Whether it's injuries to star players, a loaded American League or troubling off-the-field issues revolving around their supposed franchise pillar, this team inevitably books a ticket to the postseason. And that is not even including the small-market problems the Rays regularly face. Their 2023 season is truly something to behold.
But- and you had to know there was going to be a but- there is an underlying layer of skepticism surrounding Tampa's World Series chances. It is a similar one that often permeates St. Petersburg around this time of year. The lack of depth and star power always seems to catch up to Kevin Cash's squad.
Admittedly, these are not your older brother's Rays. The lineup boasts power from top to bottom, which nicely complements their aggressive base-running style. Despite losing a plethora of high-quality pitchers, none more costly than Shane McClanahan, the staff has held up. In fact it ranks in the top five in baseball with a 3.79 team ERA.
Though, these arms could be spread too thin, with the bullpen's burden becoming too cumbersome. In order to avoid an early end to what still has the makings of an historic year, the draw might have to break in the Rays' favor. Let's identify their nightmare scenario in the 2023 MLB playoffs.
— FOX 13 Tampa Bay (@FOX13News) September 17, 2023
Rays' nightmare seeding is No. 4
A team with the postseason experience of Tampa Bay can often navigate even the most unfavorable bracket, but the crop of expected AL Wild Card teams can each pose serious threats. Any of the four squads vying for the last two slots can conceivably advance to the Fall Classic. While a first-round bye potentially results in an abrupt loss of momentum, the Rays' entire playoff trajectory could change if they secure the No. 1 overall seed.
The Baltimore Orioles currently hold a one-game lead for the top spot and finish up with a soft schedule. Tampa has four games remaining against the desperate Toronto Blue Jays. Factor in the head-to-head tiebreaker, and overtaking the O's feels unlikely at this point. That mentality can't seep into the clubhouse, though.
This aggressive group has to stay in attack mode until the end of the regular season. Having home-field advantage throughout, which is something that has always alluded this franchise, could be enough to push Kevin Cash and company past their stiff competition. Despite Tropicana Field and its low attendance numbers frequently serving as a punchline, the Rays own the MLB's best record at home (53-27).
They are just 42-34 on the road. A Game 5 or 7 at the Trop, depending on the round, might be a pivotal difference-maker. Yes, anything can happen as long as you just get into the playoffs, but this team thrives on being in control. The likeliest way for Tampa to minimize the unpredictability that often defines October is by seizing the No. 1 seed.
Nightmare first-round matchup is Rangers
If the Rays are unable to rally in their final six games, then there are four possible teams they can play in a No. 4-5 seed matchup in the AL Wild Card round. As of now, Toronto is clinging to that slot and will likely guarantee that it holds, if it can soundly dispatch of Tampa Bay in the coming days. Postseason battles among divisional foes can be tricky, but a streaky Jays offense is arguably the best opening series fans can ask for. At least on paper.
The hard-hitting Texas Rangers is the worst. Both clubs roll out an imposing lineup that can do damage from 1-9 on any given night. There will be no shortage of power or clutch hits in this potential series. Texas has the more well-rounded offense with a batting average that tops the AL, while Tampa applies pressure by stealing bases. A rational person would conclude that pitching will determine the victor in this slugfest.
— Texas Rangers (@Rangers) September 23, 2023
The Rangers' ERA is more than half a run higher than the Rays'. Max Scherzer is probably not trotting out to the mound again this year. Nathan Eovaldi has not been the same since he came back from injury. And the team has played poorly in the second half. So why is this hypothetical clash not considered a dream matchup for St. Petersburg?
I hate to bang that drum again, but this pitching staff does not feel postseason-proof to me. It still has the edge over an injury-ravaged Rangers' starting rotation, but I see the gap being close enough that the games will be decided at the plate.
Yandy Diaz, Randy Arozarena and Josh Lowe undoubtedly lead a dangerous bunch of bats, but there are too many powerhouses on the other side. Corey Seager would be MVP if not for the anomaly that is Shohei Ohtani. Marcus Semien is an iron man who can hurt you in multiple ways. Jonah Heim and Josh Jung are wrapping up breakout, All-Star campaigns. And Bruce Bochy is at the helm.
Will the right guys step up for Rays?
Texas has flaws that can be exploited, but so too does Tampa's starting rotation. Although Tyler Glasnow has seen plenty of playoff action, he has a concerning 5.75 ERA in nine outings. Zach Eflin has been a major boost all year, and yet another shining example of the Rays' revitalization powers. But asking him to be a reliable No. 2 starter in a big game is a taller order than fans may think.
This is a definite World Series contender. No one can say any different after another stellar MLB campaign. The Tampa Bay Rays will still need some luck, however, if they are going to be the last one standing in the AL.