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Over the past few years, one way to watch the future of baseball has been to watch the present of the Rays. It was nuts when manager Joe Maddon used Ben Zobrist everywhere but pitcher and catcher in 2009. This year 10 players have logged at least five games at both second base and right field, and eight of them have played at least two other positions. It was dumb when Tampa Bay began shifting its infielders twice as much as anyone else in ’10. Now the shift is so popular MLB is considering banning it. It was bizarre when manager Kevin Cash deployed reliever Sergio Romo to throw a one-inning start in ’18. Last season Atlanta used openers in two World Series games.
And if you watch closely in about six weeks, you might yet again learn something. With the Yankees 12.5 games ahead in the American League East and looking like they might win 120, the Rays must decide how to treat the trade deadline. Under the new, 12-team playoff system, the top two division-winners in each league receive a first-round bye; the other division winner and three wild card teams play a three-game wild card series.
We are about to find out how smart organizations value the wild card slots.
Teams are still sorting through the implications of the new format. Their spring was hectic—There’s a new CBA! Camp opens tomorrow! We changed some of the rules!—but they are beginning to do the math. The simplest number some have settled on is: 50%. If you assume a first-round series is essentially a coin flip, then nabbing a wild card berth is about half as valuable as winning your division outright and earning one of the two byes.
“Winning the division and being a top-two seed is a meaningful advantage, similar to winning the division in the previous format and bypassing the best-of-one wild card game,” says Rays president of baseball operations Erik Neander. “But there still is a lot of value and benefit to be had by just getting in[to the playoffs]. … Just getting in gives you a chance. And I think the greatest separation between having a chance to win a World Series and not is simply getting into the playoffs or not.”
That’s good, because what he does not say is that the division is all but gone. New York is romping to a convincing crown; the Rays currently sit one game back of the third wild card, at 37–32.
Tampa Bay is the second-most-banged-up team in the majors, per Baseball Prospectus, with 792 games missed to the injured list so far. (No one seems likely to catch the Reds, at 887.) BP estimates that those injuries have cost the club somewhere in the neighborhood of three wins.
It feels worse than that. Second baseman Brandon Lowe has been on the injured list since May 16 with a stress reaction in his back, shortstop Wander Franco since May 31 with a strained right quad, catcher Mike Zunino since June 10 with inflammation in his left shoulder that might actually be thoracic outlet syndrome, center fielder Kevin Kiermaier since June 21 with inflammation in his left hip, right fielder Manuel Margot since June 21 with a serious injury to his right knee. They also have four pitchers recovering from injuries to their elbows; it’s possible none will be back this year. Franco could return this weekend. The other position players will take longer.
In the meantime, the Rays could easily field a starting lineup of players who opened the season with fewer than three years of service time: rookie right hander Shane Baz throwing to rookie catcher René Pinto; with rookie first baseman Jonathan Aranda, rookie second baseman Vidal Bruján, second-year third baseman Isaac Paredes and second-year shortstop Taylor Walls in the infield; rookies Josh Lowe and Luke Raley alongside sophomore Randy Arozarena in the outfield; and the comparative veteran Harold Ramírez, the only one of those players with two full seasons in the big leagues, at DH.
Their inexperience shows: In their last six games against the Yankees, the Rays have allowed seven unearned runs, all with two outs in the inning. They lost five of six; the run differential in the losses was five. And on Wednesday, with two outs, after Yankees starter Jordan Montgomery threw seven straight fourth-inning balls, Walls took an aggressive lead off third base. At Triple A, he probably could have gotten away with it. In the majors, he was picked off.
There are some signs that the team is emerging from this challenging stretch. Paredes has four home runs in his last two games, Ramírez is hitting .348 over his last eight and Bruján is slugging .500 over his last five. But the losses—nine of their last 12—still count.
Meanwhile, the Rays enjoy a small structural advantage: The trade deadline is a few days later than usual this year, on Aug. 2, and the draft is scheduled for July 17–19. That means many executives will be too busy studying amateurs to start deadline season early, and the Tampa Bay front office may get a few extra days to assess where the team stands.
The Rays sometimes buy and sell simultaneously: Last year, within 24 hours, they traded prospects to the Twins for DH Nelson Cruz and veteran righty Rich Hill to the Mets for a prospect, en route to a 100-win season and a first-round playoff exit.
This year, they will probably make neither sort of move. With a playoff berth precarious, they cannot risk weakening the major league team to the degree that trading someone like Hill would. And with no guarantee that they will even make the division series, they cannot mortgage the future to the degree that trading for someone like Cruz would.
Instead they will need to be creative. They usually find a way. So keep an eye on the Rays this summer. The rest of the sport certainly will.
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