When the Boston Red Sox embarked upon an organizational pivot just one year after winning the World Series, where did they go to find their new front-office operator?
They went to the Tampa Bay Rays, of course.
Like other pilferers past, the Red Sox knew the value of the Tampa Bay brainpower and summoned Chaim Bloom, a one-time Rays intern who had elevated to senior vice president, to be their chief baseball officer. And now, with Bloom’s Bostonians having dispatched the bitter rival Yankees in the American League Wild Card Game, a fascinating AL Division Series dynamic is upon us.
It begins Thursday night at Tropicana Field.
The Red Sox still have many of the seeds and sources of their 2018 World Series title, but with Bloom’s imprint — in a tenure that began with the Mookie Betts trade — rounding out the roster. And the Rays still operate as they did when Bloom was aboard, relentlessly refining the roster with emotionless efficiency and superior scouting and development.
We know how these clubs stacked up in the regular season, with the low-budget Rays running away from the big, bad Red Sox and Yankees to win their second consecutive AL East title. But how will they stack up in October?
Let’s analyze a best-of-five series that is bursting into … Bloom.
Boston’s Christian Vázquez had a disappointing offensive year, with a .258/.308/.352 slash. He did, however, turn it up a notch in the final month (.284/.310/.433), and his five defensive runs saved tied for fourth among catchers with at least 900 innings this season. He’s backed by Kevin Plawecki, a trusted veteran.
But the Rays’ Mike Zunino has had the better year. Zunino’s seven defensive runs saved ranked fourth among MLB catchers with at least 800 innings this season, and he’s coming off the best offensive season of his career (.860 OPS, 33 homers). His backup, Francisco Mejía, also had an above-average offensive year.
In the last couple months, the Rays primarily rotated between the left-handed Ji-Man Choi (.229/.348/.411 slash) and right-handed Deadline acquisition Jordan Luplow (.246/.319/.477) here. The right-handed Yandy Díaz (.256/.353/.387 slash) had a healthy dose of starts here prior to Luplow’s arrival. However it shakes out, the Rays have a mish-mash of guys who can produce at an above-average rate.
Boston, though, has more boom. Bobby Dalbec came alive in the second half with a .269/.344/.611 slash and 15 homers. Kyle Schwarber, who hit a 435-foot “Schwarbomb” in the Wild Card Game, could see starts here, as well, depending on the status of J.D. Martinez’s sprained ankle and the outfield arrangement. Dalbec did not grade out well as a defender at first this year (minus-7 outs above average), but he improved over the course of the year. It’s a tough call, but we’ll take the more powerful pair.
Brandon Lowe remains an all-too-unheralded gem who can be plugged in just about anywhere in the order (primarily at leadoff). He tied for third among MLB second basemen in FanGraphs’ WAR (5.2) and was also third in OPS (.863). He struggled initially in last year’s postseason, only to rise up with three home runs in the World Series.
With late-season starter José Iglesias unavailable for the postseason, the Red Sox went with a rusty Christian Arroyo (just 11 plate appearances since July 18) at second in the Wild Card Game (he went 0-for-3). Enrique Hernández also sees time here when he doesn’t start in center field.
Wander Franco is the future. And the present. The 20-year-old got on base in 43 consecutive games — a stretch in which he had more hits (55) than swinging strikes (48). He was not promoted until late June yet was still worth 2.5 fWAR, with a .288/.347/.463 slash. It will be exciting to see what he can deliver on the big stage.
But we’ve got to side with the establishment for now. Xander Bogaerts slumped at season’s end, only to hit the tone-setting, two-run homer off Gerrit Cole in the first inning of the Wild Card Game, followed by an impeccable relay throw to nab Aaron Judge at the plate and preserve what was then a two-run lead. For the year, he had a 295/.370/.493 slash and 23 home runs. He’s simply one of the best shortstops in baseball and still maintains an edge on the heralded rookie.
The aforementioned Díaz and Joey Wendle have mostly handled the hot corner for the Rays. Díaz has strong numbers against lefties (.288/.367/.445 slash), while Wendle, who was an All-Star this year, is above average against righties (.287/.332/.457).
No need for a platoon in Boston. The 24-year-old Rafael Devers is one of the game’s bright lights, with an .890 OPS that ranked third among qualified third basemen in the Majors this season. He had 38 homers and 37 doubles.
Austin Meadows and Randy Arozarena split up the starts pretty evenly here for the Rays. Nothing with this team is ironclad, but Meadows will probably be the primary guy in left and Arozarena the primary guy in right, so that’s how we’ll approach this exercise. With a .234/.315/.458 slash, 27 homers and 29 doubles, Meadows didn’t quite replicate his monster 2019 season, but he did improve substantially from a difficult 2020.
As for the Red Sox, again, much depends on Martinez’s status. But when the club is at full strength, Schwarber primarily starts here. The other option is Alex Verdugo, who has really locked in at the plate the last two games (5-for-9, five RBIs). That could be a big boost for Boston if it carries into the ALDS. For the season, Verdugo was just a bit better than league average at the plate (.289/.351/.426).
