MLB Playoff Preview: Houston Astros vs. Tampa Bay Rays
It is October once again and the return of fall nostalgia. The leaves have begun to fall, pumpkin spice lattes are in peak demand, and the Major League Baseball’s Fall Classic is back in full swing. In the coming days, I will be taking a glance at each of the four League Divisional Series and making predictions on who will advance. Our final preview features the Tampa Bay Rays vs. the Houston Astros.
Tampa Bay Rays vs. Houston Astros
Tampa Bay Rays Record: 96-66
Houston Astros Record: 107-55
Most Recent Playoff Matchup: Have never met in playoffs
Baseball’s heavyweight against small market moneyball. The Astros won their third consecutive AL West title, facing little competition while fielding what is undoubtedly one of the greatest teams of all time. The Oakland A’s won 97 games and finished 10 games back of first. That is how utterly dominant the Astros were over the competition this season. Tampa Bay put together one of the team’s greatest seasons as well, tying the franchise’s second best single season win total with 96. Tampa outlasted the Cleveland Indians for the second wildcard spot and teed off for home runs against the A’s in Oakland to win the Wild Card game 5-1 to secure their spot in the ALDS.
The Houston Astros are good at everything. Look up and down the lineup and there is not one weakness on the team. Veteran sluggers Jose Altuve, George Springer, Carlos Correa, and Alex Bregman headline a lineup that also features rookie Yordan Alvarez, Josh Reddick, and Michael Brantley. Those early decade seasons of tanking by the Astros have produced a historic wealth of talent throughout the diamond that can only be matched by a few teams in history. Incredibly, the pitching staff might be even better than the position players. Any team in the playoffs will be hard pressed to beat the 1-2-3 combo that is Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, and Zack Greinke. Just an absolutely filthy rotation. Oh yeah, and the bullpen is not bad either with Will Harris (1.50 ERA), Ryan Pressly (2.32 ERA), and closer Roberto Osuna (2.63 ERA).
The Tampa Bay Rays biggest strength is their pitching staff. Led by Charlie Morton, the Rays staff has a unique ability to grind out games and wear teams down. If offseason trade addition Tyler Glasnow can return to full form following the right forearm strain that put him on the Injured List for much of the season, the Rays can steal a couple games from Houston. The bullpen has also been lights out down the stretch while anchored by closer Emilio Pagan and Nick Anderson. The Astros are going to have some trouble putting up some late inning runs against the bullpen and need to attack early to beat the pitching of the Rays.
The Houston Astros do not have any weaknesses. They are about as close to a complete team as any modern day general manager is going to get.
The Rays biggest weakness on the season has been scoring runs, scoring only 769 all year. Austin Meadows and Tommy Pham are the biggest contributors to the offense, but even they only combined for 54 homeruns and 157 RBIs on the year. Yandy Diaz hit two homeruns during the AL Wild Card but doing that against the Astros pitching is a lot less likely. These offense struggles occurred in the hitter friendly AL East as well, perhaps masking the true depth of the Rays offensive deficits. Someone other than Pham and Meadows will have to step up for Tampa and carry the offensive load in the series, but no names in the lineup seem like a true possibility. The Rays have won all year on the back of their pitching staff, but they may have to take that to an extreme in this series if they are unable to generate runs.
Why the Houston Will Win
The Astros are the best team in baseball by a large margin. They won 107 games in the AL West, one of the better divisions in baseball on the year. One could argue that the Dodgers are the better team, but the competition in the National League is far inferior to that in the American League. Watching the Astros gives the viewer a feeling of inevitability. This iteration of the Astros has far too many weapons at its disposal to lose in the ALDS.
Why the Rays Will Win
The Rays have the lowest payroll in all of baseball but still managed to win 96 games, make it to the playoffs, and win a road wild card game to advance to the ALDS. Sure, none of those things may inspire any sort of confidence that the Rays can pull this series out. But these players seem to play for each other. Nearly all of them unwanted castoffs from teams that have found a home in Tampa. Add a little bit of luck to their team chemistry and it just might be enough to win three more games.
Houston in three. Its always weird to predict a sweep, and I do not think the Rays deserve to be swept. But I just can not see Houston losing either of the first two at home and Tropicana Field may be one of the worst home field advantages in all of baseball (other than the potential for opponents losing flyballs in the gray dome). As much as I would enjoy seeing the small market Rays advance to the ALCS once again, Houston is inevitable.