Over the last month, the Tampa Bay Rays have been one of the most exciting teams in the league.
*All stats and records current as of Wednesday*
In 2017 I made my yearly trek to Camden Yards for a weekend series of Orioles baseball, Natty Boh’s and Old Bay-covered everything. Baltimore won both games pretty handily, seeing as they were playing the Tampa Bay Rays. The Tampa Bay roster was void of any noticeable names or any talent, for that matter.
My, how quickly things change.
It’s hard for many fans to get excited about September baseball. At this point in the season, it’s more than likely that either your team is out of the playoff picture or you’re just burnt out after a near-162 game season. The college football cupcake season is underway and real NFL games are back, so baseball sort of takes a back seat until the playoffs begin to heat up. I get it, I guess. However, these new Tampa Bay Rays aren’t just attractive to the few thousand Rays fans in Florida, this team is becoming a legitimately fun one to watch.
Over their last 30 games, Tampa Bay is 22-8, surging to an 80-65 record, the 11th best record in Major League Baseball over that time frame. They have more wins than every team in the NL West division, yet have been eliminated from the American League playoffs. While the surge came a little too late and during a season in which the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees have two of the highest winning percentages in the league, Tampa Bay has set themselves up to make some serious noise in 2019.
A youthful wave of offense has injected life into a normally dull stadium.
I want to focus on the offense with this piece. Blake Snell is having a Cy Young season and young arms like Ryan Yarbrough have been fantastic in unique roles this season, however, the offense that the Tampa Bay Rays are putting together is quickly becoming one of the more exciting offenses in all of baseball.
It all starts with the youth. Willy Adames has been a highly touted prospect in the Rays organization for a long time. The 23-year-old shortstop was expected to take the starting position for himself this year, but he went 2-12 in May, hit .250 in June and struggled to hit .157 in July. Finally, Adames seems to have found his groove.
In this current 30-game stretch for the Rays, Adames is slashing .327/.405/.477 with four home runs and four doubles. Adames ended the month of July with a wRC+ of 15. He raised that number to 148 in August and currently sits at 144 in September. His groundball rate has risen nearly 17% over the last month, however, he’s doubled his hard-hit rate, leading to an abnormally high BABIP as he finds the holes.
Obviously, there will be a regression, but if Adames can start increasing his launch angle and make more line-drive contact, he’s going to be a dangerous hitter at the big league level. Since the All-Star break, he has increased his walk rate by 4% and lowered his strikeout rate by 9%. 2019 will be Adames’ breakout year. Mark it.
For those of you that love young talent, Tampa Bay has plenty more outside of Adames. After a long, hitless streak to begin his pro career, Brandon Lowe has shown fans that he can get on base and impress you with the long ball.
The left-handed infielder out of the University of Maryland is hitting .333 and getting on base at a .451 clip over his last 15 games. He’s also powered four home runs and drawn nine free passes, with ten strikeouts. Including this 105 mph rocket against the Orioles on Sunday.
Brandon Lowe's 3-run 💣 in the 1st
Many questioned Lowe’s defensive abilities, hence lowering his overall stock as a prospect, however, many of those same evaluators failed to take into account two serious lower-body injuries Lowe suffered in college and early on in his minor league career. He is now healthy, comfortable with major league pitching, and hitting the baseball with authority. If Lowe can show the ability to hit major league breaking pitches, watch out.
Best of all, he provides versatility out on the field. He’s already played 11 games at second base and 15 games in the outfield. With so many top infield prospects in the system, Lowe has seen more time in the outfield, which may prove to be a valuable career move.
Lastly, there is Mallex Smith. He’s stolen 31 bases and posted a .303 average, 128 wRC+ and a 3.2 fWAR in his first full season in the major leagues. He has a higher WAR than the entire roster of the Orioles and has half the combined WAR of the San Diego Padres.
A major contributing factor to his success is the fact that he has been doing a fantastic job of hitting breaking pitches. Normally, younger players struggle tremendously against the breaking pitch, however, Smith is hitting .275 against the pitch, an increase of 45 points (while also lowering his whiff rate by nearly 12%).
The Braves, Mariners, and Padres have to be shaking their head at seeing his emergence after trading him for jack squat.
Key veterans entering baseball prime at the perfect time.
Tampa Bay shocked everyone when they acquired outfielder Tommy Pham from the St. Louis Cardinals at the trade deadline. Pham took a serious step back from his 6.1 fWAR 2017 season, however, he’s still been worth 2.3 fWAR, hitting .257 with a .342 OBP and 111 wRC+ between his time in St. Louis and Tampa Bay. He’s going to be 31 when the 2019 season starts but this is only his second season with more than 100 games played, so he’s still extremely fresh.
The biggest reason for his decline with St. Louis was Mike Matheny. Pham is a classic case of how sometimes you just need a change of scenery. Take a look at his improvements since joining Tampa Bay.
|St. Louis||Tampa Bay|
He’s got speed, power, and the ability to get on base. Playing in the AL East could improve the power numbers as he plays the majority of his games in hitter-friendly ballparks.
Pham joins Kevin Kiermaier as another sneaky good 3-4 fWAR player for the Rays. He has missed much of the 2018 season with a torn ligament in his thumb but seems to be fully healthy again. In the month of September, Kiermaier is hitting .520 with three home runs and a 1.596 OPS. Granted, that includes a big series against the disaster that is the Baltimore Orioles rotation, however, he’s still been progressing week by week since returning from injury.
Teams have shifted on him more than ever (more than double the rate from last season) but Kiermaier has shown he can beat the shift, boosting his wOBA with the shift put on by about 70 points (compared to 2017) but using the opposite field to his advantage. Small adjustments like this are paying huge dividends for Kiermaier and this entire lineup.
I’ve already gone on long enough, yet I haven’t. I will leave you with a reminder of a few top prospects down in the lower minors who should make a big impact at the major league level, down the road. Brendan McKay will be a perfect asset for the Rays and their innovative strategies (hard-throwing pitcher and potential slugging first baseman), SS Wander Franco has every prospect evaluator in love, OF Jesus Sanchez has 55 grades across the board (according to MLB Pipeline) and could find himself in the heart of the Tampa Bay Rays lineup as soon as next year, and 1B Nathaniel Lowe is 6’4″ 235 pounds of home run hitting power.
Prayers to American League East pitching staffs.
There’s just no end to the thrilling prospects to follow in this system or the growing storylines coming out of Tampa Bay. They are putting up one of the best offensive seasons in nearly 10 years and I never even mentioned their Cy Young candidate, Blake Snell (full article in the works). Don’t be so quick to skip over a Rays game when you fire up the MLB.tv app. Take peek, I bet you will be impressed.
Come #TakeASeat and join the discussion @ArmchairMLB!
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