The Tampa Bay Rays have forced a win-or-go-home Game 5 against the Houston Astros in the American League Division Series, winning Games 3 and 4 at Tropicana Field.
The story throughout this series has been Tampa Bay’s pitching staff holding the Astros offense to 13 runs in four games and understandably so. Meanwhile, while they’re not tearing the cover off the ball, the Rays offense has found a way to win back-to-back games with Zack Greinke and Justin Verlander on the hill. It’s an offense that was put together in a unique way.
Now, there are some exceptions, as Kevin Kiermaier, Willy Adames, and Brandon Lowe have spent their entire careers in Tampa Bay. But other than those three, the Rays are an offense that was put together on the fly.
Last season the Rays acquired outfielder Tommy Pham from the St. Louis Cardinals, and it proved to be a steal. Pham has totaled 21 home runs in each of the last two seasons and has blasted two home runs while hitting .429 and sporting an 1.169 OPS in the current postseason. He has been one of the most underrated outfielders in baseball from all aspects of the game.
Three teams have moved on from Ji-Man Choi since 2016 (Los Angeles Angels, New York Yankees, and Milwaukee Brewers), but the Rays took a flier on the first baseman in the middle of the 2018 season. After he consistently got on-base, Choi garnered the confidence of manager Kevin Cash to be an everyday player, and he has blossomed into a reliable first baseman. He sported an .822 OPS while totaling 19 home runs and 63 RBIs this season and is coming into his own defensively.
Travis d’Arnaud was the New York Mets starting catcher for the bulk of his career, but the organization cut ties with him earlier this season. After signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers, he was quickly dealt to the Rays. He has been their starting catcher since and one of the best hitting backstops in the sport, as d’Arnaud hit .263 and totaled 16 home runs and 67 RBIs in 92 games with the Rays this season.
The Rays signed outfielder Avisail Garcia to a one-year, $3.5 million deal in the offseason. While he hit just .236 in 2018, the veteran hit an astounding .330 in 2017 while totaling 80 RBIs; he has been more so the hitter of 2017 with the Rays. He hit .282 and totaled 20 home runs and 72 RBIs in the regular season and is hitting .353 in the postseason; Garcia was highway robbery for the Rays.
As part of a crowded three-team trade between the Rays, Cleveland Indians, and Seattle Mariners, infielder Yandy Diaz was sent to the Trop. He has played both corner infield positions and been a power jolt; Diaz totaled 14 home runs in 79 games. Then, after missing two and a half months due to a foot injury, Diaz blasted two home runs in the AL Wild Card Game against the Oakland Athletics, helping propel the Rays to the ALDS.
In one of the more surprising transactions of the MLB trade deadline, the Rays acquired first baseman Jesus Aguilar from the Milwaukee Brewers. While the big right-hander has struggled at the plate this season, he’s a year removed from hitting 35 home runs and 108 RBIs. He was granted just 92 at-bats with the Rays this season, but if they can right his swing in the offseason, Aguilar could be a valued asset in the middle of their order in 2020.
In a midseason trade with the Toronto Blue Jays, the Rays acquired infielder Eric Sogard. While he was only given 66 regular season at-bats, the first baseman made the most of his early reps, going 12-for-30 in his first 11 games with the Rays.
The Rays acquired infielder Joey Wendle from the Oakland Athletics after he appeared in just 36 games with them from 2016-17. In 2018 he hit a team-best .300 as an everyday player. Wendle missed the bulk of the 2019 regular season due to a wrist injury, but he has been utilized as a defensive replacement, plays shortstop and second and third base, and is a contact hitter.
Matt Duffy didn’t play in a single big-league game in 2017. So, naturally, he hit .294 as the team’s primary third baseman last season. Like Wendle, Duffy missed the bulk of this season due to injury, but he can play all around the infield and hits for contact. He gives them another capable bat and reliable fielder. Tampa Bay acquired Duffy in a 2016 trade with the San Francisco Giants.
Yes, even Austin Meadows didn’t begin his career in Tampa Bay. Acquired as part of the team’s return on Chris Archer from the Pittsburgh Pirates — along with Tyler Glasnow and Shane Baz — Meadows has grown into a franchise player for the Rays. Hitting .291 while sporting a .922 OPS and totaling 33 home runs and 89 RBIs, he’s the heart and soul of their offense and serves as such a player near the top of the order.
The 10 aforementioned players were all either out of baseball or on a different team to begin the 2017 MLB season. Other teams gave up on these players, and now they’re showcasing their capabilities on the big stage.
Statistically speaking, the Rays offense hasn’t been among the prolific units in the sport, rather they’re a gritty bunch that was in the middle of the pack this season. They finished the regular season 12th in MLB in batting average (.254), 14th in total bases (2,427) and OPS (.757), 18th in runs (769), and 21st in home runs (217).
This is a unique depth chart. Is it enough to overcome Gerrit Cole and the Astros in Game 5 at Minute Maid Park? Well, did you think this series was going back to Houston when it was 2-0 or that the Rays would even win a game in Tropicana Field? Did you think they’d knock Verlander out of Game 4 in the fourth inning? Did you think they’d win the AL Wild Card Game?
At this point, anything is possible for the Rays. They’re an offense that lives on a prayer but one with players who have endured sustained success in years past. Unpredictability can be a blessing or a curse. For the Rays, it’s a blessing and has them one game away from potentially going to the ALCS for the first time since 2008.