At 31, Kevin Kiermaier remains one of the most reliable center-field gloves in the game. His 10 outs above average tied for fifth-most at the position in 2021. And his just-north-of-league-average output (.259/.328/.388 slash) was his best offensive season in four years. (He’s also skilled at picking up things dropped on the ground, should that be a need at any point.) Manuel Margot’s .753 OPS against lefties and good defense make him a strong platoon partner here.
Enrique Hernández can start here for the Red Sox when he’s not at second base, and he’s an asset with seven outs above average in center field and a .250/.337/.449 slash. But the Sox take on a defensive downgrade if or when Hernández slides to second and Verdugo starts here. So we’ll give the edge to Kiermaier and Co.
Again, we’ll consider this Arozarena’s primary domain, though you’ll also see him in left, and you could also see Margot. But focusing primarily on Arozarena, he put himself in good position in the AL Rookie of the Year race. Though nowhere near as incendiary as his 2020 postseason, his regular season — .815 OPS, 20 homers, 32 doubles, three triples, 20 steals — made it clear he was no flash in the pan. He can hit to all fields and has blazing speed.
Former Rays outfielder Hunter Renfroe turned things around after a tough 2020 season in Tampa Bay, delivering an .816 OPS, 31 home runs and 33 doubles after signing a one-year pact for Boston. But as we saw last fall, Arozarena is the guy more likely to take over a series.
Nelson Cruz looked like a perfect pickup for the Rays at the Trade Deadline, and he has an extensive and excellent postseason history, with a 1.019 OPS, 17 homers and 12 doubles in 189 plate appearances. But the 41-year-old Cruz’s performance since the deal has not been up to his usual standard (.725 OPS in 55 games), so the Rays would love to see him rise to the October occasion.
As of this writing, it’s anybody’s guess if Martinez will be back for the ALDS round after injuring his ankle by, of all things, tripping over second base on his way to the outfield last weekend. If not, Schwarber can slot in as the DH. Martinez is an elite hitter, but, given the iffiness involved with Martinez, the fact that we’re primarily considering Schwarber a left fielder and Cruz’s postseason track record, let’s go with the ageless wonder.
This is a matchup of upside vs. experience.
The Rays won 100 games this season, and you’d be hard-pressed to find 10 casual baseball fans who can name a single member of their October rotation. It’s a credit to Tampa Bay’s depth and developmental system – and likely Games 1 through 3 starters Shane McClanahan (115 ERA+ in 25 starts), Shane Baz (200 ERA+ in three starts) and Drew Rasmussen (162 ERA+ in 20 appearances) — that the departures of Blake Snell and Charlie Morton and the loss of ace Tyler Glasnow to injury didn’t disrupt the Rays one bit. But because those three starters have a combined 38 starts in the big leagues between them (yes, the fewest of any trio used in the first three games in a postseason series in history), it will be fascinating to see how they handle this stage. As usual with the Rays, the hooks will be quick.
The Red Sox come into this with a more conventional outlook. They’ve got a bona fide ace in Chris Sale, who has a 3.16 ERA and 52 strikeouts in 42 2/3 innings since his return from Tommy John surgery. They have the excellent Nathan Eovaldi, who was nails in the Wild Card Game on the heels of a regular season in which his 2.79 fielding independent pitching (FIP) mark was the best in the AL. They’ve got 28-year-old Eduardo Rodriguez, who has a 3.26 ERA since the start of August. Their other options are Nick Pivetta and young Tanner Houck, who stepped up big for them this year.
Sale and Eovaldi are the difference-makers in this decision.
The Rays’ bullpen looks a lot different than last year at this time, and yet it’s still a strength. Andrew Kittredge (1.88 ERA in 71 2/3 innings), Pete Fairbanks (3.59 ERA in 42 2/3 innings) and multi-inning weapon Collin McHugh (1.55 ERA in 64 innings) are Kevin Cash’s most trusted high-leverage options. In-season trade acquisition J.P. Feyereisen and young (and temporarily converted) starter Luis Patiño are among the intriguing options, as well. The Rays’ 3.24 relief ERA was the AL’s best.
Alex Cora has his work cut out for him in this series, because Boston’s bullpen was really stretched down the stretch, due to the second-half collapse of Matt Barnes and Adam Ottavino. Cora had to get creative in using starters as relievers in the 2018 run, and he did it again to get here by using Pivetta, Houck and Rodriguez as relievers in the last two games. The recent return of Garrett Whitlock and some strong recent work from Hansel Robles and Ryan Brasier help calm things down, but there’s no denying that the Rays are in a better spot, relief-wise.
The only accurate prediction one can offer is that watching Kevin Cash and Cora, two of the most prepared and adept skippers in the sport, match wits for up to five games is going to be a lot of fun. But the Rays have built something special here, with a deep and flexible lineup and a deep and flexible pitching staff. Though this writer’s George Costanza-aided “opposite” selection was Red Sox in four, that’s only because it was the opposite of my real selection — Rays in four.