The top-seeded Tampa Bay Rays are set to “host” division rival New York Yankees in a playoff-bubble, 5-game, 5-day ALDS contest beginning on Monday night. Without days off, this series will function differently from divisional rounds of years past. The Rays and Yankees will both need to rely on their pitching depth to get through this series, starting with a barnburner in game one as Blake Snell takes on Gerrit Cole.
The Rays are famous for relying on organizational depth, but throughout the course of the regular season they have the luxury of the railway between Triple-A and the big leagues to replenish the bullpen and keep fresh arms rotating into games. The Rays should still have plenty of depth to survive the five-game series if all goes according to plan, given 28-man rosters.
Still, expect to see a lot of different Rays’ arms cycling through games. Tampa starters went less than five innings per start during the regular season, and that’s true for their top trio as well as the rest of the staff. Tyler Glasnow will take the hill in game two, with Charlie Morton getting the start in game three, per MLB.com’s Juan Toribio (Twitter links). Glasnow, Morton, and Snell combined for an average of 4 2/3 innings per start during the regular season, and that’s not likely to change much during the playoffs, where each pitch registers as high-impact and stress levels reach season-highs.
In the bullpen, both the Rays and Yankees are used to relying on a number of different arms for high-leverage innings. That will be important if the series goes the distance. Yankees’ closer Aroldis Chapman probably carries the single biggest individual burden, but Zack Britton can expect at least equal usage coming out of the pen for stress outs in the middle-to-late innings. As they have all season, the Rays will go with a bullpen-by-committee approach, leaning heavily on the quartet of Nick Anderson, Diego Castillo, Pete Fairbanks, and John Curtiss late in games.
On the offensive end, The Athletic’s Eno Sarris points out that the Rays strike out a lot and don’t homer very much, which isn’t a typically strong recipe for October. On the other hand, in a conversation with Lindsey Adler, he writes: “But what teams are we talking about? The Rays ran out 60 different lineups in 60 games! They called up Randy Arozarena and sent everyone running in September, and seemed like a different team.”
The Yankees, of course, have the advantage of Cole going in game one, who has a history of strong postseason starts. He’s also as close to a guarantee as there is in the game right now to provide length. That should get the Yankees off on the right foot. Plus, he’ll be backed by a potent offense that doesn’t have much in the way of weak spots. Luke Voit, Aaron Judge, Gleyber Torres, Gio Urshela, Giancarlo Stanton, even Aaron Hicks, Gary Sanchez, and Brett Gardner have proven their potency in the postseason. It’s a scary lineup, any way you slice it.
Still, the Rays have the best record in the American League, an 8-2 record against the Yankees, and a chip on their shoulder. Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times provides this quote from Kevin Kiermaier, “We’re a small-market team with a low payroll, not a whole lot of household names, but with a lot of very good, above-average, quality major-league baseball players. One through 28, or however many roster spots we’re allowed, we know we can play with anyone. We know we can beat anyone.”
The Rays 3.56 team ERA was 2nd-best in the American League, where the Yankees finished 8th. By FIP the gap closes a bit with the Rays finishing 3rd and the Yankees 7th. The Yankees led the Rays by just 0.4 offensive fWAR, though their 116 wRC+ as a team was the best mark in the American League. The Rays are no slouches in that department either, finishing fourth at 109 wRC+.
Austin Meadows has been a big part of that offense for Tampa Bay – at least in theory – and he’s working his way back to full health, per Toribio (via Twitter). Meadows might have the highest ceiling offensively in the Rays lineup, but it’s been a tough year for the outfielder, who managed just 36 games with a .205/.296/.371 line. He did not appear in their 2-game sweep of the Blue Jays in the Wild Card round. Without him, the Rays still have plenty of options, especially given the defensive prowess of Kiermaier and Manuel Margot, as well as the emergence of Arozarena, who could also continue to see time as the designated hitter.
As for the Yankees, they’ll be reliant as ever on an otherwordly offense that just continues to produce in key spots. Not even mentioned in their ridiculous collection of offensive talent above, DJ LeMahieu leads the way after winning the batting title in the America League. On the mound, Cole gives them a big-time punch in game one, but that could be his only appearance of the series. To pitch again, he’d have to come back on short rest in a potential game five. If the Yanks lose game one, it will certainly be interesting to see at what level of urgency they come to the park for game two. Masahiro Tanaka and J.A Happ are likely to follow Cole in the rotation, though manager Aaron Boone hasn’t officially set the rotation yet. High-profile rookie Deivi Garcia could get the ball in a potential game four.
All of which is to say: who knows? This is perhaps the preeminent series of the divisional round, which is saying a lot considering we have four divisional match-ups ahead. What say you? Who is going to come out on top to face the winner of the Astros and Athletics on the other side of the bracket? Save your personal preferences for the comments – I want to know who will win this series.
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