The stage is set. The 2023 regular season has ended, and the 18 non-playoff teams have gone home for the winter, while the Orioles and 11 other clubs prepare for postseason baseball.
The O’s have known since Thursday, when they clinched the AL East, that they’ll be hosting the Division Series starting Saturday after a first-round bye. They also knew that they’d be facing the winner of the Wild Card series between the Rays and the second wild card team. After a surprising turn of events in yesterday’s MLB season finale, they now know the identity of that other team: the Texas Rangers.
It’s a shocking fall for the Rangers, who just five days ago led the AL West by 2.5 games with only four to play, completely in charge of their own fate. A final-series collapse by Texas, which lost three of four to the Mariners, combined with four straight wins by the Astros allowed Houston to leapfrog ahead for the division crown. And now the Rangers, instead of a first-round bye and home-field advantage in the ALDS, are forced into a best-of-three series held entirely in Tampa, where they’ll have to fight to survive another round.
And Orioles fans should be hoping against hope that they’ll do so.
I say that not as any disrespect to the Rangers, who are a formidable team in their own right. They boast a tremendous lineup that regularly includes eight or nine above-average hitters by OPS+, many of them well above. Shortstop Corey Seager, with his 33 homers and .330/.393/.628 slash line, would be the AL MVP in a world where Shohei Ohtani didn’t exist. Third baseman Josh Jung (23 homers, 70 RBIs) would be a serious Rookie of the Year candidate in a world where Gunnar Henderson didn’t exist. Prospect Evan Carter has been scalding hot since his September promotion, and Adolis Garcia (39 HRs, 107 RBIs) and Marcus Semien (29 HRs, 100 RBIs), among others, have put up huge numbers as well. The Rangers’ pitching, while not as stellar, features capable rotation arms such as Nathan Eovaldi, Dane Dunning, and Jordan Montgomery.
So, no, it’s not that I want the Orioles to face the Rangers in the ALDS. I just really don’t want them to face the Rays.
It’s an oddity of the MLB postseason system that the 101-win Orioles, the best team in the American League, could have to play against the 99-win Rays, the second-best team in the AL, before the Championship Series. But that’s what will happen unless the Rangers have something to say about it.
The Rays asserted themselves as a force to be reckoned with when they started the 2023 season with a 13-0 record, and while the O’s eventually caught up to and passed them, they remain a serious threat. The Rays have overcome a litany of challenges that could have wrecked their season, including season-ending injuries to three-fifths of their Opening Day rotation (Shane McClanahan, Drew Rasmussen, and Jeffrey Springs). Star shortstop Wander Franco, currently on administrative leave, is being investigated by Dominican authorities about multiple inappropriate relationships with minors. He might never return to MLB.
Through it all, the Rays keep winning. They’re like the horror movie villain that just won’t seem to die.
In a short series, the Rays can be especially dangerous. Their 1-2 punch atop the rotation, Tyler Glasnow and Zach Eflin, can go toe-to-toe with anyone in baseball. Facing those guys three times in a best-of-five series could offer some trouble for the Orioles, though they did have success against Glasnow this season (8.22 ERA in three starts). And even when that duo isn’t starting, the Rays could cobble together a bullpen game or two and not miss a beat, considering the many talented arms in their relief corps. At one point in September, the Tampa Bay bullpen pitched 36 consecutive scoreless innings (a streak that was snapped by, you guessed it, the Orioles).
All told, the Rays pitching staff ranked second in the majors with a 20.5 WAR, according to FanGraphs. The Rangers’ staff, in contrast, ranked 14th (14.8). Orioles hitters would likely have better luck taking their hacks against Texas than against Tampa Bay.
The Rays’ offense, too, is dangerous, quietly putting up numbers comparable to the high-octane Rangers. First baseman Yandy Díaz topped Seager for the AL batting title on the season’s final day, finishing with a .330 average to go with his .932 OPS. Third baseman Isaac Paredes enjoyed a breakout season with 31 homers, one of six Rays hitters to bash 20 or more. Second-year outfielders Josh Lowe and Luke Raley provided big production from the left side, joining prolific righties like Díaz, Paredes, and Oriole-killer Randy Arozarena. It’s hard to find a soft spot in the Rays’ lineup, even after late-season injuries to second baseman (and University of Maryland alum) Brandon Lowe and center fielder Jose Siri.
The Rays can cause havoc on the basepaths, too. Their 158 steals this year were the fourth-most in baseball. Josh Lowe (32-for-35) and infielder Taylor Walls (22-for-23) were especially good at picking their spots to run. It’s not a lineup you can pitch around.
When it comes to postseason play, the Rays are battle tested. This is Tampa Bay’s fifth consecutive year in the playoffs, and guys like Díaz, Glasnow, Arozarena, and Brandon Lowe have plenty of experience with October baseball. That could give them a leg up on the Orioles, whose most important young players have never felt the pressure that comes with playoff baseball. It remains to be seen how the Birds will handle their first taste.
The Orioles, no doubt, will be ready for whichever team wins this series. They would never admit to having a preference, and they certainly have the talent to win the Division Series regardless. But let’s face it: that task might be just a bit easier if they’re not playing the Rays.