The team in its fourth straight American League Championship Series is the underdog. The team in its first ALCS in a dozen years is the favorite.
Roles have been reversed as the Rays and Astros meet in October for the second straight year. When they begin the ALCS at San Diego’s Petco Park tonight, it will have a completely different feel than last year’s AL Division Series. Back then, Houston was the powerhouse with a three-headed monster atop the rotation, and the Rays were the pesky little pests who won two games in Tropicana Field to push the Astros to the brink.
Now, the Astros are here in spite of … themselves. They were a sub-.500 regular-season club besieged by injuries. Their fall from first place in the AL West inspired leaguewide schadenfreude after the sign-stealing revelations that had rocked the baseball world. Their standing in the sport was lowered, but they responded by beating the Twins and A’s to a pulp to advance anyway.
The Rays, meanwhile, have simply been the AL’s best team in 2020, despite the usual payroll disadvantage. They cemented that standing by defeating the big-swinging Yankees in an exhilarating five-game ALDS. They are deep, they are flexible, they are wily and they are super confident.
Let’s take a look at how these clubs stack up, position by position.
The Rays’ Mike Zunino is coming off his third straight season in which his offensive performance has been well below league average, but he does have power (two homers in this postseason) and is a premium defender. Backup catcher Michael Perez is 2-for-5 with a homer in the postseason.
Houston's Martín Maldonado is also a strong defender and provided essentially league-average offense for the Astros this season, which is no small thing at this position. Though he’s been limited to a 3-for-21 showing with one homer, 11 strikeouts and no walks in the postseason, Maldonado gets the edge here.
Though the Rays didn’t get much thump from this position in the regular season, Ji-Man Choi returned from a hamstring issue to go 4-for-15 with a homer and double in the ALDS, and lefty killer Mike Brosseau has gone 4-for-8 with the biggest homer of the postseason, to date.
A subpar offensive season has continued for the Astros’ Yuli Gurriel in the postseason. After putting up just a .384 slugging percentage in the regular season, he’s gone 2-for-23 (albeit with just one strikeout) through the first two rounds of the playoffs.
Brandon Lowe was the Rays’ MVP in the regular season, with a .362 on-base percentage, .554 slugging percentage and 2.3 FanGraphs-calculated Wins Above Replacement. But to date, he’s been mostly invisible in October, going 2-for-26 with eight strikeouts and four walks.
After posting career lows in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage in the regular season and going 0-for-7 in the Wild Card Series, the Altuve we know and love showed up in the ALDS, going 6-for-15 with two homers and five RBIs. Altuve has a .920 OPS in 79 career plate appearances in the ALCS round, including the walk-off homer in Houston’s 2019 pennant-clinching win that earned him the series MVP Award and, yes, wound up generating a lot of offseason conversation.
The Rays' Willy Adames is an underrated asset -- a good, instinctive defender with an above-average bat. Alas, he’s 3-for-21 with nine strikeouts thus far in this postseason.
Carlos Correa had a “meh” kind of year for the Astros. Though he graded out well defensively (two Outs Above Average), he had a a career-low .709 OPS. But the postseason has energized him. He’s 10-for-20 with four homers, six walks and 12 RBIs. When he’s locked in like this, he’s one of the game’s premier players.
With Yandy Díaz only recently having returned from a hamstring issue and seeing more time at DH, Joey Wendle has handled the bulk of action at third base in this postseason and put up good at-bats. He’s 6-for-19 (all singles) with a pair of walks.
Though hamstring discomfort limited him, Alex Bregman nevertheless had a respectable .350 on-base percentage and .451 slugging percentage and good defense (two Outs Above Average) in the regular season. He rose to the occasion in the ALDS (6-for-15 with a homer and double).
Randy Arozarena, ladies and gentlemen. The Rays’ low-profile winter trade pickup has made his mark on this postseason by going 12-for-27 with six extra-base hits and playing with palpable passion and energy. This on the heels of a strong 23-game sample in the regular season (.281/.382/.641 slash).
