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Scouting report: How the A’s can navigate the Tampa Bay Rays’ lineup

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Tampa Bay Rays v Oakland Athletics Photo by Michael Zagaris/Oakland Athletics/Getty Images

Yesterday, we took a look at Tampa Bay starting pitcher Charlie Morton, whom the A’s will face in tonight’s Wild Card Game. With the announcement coming Tuesday morning that lefty Sean Manaea will take the mound for Oakland, we now have a decent idea of how the Rays will line up offensively.

On the season, the Rays hit slightly worse against lefties (101 wRC+, .318 wOBA) than they did against righties (103 wRC+, .322 wOBA). But they have a handful of solid platoon pieces that could give Manaea and the rest of the A’s lefty-heavy pitching staff some fits, and some of their best left-handed bats can hold their own against same-handed pitching.

Let’s take a position-by-position look at the hitters that could make Tampa Bay’s Wild Card roster. Likely starters’ names are in bold.

Catcher

Travis d’Arnaud (R), Mike Zunino (R)

Zunino began the season as the Rays’ starting catcher after an offseason trade brought the longtime Seattle backstop to town. But his offensive production took a massive step back, and he posted a career-low 45 wRC+. He’s a solid defensive catcher and he has some pop, but his 33.9% strikeout rate will likely keep him on the bench.

In May, Tampa Bay went out and added Mets and Dodgers castoff Travis d’Arnaud, and he brought some thump to their struggling catching situation. He posted a 107 wRC+ in 97 games with the team and was especially successful against lefties, slashing .276/.333/.552 with 10 home runs. He cooled off considerably after a red-hot July, but remains a threatening middle-of-the-order bat against left-handed pitching.

First Base

Jesus Aguilar (R), Ji-Man Choi (L), Nate Lowe (L)

The Rays bought low on another struggling slugger when they traded for Aguilar in July. He broke out for Milwaukee in 2018, swatting 35 home runs with an .890 OPS, but struggled at the start of 2019 and fell out of favor with the Brewers. He was pretty much a league average hitter in the second half for Tampa Bay, but hit lefties well (albeit, in a sample size of just 50 plate appearances).

Choi was one of Tampa’s best hitters in 2019, but struggled against lefties and will likely ride the pine on Wednesday night. He’ll be one of their top pinch-hit options once a right-handed pitcher enters the game, and his power and OBP make him a threatening bench option. Nate Lowe had a decent rookie year, but is limited defensively and might have trouble finding a spot on the roster.

Second Base

Michael Brosseau (R), Brandon Lowe (L), Joey Wendle (L)

This one is a bit of a toss-up, but the Rays tend to play their match-ups and might continue to do so by starting rookie Michael Brosseau at the keystone. He wasn’t much of a prospect entering the year, but crushed Triple-A and earned his big league call-up. He posted a 120 wRC+ against lefties in his limited action and has decent power, but Statcast is not a fan (.260 xwOBA).

It’ll be hard to sit Brandon Lowe, one of Tampa’s best young players and a likely Rookie of the Year candidate if not for an insane season from Yordan Alvarez down in Houston. But the left-handed slugger has drastic splits (77 wRC+ vs LHP, 138 wRC+ vs RHP) and might be best suited as another pinch-hitter. Former A’s second baseman Joey Wendle is a superb defender, but hasn’t been able to replicate his breakout 2018 and has the platoon disadvantage. The Rays could still chose to start him for his glove.

Third Base

Matt Duffy (R), Daniel Robertson (R)

The Rays have struggled to find a reliable third baseman after trading franchise player Evan Longoria, and they still don’t have a great option at the hot corner. Duffy is a solid defender and can draw a walk, but has virtually no power, even in an era when it seems everyone does.

Robertson, another former A’s infield prospect, hasn’t fared much better. He had a strong 2018 but has slashed only .213/.312/.295 in 74 games this season. He’s hit lefties much better than Duffy, but has still been a below average hitter, even against his strong side (88 wRC+). There’s a chance the Rays get creative and stash one of Brosseau, Wendle or Brandon Lowe at third base to maximize their offense.

