Rays-Guardians position-by-position breakdown

October 7th, 2022

If you love baseball solely for the long ball, um, Guardians-Rays might not be the series for you.

But if you love intelligently constructed clubs that revolve around great pitching, pesky hitting and good baserunning -- with a friendly little managerial rivalry mixed in -- then this best-of-three American League Wild Card Series that begins at noon ET on Friday at Progressive Field ought to be appealing.

The Guardians and Rays have operated similarly, building consistent contenders on a budget by constantly churning out pitching talent, identifying underrated offensive talent and making trades of established stars that certainly hurt in the moment but keep the pipeline percolating. Their managers -- Cleveland’s Terry Francona and Tampa Bay’s Kevin Cash -- are mentor and protégé, respectively, and used to engage in an annual prank war. Cash’s Rays teams have reached the postseason in four of his eight seasons, while Francona’s Cleveland clubs have made it six out of 10 times.

So these clubs are properly paired as they vie to advance to an AL Division Series date with the Yankees. Let’s see how they match up, position by position.

All stats are through Tuesday’s games.


The Rays were dealt a blow at the catching spot this year with Mike Zunino needing season-ending thoracic outlet syndrome surgery. They made a midseason trade for Christian Bethancourt to pair with Francisco Mejía, and it proved to be a solid move. Bethancourt was worth 1.2 fWAR for Tampa Bay in 45 games while providing league-average offense.

In Cleveland, the catching spot -- in which defense was prioritized -- has been an offensive wasteland, with primary catcher Austin Hedges turning in a sub-.500 OPS and backup Luke Maile faring only a bit better.

Advantage: Rays

First base

So ... this spot (and by extension, DH) is a little complicated, because both clubs rotate players and the edge on a given day could change based on the competition. But to keep it simple, we’ll pit the Guards’ Josh Naylor vs. the Rays’ Ji-Man Choi, as those are the two who have logged the most plate appearances at the position for their respective squads. Naylor bounced back from a gruesome calf and ankle injury to turn in a .766 OPS, 20 homers and 27 doubles. He had some huge clutch hits for Cleveland. Choi played in his most games (112) since 2019 (127), but his .708 OPS was more than 100 points lower than it was that year.

Advantage: Guardians

Second base

This is another spot where the Rays were dealt an injury blow. Brandon Lowe hasn’t played since Sept. 11 because of a back issue that ended his season. They’ve tried to piece it together with Isaac Paredes, Vidal Brujan and Taylor Walls.

Francisco Lindor trade acquisition Andrés Giménez’s All-Star breakout is a huge reason why the Guardians stormed to the top of the Central. Among all qualified AL second basemen, Giménez’s 141 weighted runs created plus and 6.2 fWAR ranked behind only the Astros’ Jose Altuve.

Big advantage: Guardians


This position is a lot closer than we would have guessed going into the year, because the Rays’ Wander Franco missed nearly three months with a hamate fracture, and another Lindor trade acquisition -- Amed Rosario -- hustled his way to a solid .283/.313/.405 slash and an MLB-high nine triples.

Even though Franco has been compromised this year, he has still managed a .277/.328/.417 slash in roughly half a season of play, and his outstanding performance in the ALDS against Boston last year (7-for-19 with two homers and two doubles) at age 20 was proof that the stage and the moment are not too big for this burgeoning superstar.

Advantage: Rays

Third base

Speaking of superstars, José Ramírez is the choice here. The Guardians signed him to an extension at the start of the season, and his high-energy, high-impact style of play is their guiding force. Though his production dove after a midseason thumb injury, Ramírez nevertheless had an extra-base hit total (77) second only among MLB third basemen to the Braves’ Austin Riley, and none drove in more runs (124).

All that said, this is another position much closer than we would have thought, because former Cleveland product Yandy Díaz had a fantastic year, with a .296/.401/.423 slash and a career-high 33 doubles.

Advantage: Guardians

Left field

What a year for Steven Kwan. The rookie looked poised and polished from day one, setting a record for most pitches (116) without a swing and miss to start a career and never looking back. Kwan became the leadoff igniter for the young Guardians, with a .299 average and a .372 on-base percentage. He also provides Gold Glove-worthy defense in left. He will receive AL Rookie of the Year votes.

But we’ve got to go with reigning AL Rookie of the Year Randy Arozarena here. He and Kwan actually have identical 124 wRC+ marks this season, while Kwan has the edge in fWAR (4.3 to 2.7). In the past two postseasons, however, Arozarena has been a force of nature. Among all players with at least 100 postseason plate appearances, Arozarena’s 1.197 OPS ranks behind just two guys -- Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig (both 1.214). Pretty good.

