It's been quite the 2023 season for the Tampa Bay Rays. They started the season by winning their first 13 games, positioning themselves nicely in the American League East division. They were the outright leaders until they hit a skid in July, finishing the month with an 8-16 record. They're currently three games behind the Baltimore Orioles, yet still maintain a five-game lead for the first Wild Card position. But the question remains: Can the Rays hold on long enough to secure that Wild Card spot?

A winning up-and-down season for the Rays

The Rays still boast a 72-49 record, and as mentioned earlier, they are five games ahead of the last Wild Card spot, currently held by the Toronto Blue Jays. While their impressive start to the season was noteworthy, it was way back in the first half of the season. After the All-Star break and trade deadline, it's a new game, where even the best teams are prone to experiencing massive slumps in their pursuit of making the postseason.

Since the All-Star break, the Rays have played at a .500 level, going 14-14. Following the trade deadline, where the Rays' most notable acquisition was Cleveland Guardians pitcher Aaron Civale, they've gone 12-7. The Rays are still very much alive in the AL East race, trailing by only three games. A single series could be the deciding factor in determining the division winner. They are scheduled to face the Orioles in a four-game series in mid-September in Baltimore.

There's no doubt the Rays are talented, as they've demonstrated throughout the season. However, what's been most impressive is how they've managed to handle adversity, especially considering some key losses to their roster throughout the season.

The Rays have battled injuries all season

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If the injury bug were a real-life insect, then the Rays' clubhouse would have been infested with them throughout the season. From the beginning of the season, the Rays have had to contend with what other teams would consider debilitating injuries. Yet, they have continued to roll on and remain highly competitive, especially in the highly competitive AL East. Just recently, they lost outfielder Manuel Margot due to an elbow injury, which seems to be somewhat of a recurring theme for Tampa Bay.

Arm injuries have significantly affected the Rays this season, particularly their starting pitching rotation, which might now have its own designated room at Tropicana Field due to the rapid accumulation of injured players. The most recent casualty is Shane McClanahan, who will miss not only the rest of this season but likely all of the next season as well due to Tommy John surgery. Surprisingly, there are two more players like him, Drew Rasmussen and Jeffrey Springs, who are also slated to undergo Tommy John surgery. Additionally, Shane Baz is still recovering from Tommy John surgery from last season.

They've also lost relief pitcher Garrett Cleavinger for the season and have had intermittent issues with starting pitcher Tyler Glasnow being on the injured list.

Despite all this, the Rays still maintain the sixth-best ERA in the majors at 3.87 and are second in WHIP at 1.20. Pitching-wise, this team is barely hanging on by a thread. However, they now face much bigger challenges that could impact both their offense and defense.

What's in store for Wander Franco?

Larger issues are at play when it comes to Wander Franco, which go far beyond the realm of baseball. Rumors and speculation abound, including legal implications, though nothing has been confirmed yet. Nevertheless, Franco has been a source of concern for the Rays this season before this issue arrived.

At the end of June, Rays manager Kevin Cash benched Franco due to his handling of frustrating situations. “Over the course of this season, there have been multiple instances where the way he's dealt with his frustrations hasn't aligned with our expectations of being a good teammate,” Cash stated, as reported by ESPN.

As mentioned, the current issue is of much greater magnitude, unrelated to baseball. Nonetheless, it adds yet another layer of difficulty to the Rays' already challenging season.

Franco ranks among the league's best defensive shortstops, preventing nine runs with an Outs Above Average (OAA) of 12, according to Statcast. Offensively, he's been a crucial part of the Rays lineup, which ranks eighth in batting average and fourth in runs. Finding a replacement for his .281 batting average, WRC+ of 129, and WAR of 4.7 won't be a simple plug and play task. They'll now have to rely on Osleivis Basabe, a 22-year-old prospect.

Can the Rays still reach the postseason?

We're still a month and a half away from the regular season's ending. It's simply too early to determine if the Rays can hold on until October.

As the leaves start to turn and the crisp fall air sets in, the Rays could be holding on for dear life just to field a competitive team. They've heavily relied on their bullpen all season, and their starting pitching has struggled to stay healthy. Now, they're dealing with an unconventional situation involving their star shortstop. If you're part of the Rays organization, you might be asking, “What else could go wrong?” Yet, it's better not to dwell on that thought, because another significant blow to either their lineup or rotation could potentially spell the end for this team.

Considering the Rays' resilience throughout the season, consistently finding ways to win with their deep pool of young talent from the farm system, a spot in October is still feasible. However, making it to the postseason might be the extent of their success, as a healthy, well-rounded roster is crucial for playoff success. Every injury or unfortunate situation further stretches the limits of this roster.