The Tampa Bay Rays have the best record in the American League (37-20). That said, the Rays need an imposing standout hitter to emerge if they’re going to win the AL pennant.
Manager Kevin Cash has a bevy of reliable, productive position players: Brandon Lowe, Willy Adames, Mike Brosseau, Joey Wendle, and, when healthy, Yandy Diaz. Tampa Bay also has a handful of smooth defenders such as Kevin Kiermaier and Manuel Margot.
On the whole, they’ve been a respectable offense but not one that’s invigorating a great deal of fear into opposing teams. Tampa Bay’s offense is 12th in Major League Baseball in home runs (79), 13th in OPS (.754), 18th in hits (445), and 20th in runs (274) and batting average (.237).
The Rays win games because of their pitching. Even with the array of injuries the Rays pitching staff has endured, they find ways to eke out wins, and it’s the impetus being them winning the AL East for the first time since 2010. The moderate offense isn’t holding the Rays back. The postseason is a different animal, however.
No longer will they be mostly facing underachieving and/or rebuilding teams in the AL East, rather they could have to go up against stout pitching staffs, which the Cleveland Indians, Chicago White Sox, and Oakland Athletics possess.
Who’s going to step up?
Lowe was as hot as the equator in the opening weeks of the regular season but is hitting just .220 over his last 118 plate appearances; Wendle is a savvy contact hitter but not a power threat; Adames has taken the next step but not to the point where teams are pitching around him; Brousseau and Randy Arozarena have been churning home runs but are yet to do so for a prolonged period of time.
Ji-Man Choi is on the injured list with a hamstring injury and was previously struggling to get on base; Yoshi Tsutsugo and Hunter Renfroe are hitting below .200, albeit they’ve combined for 16 home runs and 44 RBIs.
The Rays have recorded the most strikeouts in MLB this season (575). No one in this offense is making you shake in your boots.
Austin Meadows is supposed to be the heavy swinger on the Rays depth chart. Last season he grew into one of the best hitting outfielders and young stars in the sport. Hitting .291, posting a .922 OPS, and totaling 33 home runs and 89 RBIs, he was a force to be reckoned with at the top of the order, creating offense and driving in runs at a high level in what was his first full season in the big leagues.
Unfortunately for Meadows, his 2020 campaign has been a downer, to say the least. He missed the first two weeks of the regular season due to COVID-19 and never got into a groove at the plate when he returned. He was behind on a lot of pitches, struck out at a high clip, and was a minimal threat in the batter’s box. Last week he was placed on the injured list with an oblique strain and may not return to play this season.
The trade deadline has passed; getting around this hurdle involves someone from the inside answering the bell.
Why is this so important? If there’s no one in a lineup that’s a persistent threat to go yard and work the count in doing so, there’s no one to pitch around. Bigger than that, there’s no intimidating base clearer to drive home runners in scoring position in tight, postseason games. Tampa Bay has a lot of the same type of hitter; it’s a matter of how Cash aligns them.
No matter how multi-dimensional or dominant a team’s pitching staff is, they need their offense to come through in crunch time, specifically manufacturing runs and getting runners on the basepaths home safety, and vice versa (a great offense needs a steady, deep pitching staff by its side); no team wins a World Series with half its roster playing below the weather.
You can go back as far as you want: World Series winners have at least two electric hitters in their lineup. The Washington Nationals (Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto), Boston Red Sox (Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez), Houston Astros (Jose Altuve and George Springer), Chicago Cubs (Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo), and Kansas City Royals (Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas) had sharp, middle-of-the-order hitters.
The Rays have as good of a chance as the field to win the World Series, but that comes with a caveat. They can squeak past the first round hitting the way they’ve been this season, playing small ball and getting occasional power flurries. Moving forward, that’s not going to get it done.
Perhaps the Rays can be like the 2015 Royals who had a similar offensive structure: a lot of very good but not elite hitters. At the same time, as previously alluded to, Kansas City had players step up and hit like All-Stars when it mattered most.
The Rays have made no excuses for the injuries they’ve suffered; they keep grinding away and finding ways to win. They play the matchups well from all aspects of the game.
This offense has been much like last season with different faces. Without a standout hitter stepping forward, the Tampa Bay Rays will come up short in October. Is there an in-house answer, or has Cash received the utmost production from his ballclub?