- Senior writer of SweetSpot baseball blog
- Former deputy editor of Page 2
- Been with ESPN.com since 1995
The Tampa Bay Rays are going to win the 2020 World Series.
Honestly, it seems a little silly to be making predictions in this most unpredictable of seasons for Major League Baseball, but assuming we do play ball and get through 60 games and the playoffs without cancellation, the Rays will be the last team standing. I have no idea what the celebration will look like, but it would be apropos for that clinching game to be played inside at Tropicana Field, given that that’s where many of us have been stuck these past few months.
Picking the Rays isn’t really an outlandish choice, seeing as they made the playoffs last year and nearly upset the Astros in the American League Division Series. This is a good team with terrific depth throughout its 40-man roster (or, really, throughout its 60-man summer camp roster). It has been moving in the right direction, from 68 wins in 2016 to 80 to 90 to last year’s 96. It has a core of young veterans, and though the offense lacks a big-name superstar, the Rays have three starters in the rotation that could be as good as any trio in the majors: Charlie Morton, Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow.
Morton, who keeps getting better with age, finished third in the Cy Young Award voting in 2019. Snell won the award in 2018. Glasnow might be the best bet of the three to win it in 2020. That’s three great reasons to the pick Rays to win it all. We’ll get back to them in a moment, but the short season and the quick ramp up to the new Opening Day on July 23 (there will be two games that day, with every other team kicking off July 24) raise an important question about how the season will play differently over 60 games than it would have over 162.
There are two minds on the importance of pitching depth in the shortened schedule:
(1) It’s more important because starters won’t be ready to pitch as many innings early on, and one or two major injuries or a COVID-19 illness could be crushing in a short season if you lack depth.
(2) It’s less important because the short season means a team is more likely to get through it injury-free and thus be able to rely more on its best pitchers.
Here’s the thing with the Rays: They have both possibilities covered. Besides Morton, Snell and Glasnow, they have plenty of rotation depth:
• Ryan Yarbrough, who went 11-6 with a 4.13 ERA last year but held opposing batters to a .267 OBP, ninth among pitchers with at least 100 innings
• Yonny Chirinos, who went 9-5 with a 3.85 ERA and had the 12th-lowest OBP allowed among 100-inning pitchers
• Brendan McKay, the team’s top pitching prospect, who pitched 49 innings in the majors last year after cruising through the minors with a 1.10 ERA in 73⅔ innings
• Trevor Richards, acquired last season from the Marlins
• Joe Ryan, one of my favorite sleeper minor league prospects, who fanned 183 in 123⅔ innings and held batters to a .173 average
Yarbrough is the underrated pitcher, the antithesis of today’s trend of high-velocity, high-spin fastballs thrown up in the zone. He’s an old-school finesse lefty with a sinker, changeup, curveball and cutter that helps him get in on righties and induce a lot of weak contact. He ranked in the 99th percentile in hard-hit rate, which is why batters hit just .228 against him. Yarbrough didn’t have that pitch when he was in the Mariners’ system, but it has been the key weapon that helped him go 27-12 in his two season in the majors.
The bullpen, meanwhile, led the majors in ERA in 2019 and is full of power arms and relievers who can pitch multiple innings. Nick Anderson came over in that Marlins trade with Richards, and in 21⅓ innings with the Rays, he had a sparkling strikeout-to-walk ratio of 41-to-2. He should open as the closer with Diego Castillo, Colin Poche, Oliver Drake and Jose Alvarado the top setup guys.
It’s the big three, however, who will carry the staff. Last year, the trio combined to start 68 of the Rays’ 162 games, or 42%, and they still won 96 games. If each can make 12 starts in this abbreviated season, that’s 60% of the games, a huge boost to the Rays’ chances of not just making the playoffs but also dethroning the Yankees in the AL East.
Snell is the key. He followed his Cy Young season with an injury-marred 2019, missing time because of a broken toe and surgery for loose bodies in his elbow. He made 23 starts but pitched just 107 innings, finishing 6-8 with a 4.29 ERA. The stuff remained electric, however, and some of the underlying numbers suggest that he pitched into some bad luck. His xwOBA — expected weighted on-base average, based on quality of contact — was actually better in 2019 than in his Cy Young season and ranked in the top 8% in the league. In other words, he pitched much better than the 4.29 ERA indicates.
“Yeah, I know all the numbers,” he told me in March, right before spring training shut down. “It was a frustrating season with the injuries, and I do feel like there was some bad luck, but no excuses. The bottom line is I have to do better.”
Snell has had an interesting time since the 2019 season ended. First, he got into some hot water in the offseason, when he criticized the trade that sent Tommy Pham to the Padres while live streaming video games. The Rays’ front office quickly shrugged that one off. In fact, when I talked to general manager Erik Neander in spring training, he was more impressed that Snell knew about Xavier Edwards — the prospect the Rays acquired along with outfielder Hunter Renfroe — than worried about his star pitcher second-guessing a trade.
