I’m not sure who’s going to win the American League wild-card spots, but I have a good idea who’s not — the Tampa Bay Rays, who once seemed a sure thing to make the playoffs.
The Rays know firsthand how little it takes to turn a season, having benefited in 2011 from the Red Sox’s collapse. Today the Red Sox are thriving, and the Rays are flopping. And it’s only taken 16 games, or three times around the rotation, for their fortunes to diverge.
On Saturday, Aug. 24, the Rays beat the Yankees to tie the Red Sox for first place in the AL East and go 21 games over .500. They were five games in front in the wild card race and seven games ahead of the Yankees.
Sixteen days later, and the AL wild-card race resembles the just-concluded New York Democratic mayoral primary: lots of options and no one to pick. The Rays can only hope they’re not playing the part of Anthony Weiner.
Like Weiner, the Rays have been dysfunctional this season. They’re seventh in team OPS (.740), yet just 13th in runs scored; eighth in OPS against (.692), yet also just 13th in runs allowed. They’re 12th in run differential at plus 35, yet have the ninth-best record in baseball, and fifth-best in the AL.
That would get them in the playoffs today, but there’s a line behind them — the Orioles and Indians a game-and-a-half, the Yankees two, even the Royals just three — you’ll never see at a ticket booth at Tropicana Field (the Rays are 15th in the AL in attendance).
Last year the Rays didn’t make the playoffs because their best player, Evan Longoria, was injured for more than half the season. Longoria played just 74 games and the Rays missed the playoffs by just three.
This year they might miss them because Longoria is healthy. Since July 1, Longoria is 51-for-232 with 69 strikeouts; if not for 15 extra-base hits in August, he’s been Delmon Young.
Who, speaking of, might explain a lot. Young joined the Rays at the beginning of September — that was the first sign for Rays fans 2013 might not end well.
Delmon was once the first pick of the minor league draft, but he did more good for the Rays when he left them — Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett came in return, and the Rays won the 2008 pennant — than he ever did for them. The Rays would have done well to remember that.
Young has had more luck hitting umpires than baseballs in his career, and less tolerance for others than he has patience at the plate. Which, given his 159 career walks in parts of eight seasons, isn’t much.
The Phillies, who are only 12 games under .500, released Young in late August; a good move, considering Young had a -1.2 WAR this year.
In those eight seasons, Young has amassed a total WAR of — calculators adding — 1.2. Or .15 per season. Or 1.2 less than Willie Bloomquist in 12 seasons.
The Rays are certainly capable of halting their slide. Longoria could start hitting, Matt Moore is back, Jeremy Hellickson is better than his record. But if the Tampa Bay Rays are depending on Delmon Young to get them into the playoffs, they’re in trouble.