We'll be the first to admit that Rays vs. A's isn't exactly the biggest-name matchup you can think of in the playoffs, but don't let that cause you to think it won't be an interesting game. It's actually going to be fascinating, as two teams no one ever seems to give enough credit to each managed to win at least 96 games this year despite the presence of 100-win behemoths atop their divisions.
Put another way: You can't complain that you see "Red Sox vs. Yankees" too often and then not be excited to see a game like this. The prize isn't exactly an enticing one, of course, having to go right to Houston, but it's better than going home. How do these teams match up? Let's break it down position by position.
Travis d'Arnaud has been a revelation for Tampa Bay after presumed starter Mike Zunino struggled to hit or stay healthy. But for all of his big hits, d'Arnaud has been only slightly better than a league-average hitter for the Rays (107 OPS+). Meanwhile, A's rookie Sean Murphy has crushed his way to a .946 OPS, or a 149 OPS+. That's only been in all of 54 plate appearances, of course, and the Rays duo are average pitch framers, while Oakland's Josh Phegley has been a negative. (It's too soon to say about Murphy.) Throw all that into a pot, and you have a group of backstops without a clear advantage.
Ji-Man Choi (116 OPS+) has quietly had a strong season for the Rays, and he returned Sunday from a left foot injury that had put his availability in question. If he couldn't go vs. the A's, then Nate Lowe (113 OPS+) or Jesús Aguilar (116 OPS+ since arriving in Tampa Bay) might have, but with all due respect to them, it doesn't matter. Matt Olson isn't just one of baseball's hardest hitters -- though he is, with 36 dingers and a Top 10 hard-hit rate -- but he's also arguably the best defensive first baseman, too.
Big advantage: A's
This isn't really a strong position for each team, but at least Tampa Bay's second basemen have hit at near a league-average clip, while Oakland's .206/.273/.374 puts them in the bottom five. That's mostly because Jurickson Profar has failed to live up to expectations, and a hot August (.929 OPS) has turned into a .704 September that's basically what his entire season has looked like. (Rookie Sheldon Neuse may see time here too, but he's yet to impress in his first shot at the Majors, with a 79 OPS+.)
The Rays have had their own issues here, which is why they traded for Eric Sogard, but he's barely played in weeks due to a foot injury. This leaves them with Joey Wendle, who's been disappointing (72 OPS+), and Brandon Lowe, who was running a quiet Rookie of the Year argument before he was injured in July and missed two months. He hasn't done much at all in his few games back, but he was strong enough before he was hurt that he'll earn the Rays a small edge here.
Small advantage: Rays
Willy Adames has been impressive, truly, hitting 20 homers with a league-average bat and solid defense in his first full season as the Rays' shortstop. Five years after being the centerpiece of the deal that sent David Price to Detroit, Adames looks like a keeper.
We started with Adames because he's been good, but look, Marcus Semien is going to get top-3 Most Valuable Player votes. He's got a 139 OPS+, he's got 33 home runs, he's got improved defense, and he's currently sitting fifth in the Majors in Wins Above Replacement. (By WAR, he's been as valuable as Cody Bellinger, who is likely going to win the National League MVP.) Adames is solid, with some chance of future stardom. Semien is a star right now.
Huge advantage: A's
Take everything we said about Semien, add a few more homers, pump up the defense to "best in baseball" level, and you've got Chapman, who should be getting some down-ballot MVP support himself. The Rays haven't really had a regular third baseman -- Wendle and Matt Duffy have been getting most of the time recently -- but it doesn't really matter who suits up there. Few teams have a third baseman to match Chapman, and the Rays aren't digging up Nolan Arenado or Alex Bregman in time for Wednesday.
Enormous advantage: A's
It's fair here to point out that Seth Brown (lefty, with a .950 OPS against righties) and Chad Pinder (righty, with a .735 OPS against lefties) make for something of a decent platoon setup. But neither one can match up with either Austin Meadows (33 home runs, 144 OPS+) or Tommy Pham (21 homers, 118 OPS+), either of whom may end up playing left in the AL Wild Card game. That makes this an easy Tampa Bay advantage.
Kevin Kiermaier is probably the best defensive outfielder in baseball and has been for several years, but the problem is that he hasn't hit the last two years (80 OPS +combined) and he's been beset by injuries, including the sore neck that plagued him in September. If he'd been just a league-average hitter, he'd be a superstar, as he was his first four years in the bigs. Meanwhile, the A's shifted Ramón Laureano to right after an injury, and Mark Canha has been spectacular since taking over the job -- his .273/.396/.518 slash line is good for a 146 OPS+. Despite Laureano's reputation for incredible catches, Canha has been a defensive upgrade, too.
Small advantage: A's
For Tampa Bay, this might be Meadows, but even if it's not, Avisaíl García has had a strong season, popping 20 homers with a 110 OPS+. (He's also been a mild plus on defense, thanks to his surprising position as one of the fastest right fielders in the game.) Laureano brings his cannon arm here, and he's hit well in September. Robbie Grossman has had his moments here too; Stephen Piscotty hasn't played in a month and wasn't having a strong season before he was injured, but he was activated a few days ago and may be available.
Small advantage: Rays
It's difficult to know who Tampa Bay will start here; Diaz might be here if he's healthy, or Pham, or Lowe, or Aguilar, or perhaps Choi if he can't play first base. That gives Rays manager Kevin Cash plenty of options to mix and match. Now, if this had been last year, or any of the years before it, Khris Davis and his clockwork "I'll hit .247 and crush 40 homers doing it" would be the easy choice. But Davis has struggled this year (82 OPS+), and he's been a net negative to the Oakland offense.
It's a one-game playoff, so it's ridiculous to try to split this into "starters" and "relievers," especially since no starter is terribly likely to turn a lineup over three or four times. That makes it difficult to really give either side an advantage, but it really comes down to this: You wouldn't take left-hander Sean Manaea, who's been strong, over Tampa Bay starter Charlie Morton, who's been outstanding and is likely to pick up some down-ballot Cy Young votes.
You might say Oakland has the best reliever (Liam Hendricks and his 1.80 ERA and his 37.4 percent strikeout rate, but the Rays have Nick Anderson and his ridiculous 52.6 percent strikeout rate since joining the team (that's a 41/2 K/BB, seriously), plus Colin Poche, Emilio Pagan, and a whole host of interesting relievers you don't know.
There's no disrespect to the A's intended here, but even if you just look at pitchers on the active roster, Tampa Bay has a higher strikeout rate, a lower walk rate, and a similar home run rate.
So who's going to win this thing? Tampa Bay's pitchers might be stronger, but Oakland's offense is definitely stronger, and they might have the defensive edge, too. The good news for the Rays is that being the road team doesn't really matter; the visitors have won 8 of the 14 Wild Card games to date, and they've thrown all five Wild Card shutouts.
Your guaranteed-to-be-wrong prediction: Rays 5, A's 3.