Shortstop

Willy Adames (R)

This one seems pretty straightforward, as Adames started 150 of the Rays’ 162 games at shortstop. Originally acquired from the Detroit Tigers in the 2014 David Price trade, Adames has settled in nicely as a league average hitter with plus defense at a premium position. He hits for power and will also rack up his fair share of strikeouts. He has significant reverse platoon splits for his career, but it takes more than his season and a half of MLB experience for those to stabilize.

Wendle, Robertson and Brosseau are also capable of playing shortstop in a pinch, but are unlikely to see time there Wednesday unless Adames is pulled late in the game.

Outfield

Tommy Pham (R), Avisail Garcia (R), Austin Meadows (L), Guillermo Heredia (R), Kevin Kiermaier (L)

Tampa Bay’s outfield decisions really depend on whether they’re prioritizing offense or defense. Meadows and Pham have been the Rays’ two best hitters this season and are locks to start in the outfield corners. Both were acquired in separate deadline deals in the summer of 2018, and look like absolute steals a year and a half later.

Meadows slugged 33 homers and posted a 142 wRC+, leading the team in both categories, while Pham is a power-speed threat (21 HR, 25 SB) with serious on-base skills. Both hit lefties very well (160 wRC+ for Pham, 120 wRC+ for Meadows) and will make the middle of Tampa’s lineup tough to navigate.

Center field is a big question mark. Offensively, Garcia is probably the better option against lefties. For his career, he’s hit southpaws 20% better than righties (although he has slight reverse splits this season). But as A’s fans might remember from 2012, he isn’t the greatest outfielder defender, especially compared to two-time Gold Glove winner Kiermaier. He’s one of the best defensive center fielders in baseball, but injuries and offensive struggles have kept him in a part-time role. Kiermaier also has reverse splits this season (110 wRC+ vs LHP, 65 wRC+ vs RHP) and might earn the start as a result, even though he’s struggled against lefties for his career.

Heredia is your quintessential fourth or fifth outfielder. He’s a solid defensive replacement and has some speed, but if he gets at-bats on Wednesday night then something probably went very wrong for Tampa Bay.

Designated Hitter

Yandy Diaz (R)

The Rays have plenty of options here, and may ultimately choose to use Diaz at a corner infield spot instead. But the 28-year-old missed almost the entire second half due to a foot injury, returning for just one game on the final day of the season.

If he’s healthy enough to play, Tampa Bay would love to have Diaz back in the middle of their lineup. He was in the midst of a breakout year when he went down and absolutely crushes lefties (160 wRC+). A healthy Diaz is a huge threat, and could be a difference-maker.


The Rays don’t have many offensive stars, but what they lack in pure talent they make up for in depth and versatility. They can start a right-handed heavy lineup to match up against Manaea and relievers A.J. Puk and Jesus Luzardo, while having a pair of scary left-handed sluggers waiting on the bench to face righties Yusmeiro Petit and Liam Hendriks.

The A’s lefties will have to be pitch very carefully to d’Arnaud, Pham and Diaz, and Meadows is just a pure hitter. But the rest of the lineup isn’t too threatening, and keeping the bottom of the order off the bases might just be the key to an Oakland victory.

Interestingly, the Rays have been the worst playoff team at hitting against high velocity (95+ MPH). While this doesn’t mean much for Manaea or Petit, the A’s could exploit this weakness by leaning hard on Puk, Luzardo, Hendriks, and even Chris Bassitt or J.B. Wendelken. It’s not much, but it’s definitely worth keeping an eye on.

As a whole, Tampa Bay’s offense ranked ninth in baseball with a team 103 wRC+ (seventh among playoff qualifiers). They ranked 16th in runs scored and 21st in home runs, partially thanks to their pitcher-friendly home ballpark. But they haven’t done themselves many favors, posting the highest ground ball rate of any contender by a wide margin, as well as the second-lowest walk rate and second-highest strikeout rate.

No matter how you slice it, this Rays offense isn’t dominant. They’re deep, and manager Kevin Cash will make the most out of every match-up, but they lack the thump that most postseason teams have. Pitching is their strength, so expect a low-scoring game on both sides.

This one might be a nail-biter. My final doesn’t-matter-at-all prediction: 4-2 Oakland, with plenty of anxiety in both the early and late innings. First pitch is at 5:09 P.M. PT, and I’ll have your game thread. Buckle up — we’re about to get wild!