Advantage: Rays

Center field

As with catcher, there’s not much to write home about here, offensively. Cleveland’s Myles Straw had a .562 OPS that was the lowest among all MLB qualifiers. Rays midseason trade acquisition Jose Siri wasn’t much better, with a .609 OPS split between Houston and Tampa Bay. At least his production did improve a bit after the trade.

But these two are as good as it gets defensively. Both were worth 13 outs above average in center field, tops at the position. Because Siri’s offense was marginally better, he gets the slight edge, but these are basically two variations of the same theme.

Slight advantage: Rays

Right field

Arozarena does play some right field. So if you wanted to put him here and give the Rays the edge in right and Kwan the edge in left, that could work. But because most of Arozarena’s time is spent in left, we are pitting Oscar Gonzalez vs. Manuel Margot here. Margot is more experienced and has had some big moments on the postseason stage (.841 OPS in 22 games). He slashed .278/.330/.381 this season.

We’re going to award this one to Oscar, though. After debuting on May 26, the 24-year-old has delivered 11 homers, 27 doubles and a .785 OPS.

Slight advantage: Guardians

Designated hitter

Total hodgepodge here, and therefore it could go any number of ways. Harold Ramírez, who played for Cleveland last year, has taken most of the plate appearances for Tampa Bay in this spot, and his .303/.345/.408 slash has been a nice boost. For the Guardians, Franmil Reyes fell flat this year, so now the spot goes to whoever makes sense based on the matchup and the defensive alignment on a given day. Of the players we haven’t already assigned to a position, Owen Miller has seen the most time at DH, and he has a sub-.700 OPS for the year. But because the lineups will fluctuate, let’s just call it a ...

Slight advantage: Rays

Starting pitching

Now we’ve reached the part of the program where these two squads really shine: Pitching.

For the Rays, Shane McClanahan, who started the All-Star Game for the AL, had a Cy Young bid brewing before dealing with a late-season neck issue. Overall, he was terrific, with a 2.54 ERA and a 142 ERA+. Staff ace Tyler Glasnow made his long-awaited return from Tommy John on Sept. 28 (actually, against the Guardians), and looked sharp in two starts, though his workload will be limited. Lefty Jeffrey Springs transitioned from the bullpen in May and thrived, with a 2.66 ERA in 25 starts. Drew Rasmussen (2.84 ERA, 128 ERA+) can also provide length.

For the Guards, 2020 AL Cy Young winner Shane Bieber returned from injury and returned to prominence this year, with a 2.88 ERA and a 132 ERA+ in 200 innings. The 25-year-old Triston McKenzie broke out in a big way, with a 2.96 ERA and a 129 ERA+ in 191 1/3 innings. And Cal Quantrill (3.38 ERA, 113 ERA+) is not only unbeaten since July 5, but has never taken a loss in 34 career starts at Progressive Field. Both staffs are strong, but, especially with Glasnow not at full bore, we’re going with the home cooking here.

Slight advantage: Guardians


Cleveland has more of a traditional bullpen approach with a locked-in closer -- and an elite one, at that. Emmanuel Clase had an MLB-high 42 saves and a 1.36 ERA in 72 2/3 innings. James Karinchak (2.08 ERA) Trevor Stephan (2.73) and lefty Sam Hentges (2.32) can all set him up. The Guardians’ bullpen had MLB’s best ERA in the second half. And for the season, it had the fifth-fewest innings pitched.

Tampa Bay operates in a different way, with the bullpen taking on a much heavier load (an MLB-high 679 1/3 innings) and more of a committee approach with its annual assemblage of interesting arms. Eleven pitchers recorded a save, though right-handers Jason Adam (1.56 ERA) and Pete Fairbanks (1.13) led with eight apiece. The Rays actually led MLB with 33 blown saves, but on the flip side, they were second with 106 holds.

The Clase factor wins out here.

Advantage: Guardians


It should go without saying that a three-game series can go either way. Most postseason series go to the club that outhomers the other, but the Rays ranked 25th in MLB in home runs and the Guards 29th. Rather, this series will probably go to the club that finds the most holes with hits at opportune moments. And considering Cleveland set a franchise record with 29 wins in its last at-bat this season, we’ll count on the Guardians to squeak it out.

Guardians in three.