Snell’s spring training got off to a bad start when he missed a couple of weeks after receiving a cortisone shot for a sore elbow. When he returned in March, he walked four of the five batters he faced in a 22-pitch outing. In May, as the union and the owners negotiated the parameters of a possible return, Snell made headlines when he said he opposed the players taking further pay reductions.
“No, I gotta get my money. I’m not playing unless I get mine, OK?” Snell said while answering questions on his Twitch channel. “And that’s just the way it is. Like, I’m sorry you guys think differently, but the risk is way the hell higher, and the amount of money I’m making is way lower. Why would I think about doing that?”
Snell is ready to play now, however, and when the Rays returned last week to begin workouts at Tropicana Field, he backtracked somewhat from his comments in May. “The only thing about it that I didn’t like with what I said was just ‘I’ve gotta get mine.’ That was pretty bad,” he said. “Everything else I said past that was pretty correct. But just how I started it, I could see how it could anger people, so I’d apologize for that. Everything after that was pretty spot-on with what we’re doing right now.”
Some teammates also expressed initial concern about Morton’s desire to play through the pandemic, but Morton told reporters a couple of days ago that he’s ready to go. “If there are a bunch of people that are sacrificing their time and effort and their safety to make this possible, I feel like I should try,” he said.
Morton’s late-career emergence has been impressive. When he signed with the Astros in 2017, they transitioned him from throwing his sinker to throwing more four-seamers up in the zone. Not only did he start throwing harder, but he also entered the most durable phase of his career, with back-to-back 30-start seasons, including his going 16-6 with a 3.05 ERA and 240 strikeouts in 194.2 innings last year.
He’s in the final year of his two-year contract (there is an option for 2021), and he considered retirement after this season, but that future remains on hold. “Part of me doesn’t really want to end my career this way, if I could help it. I really don’t want to go out because of [the pandemic],” the 36-year-old said. For now, his focus will be on the next 60 games.
Given Morton’s age and the health issues last year for Snell and Glasnow, the short season should be a benefit to those three. The Rays won’t have to worry about monitoring innings and workload for them, like they would have over 162 games. That increases the team’s odds of beating the Yankees in the division.
Those odds go up if Glasnow does what he did last year, when he blazed to a 1.86 ERA through eight starts before missing nearly four months because of a forearm strain. He returned in time to pitch in the postseason, though he was the losing pitcher in the decisive Game 5, when the Astros noticed that he was tipping his pitches and tagged him for four runs in the bottom of the first of a 6-1 victory.
Once a hyped prospect with the Pirates, Glasnow was never able to put it together with the Pirates before the Rays stole him and Austin Meadows in the 2018 trade for Chris Archer. Glasnow is an engaging, athletic, 6-foot-8 tower of intimidation with a 97 mph fastball and wipeout curveball. He dominated with just those two pitches in 2019, though he was working on a splitter back in March. Good luck if that pitch becomes part of his arsenal.
Here’s why I’m picking the Rays. Recent World Series champs have all had strong trios of starters:
• 2019 Nationals: Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin went 43-20 with a 3.18 ERA. All three pitched some key innings in relief in the postseason to help cover the thin Washington bullpen, with Corbin tossing three scoreless innings in relief of Scherzer in Game 7 of the World Series.
• 2018 Red Sox: Chris Sale, David Price and Nathan Eovaldi went 31-14 with a 2.95 ERA. Eovaldi was an in-season acquisition, and Sale wasn’t 100 percent in the postseason, but all three started and relieved during the playoff run.
• 2017 Astros: Justin Verlander, Dallas Keuchel and Morton. Verlander went 5-0 with a 1.06 ERA in his five starts with Houston, and Keuchel and Morton went a combined 28-12 with a 3.26 ERA. When the Houston relievers struggled in the postseason, Morton came to the rescue and closed out Game 7 against the Dodgers with four innings of relief.
• 2016 Cubs: Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks went 53-21 with a 2.56 ERA, and Lester relieved Hendricks in Game 7 of the World Series.
Morton, Snell and Glasnow have similar World Series upside, and any of them could be the Game 1 starter by the time the postseason rolls around.
Also, don’t overlook the position player side of things. Meadows had a breakout 2019, hitting .291 with 33 home runs. He and shortstop Willy Adames might be the only full-time players, but Neander views that as a good thing. There is competition for playing time, and manager Kevin Cash will mix and match with platoons or go heavy on defense at times (Kevin Kiermaier and Manuel Margot give the Rays two elite defensive center fielders). Neander told me that the team had ideas on getting more out of Renfroe, who slugged 33 home runs for the Padres but hit just .208 against right-handers. At worst, he and fellow new addition Jose Martinez give the team two batters who can mash against lefties.
I didn’t even mention Yandy Diaz’s biceps or fan favorite Ji-Man Choi or 2019 All-Star Brandon Lowe or Japanese slugger Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, who might figure into the middle of the lineup. This is a fun team.
The Rays can win it all. Let’s just hope they get the opportunity to do it.
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