• Round 2 of Rays' dance-off goes to Arozarena
The Astros’ fifth overall Draft pick in 2015, Kyle Tucker had his breakthrough season in 2020, with an .837 OPS, 27 extra-base hits and three Outs Above Average in the outfield. Though he’s yet to notch an extra-base hit in the postseason, he’s nevertheless been a hit machine, going 10-for-25 with just one strikeout. But Arozarena has been a star this month.
Tampa Bay's Kevin Kiermaier is an elite defender who tied for second in outfield Outs Above Average in 2020. And though his bat typically rates on the light side, he did have two doubles and a homer in the ALDS.
The Astros, though, have their own answer to Mr. October in George Springer. A pending free agent coming off a typically strong regular season (.899 OPS, 140 OPS+), he once again seized the postseason stage with a two-homer game in the ALDS.
Hunter Renfroe saw the majority of starts here for the Rays in the regular season but had a disappointing first season in Tampa Bay. Manuel Margot is also an option and a good defender. But the quick return of Austin Meadows from an oblique injury in time for the ALDS has lengthened the Rays’ lineup in a significant way. He homered twice against the Yankees.
Though he robbed a homer in Game 4 of the ALDS, it simply hasn’t been a good season for Houston veteran Josh Reddick. With minus-three Outs Above Average and a .693 OPS, he posted a negative WAR mark, and he’s followed that up by going 3-for-19 with six strikeouts in the postseason.
The Rays rotate guys in and out of this spot. It could be Díaz, it could be Meadows, it could be Renfroe, it could be Arozarena, it could be Yoshi Tsutsugo. Díaz, Renfroe and Tsutsugo have gone a combined 3-for-25 in this postseason.
Affectionately known as “Dr. Smooth,” Houston’s Michael Brantley reliably provides high-contact, low-whiff production. He had a .300/.364/.476 slash in the regular season and has gone 9-for-26 with two homers and two doubles in the first two rounds.
While the actual outcomes have been up and down, the bottom line is that the Rays have three horses in Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow and Charlie Morton who inspire confidence in the clubhouse on their start day. The Rays stayed away from Snell in the Game 5 finale with the Yankees, so he’ll be fully rested for Game 1 of the ALCS, and Morton will be fully rested for Game 2 after shaking off a subpar season with a strong outing (five innings, one run) against the Yankees. The Rays could use an opener again in this series, as they did in Game 4 of the ALDS with Ryan Thompson pitching 1 2/3 innings before handing it over to bulk guy Ryan Yarbrough.
The Astros have made it back to the ALCS despite losing Justin Verlander to injury and Gerrit Cole to free agency, then seeing Zack Greinke, Jose Urquidy and Lance McCullers Jr. allow a combined 14 earned runs in 21 1/3 innings thus far in the postseason. Arm soreness made Greinke iffy for the ALDS, but he was able to take the ball for Game 4. It was 26-year-old Framber Valdez who pitched like an ace in the ALDS, with seven strong innings in Game 2.
The Stable, as the Rays’ bullpen has come to be known, is a genuine strength for a Rays team that trots out dude after dude throwing gas. Nick Anderson, Pete Fairbanks and Diego Castillo have handled the bulk of the October innings (16 combined) and allowed a total of three runs on nine hits with five walks and 20 strikeouts. And manager Kevin Cash is savvy about how to deploy his weapons.
Because of Roberto Osuna’s absence, Ryan Pressly’s regression and loads of inexperience, the Astros’ bullpen looked like a clear weakness going into the postseason. But with rookies Cristian Javier and Enoli Paredes stepping up, the group has managed to post a 2.45 ERA in 25 2/3 innings. Still, that’s a small sample compared to a Rays team that’s rolled out one of baseball’s best relief corps all year.
Prediction: The Astros have clear strengths in the lineup and are back to mashing. And Dusty Baker has expertly deployed an inexperienced ‘pen. But a seven-game series with no off-days is just different. The schedule is going to catch up to the Astros. A Rays team with a bullpen that matches up well against Houston’s predominantly right-handed lineup and a flexible lineup that can consistently be manipulated to get the platoon advantage is going to win in tidy fashion. Tampa Bay in five.
Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.