, the Rays had a 109 wRC+, 9th in MLB, after recording a 102 wRC+ a year ago. This certainly isn’t a vaunted lineup, but it’s not a total pushover like Cleveland’s.
Of course, there’s more to Tampa Bay’s story than their record, record vs. the Yankees, and brief summaries of how the team pitched and hit in the regular season. I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up the animus between the Yankees and Rays. It’s not some big secret that these two sides don’t like each other. This is a rivalry that’s bubbled for years primarily via bean ball wars. This should be an intense series that hopefully ends the Rays’ 2020 story.
Last call. The Yankees and Rays square off for the final time in the 2020 regular season this week. With a little less than half the season remaining, this is a pivotal series. The Yankees are 1-6 against the Rays this year and trail Tampa Bay by 3.5 games in the division race. Needless to say, the Bombers can’t afford getting swept by the Rays at home again.
Their story so far
The 24-11 Rays are on fire. Not only are they riding a five game winning streak into the Bronx, but they’ve also won 18 of their last 21 ballgames. Tampa Bay currently sits atop of the American League playoff picture, and only the Dodgers have a better record in all of MLB. They’re now the heavy favorites in the AL East:
Yesterday’s 12 run outburst against the Marlins aside, Tampa Bay’s bats have cooled down a bit since we last saw them. Entering yesterday’s game vs. Miami, the Rays were hitting .236/.329/.380 (97 wRC+) from August 21st to August 29th, basically the week after that series at Yankee Stadium. That’s a bit closer to the expectations for Tampa Bay’s offense on paper, though to be fair, they’re probably a little better than that.
The Rays’ pitching has remained on fire over that same stretch too. They’ve allowed just 29 runs over their last 9 games (7 of those came yesterday). Meanwhile, Tampa Bay’s pitchers have dropped like flies as I’ll note in the next section. All the pitching injuries haven’t thrown the Rays off track, though. At least, not yet.
RHP Oliver Drake (biceps tendinitis)
RHP Charlie Morton (shoulder inflammation, expected to start this series)
LHP José Alvarado (shoulder inflammation)
RHP Nick Anderson (forearm inflammation)
C Mike Zunino (strained oblique)
LHP Ryan Yarbrough (strained groin)
OF Brett Phillips (COVID-19 protocol)
LHP Colin Poche (Tommy John surgery)
RHP Yonny Chirinos (Tommy John surgery)
LHP Jalen Beeks (Tommy John surgery)
RHP Andrew Kittredge (elbow sprain)
RHP Chaz Roe (elbow soreness)
Spotlight: Manuel Margot
Tampa Bay picked up Margot in the offseason in exchange for reliever Emilio Pagán, one of the many outfield transactions the Rays made over the offseason. There didn’t seem to be an immediate starting role fit for Margot, who once was a top-100 prospect while with the Red Sox and Padres a few years back. Margot simply has never really hit enough to be a regular, but the Rays have somehow gotten the best out of him this season.
Margot joined the Rays with a .248/.301/.394 (84 wRC+) lifetime batting line in 1,526 plate appearances. He basically was an all-glove, no-bat guy for the Padres. But now, Margot is hitting .300/.364/.412 (118 wRC+) in 88 trips to the plate. We’re still in small sample size territory, but there are some differences in Margot’s underlying numbers thus far.
For a guy who doesn’t hit for power, Margot sure did lift the ball a bit too much in San Diego. He had a 1.07 ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio last season, but that also included a sky-high 18.7 pop-up rate. That’s not good for a guy who’s in the upper-echelon of sprint speed. It appears that Tampa Bay has made some tweaks to fix this.
This year, Margot’s hitting 1.35 grounders for every fly ball, easily a career high. His pop-ups are down to 10 percent as well. This is driven by a lower launch angle (8.0 degrees) compared to last year (14.2). He’d been at or above 10.4 degrees annually since 2017, by the way. This adjustment now has his xBA and xwOBA per Statcast are .282 and .340, respectively. Both are career highs. Last year, Margot’s xBA and xwOBA were near the bottom of MLB.
Margot’s not quite an everyday player for the Rays yet, though Kevin Cash has gotten him in the lineup frequently of late. Tampa Bay has so many outfielders that it’s hard to get everyone a fair shake. But as long as Margot keeps hitting, he’s going to put pressure on Cash to play him.
After a good start against the Yankees a couple weeks ago, Glasnow followed it up with another gem against Baltimore. In seven innings, the righty fanned 13 batters and allowed just 2 runs. Two rough starts earlier in the year (one against the Yankees, the other vs. Boston), skew his ERA above 5, but he’s obviously way better than that. Glasnow is ace-caliber and is a tough matchup for the Yankees tonight.
On the other side, Cole is coming off his worst start of the season in which he surrendered three homers to Atlanta. That came after a very good start against Tampa Bay (6 2/3 innings, 2 runs, 10 strikeouts), so hopefully we get something closer to that instead. Cole’s been struggling to keep the ball in the yard this season, having allowed a homer in each and every start, so it’d be nice to stop that streak tonight.
The Yankees have seen Richards twice this year, but never as a starter. He’s pitched as a “bulk” guy twice vs. the Bombers, throwing 7 total innings (4 runs, 2 earned). This will be his third start of the season. The righty, who came along in the Nick Anderson trade with Miami, doesn’t have great stuff and appears eminently hittable. If only the Yankees’ lineup was healthy.
Tanaka was brilliant against Atlanta last time out. Against the Rays this year, he’s had one excellent start (5 shutout frames on 8/7) and one bad outing (6 runs in 4 innings).
Wednesday, 7:05 p.m. EDT: RHP Charlie Morton (vs. Yankees) vs. LHP Jordan Montgomery (vs. Rays)
Morton is expected off the injured list to make this start. He’s been dealing with shoulder inflammation this season. The righty hasn’t pitched since August 9th, when he lasted just two innings against the Yankees. Fastball velocity will be the thing to watch: he averaged just 92.7 MPH on it in four starts this year compared to 94.7 last year and 96.1 in 2018.
Aside from one poor start in Philadelphia, Monty has been really good for the Yankees this season. He’s looked sharp in all three starts since that game in Philly, in fact. Montgomery has a 3.68 ERA and 2.52 FIP in 14 2/3 innings since then. The Rays have yet to see Montgomery this season.
RHP: Diego Castillo, Pete Fairbanks, John Curtiss, Ryan Thompson, Édgar García, Aaron Slegers
LHP: Aaron Loup, Ryan Sherriff, Cody Reed
Had I heard of many of these relievers before this year? No. But as usual, almost any reliever the Rays touch turns to gold. So even without Anderson, Roe, Beeks, Alvarado, Poche, and Kittredge, this isn’t a group to sleep on. It’s certainly not as good of a bullpen without those guys, but it’s not necessarily a bad crew of pitchers. Plus, they come into this series with the Yankees well rested. Only Sherriff (6 pitches) and Slegers (19) threw yesterday. Curtiss (10), Thompson (11), Loup (15), and García (15) threw Saturday. The rest have had at least two days off.
The Yankees have to redeem themselves this series. Winning two of three is the minimum. It’ll be tough without the big bats in the lineup, but Tampa Bay is banged up too. Remember, this is the last chance for the Yankees to directly gain ground on the Rays this season.