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Rays prepared for run at AL East crown in '20

@juanctoribio
February 9, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG -- Making the postseason in 2019 was a big step in the right direction for the Rays, providing invaluable experience to a young core and creating even more excitement heading into the 2020 season. While Tampa Bay’s season ultimately ended with a Game 5 loss to the Astros

ST. PETERSBURG -- Making the postseason in 2019 was a big step in the right direction for the Rays, providing invaluable experience to a young core and creating even more excitement heading into the 2020 season.

While Tampa Bay’s season ultimately ended with a Game 5 loss to the Astros in the American League Division Series, the general belief inside the clubhouse was that the team would be well-positioned to make another run at an AL East division title in ‘20.

“You would always rather be talked about being good than not good, and that’s a credit to the team and the players,” said Rays manager Kevin Cash. “The reason people are saying [we’re a favorite] is because of the performance last season. But saying that, we have to build off of it. Everybody in our building and in our clubhouse, they all recognize we want to get further. We all went home with a little bit of a sour taste in our mouth.”

Tampa Bay returns most of the key contributors that helped the club win 96 games in ‘19. They’re led by three All-Star-caliber hurlers in Charlie Morton, Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow. The trio has the potential to be one of the best in the Majors, but they’re not alone.

The Rays brought back everyone from a pitching staff that led the Majors with a 3.65 ERA, and they are hoping for continued improvement from some of their young relievers. The expectation is that Diego Castillo, Nick Anderson and Colin Poche continue to improve, and there’s optimism that José Alvarado can return to his 2018 form after a disappointing ‘19 season, giving the club yet another weapon out of the bullpen.

Though the talent is there, the effectiveness of pitching staffs tend to be volatile on a year-to-year basis, particularly in the ‘pen. Because of that, there is always a possibility that the Rays’ pitching staff could take a step back this season. However, no team that led the Majors in ERA has finished outside the top 10 in the same statistic during the following campaign.

“Our bullpen is so disgusting and our pitching staff is the same way,” Snell said. “If we all execute the way we know we can and we hold each other accountable and keep growing and getting better, it could be a scary group.”

Offensively, the Rays will have a new look. Tommy Pham, Avisaíl García, Eric Sogard and Travis d'Arnaud are no longer with the team, but Tampa Bay acquired Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, Hunter Renfroe, Randy Arozarena, Manuel Margot and José Martínez in order to replace some of that offensive production. Paired with Willy Adames, Ji-Man Choi, Austin Meadows, Brandon Lowe and Yandy Díaz, the Rays believe they have upgraded an offense that scored 4.71 runs per game last season, the fewest among AL playoff teams.

On paper, the Rays appear well-equipped to make another run at the postseason. The biggest challenge, however, will be trying to dethrone the Yankees and compete for the AL East crown.

New York ran away with the division in ‘19 with 103 wins, but after falling short of the World Series, the Yankees were aggressive in free agency, signing Gerrit Cole to a nine-year, $324 million deal during the Winter Meetings, making them the odds-on favorites to repeat in ‘20.

Adding Cole to the mix certainly doesn’t help the Rays’ chances. He dominated Tampa Bay in the postseason, allowing only one run in 15 2/3 innings of work. In four regular-season matchups against Cole, however, the Rays have fared much better, scoring 15 runs (10 earned) against the right-hander.

In order for the Rays to have a chance to edge the Yankees in the division, they’ll have to play better in head-to-head matchups, especially at Yankee Stadium. Tampa Bay lost 12 of 19 meetings against New York last season, including eight of 10 in the Bronx in which the Rays were outscored 62-25.

While beating the Yankees should be Tampa Bay’s main focus, it also has to worry about handling business against the rest of the division in order to lock up a Wild Card spot. The Rays had a winning record against three of the four teams in the division last season and finished with a 44-32 record against division foes. New York, however, beat the Orioles 17 times en route to a dominant 54-22 record against the rest of the AL East.

Toronto should be much-improved after making significant additions to the rotation, including former Dodgers hurler Hyun-Jin Ryu. Boston, on the other hand, appears to be undergoing a rebuild with chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom at the helm.

A reported deal that will send Mookie Betts and David Price to the Dodgers should also help the Rays’ chances in the division and the Wild Card race. Betts has been a nightmare for the Rays, and they are probably happy to see him leave for the National League. The four-time All-Star has hit 16 career home runs against Tampa Bay, his second most against any team beside the Orioles, who have allowed 20 homers to Betts. As a team, the Rays went 12-7 against the Red Sox in ‘19 but are 35-41 against the Sox since ’16.

The AL East is usually one of the toughest divisions in the Majors, but the window is certainly open for the Rays to make a run at a second consecutive postseason berth.

“I think we can do some really good things,” Glasnow said. “I’m not saying it’s World Series or bust, but we have the capability of taking it all the way. In my mind, that’s what I’m shooting for.”

Juan Toribio covers the Rays for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @juanctoribio.