The 2023 Tampa Bay Rays were a good baseball team with a bad narrative arc

The 2023 Tampa Bay Rays would make for terrible movie fodder. Winners of a record-threatening 13 in a row to begin the season and an excellent 99 games over the course of the season, the Rays went out with a whimper Wednesday in an AL wild-card series sweep at the hands of the Texas Rangers.

They again threatened history in the series, but it was of a less riveting variety: The franchise came within an out of matching MLB’s longest postseason scoreless streak by innings. In the end, the Rays scratched out one run across two games in which Jordan Montgomery and Nathan Eovaldi largely shielded Texas from needing to use its sketchy bullpen.

In this series, the Rays failed to exploit their opponents’ weakness. They bowed out of October barely resembling the team that introduced itself so boldly in April.

And it’s easy to see why. These Rays aren’t the same team that took over the baseball discourse in April.

The two most productive position players (Wander Franco and Brandon Lowe) and three most productive pitchers (Drew Rasmussen, Jeffrey Springs and Shane McClanahan) from that 13-game barnstorming campaign aren’t on the postseason roster. Four were lost to injury, and Franco is on administrative leave as authorities in the Dominican Republic investigate allegations that he had inappropriate relationships with underage girls.

Back when they were riding high, the Rays were already dealing with injuries to the pitching staff and made a point of crediting the “next men up,” who were, at that point, Kevin Kelly, Braden Bristo, Ryan Thompson and Taj Bradley — all of whom were also absent from the postseason roster. The ability to keep finding useful players to be the next men up is a trademark of the Rays’ success — of any baseball team’s success in the 2020s, but particularly the Rays’.

Over the past five seasons, this franchise has never ranked higher than 23rd in payroll by competitive balance tax calculations, but it has notched the fourth-most wins in baseball, behind only the Los Angeles Dodgers, Houston Astros and Atlanta Braves, plus the Rays have appeared in the World Series.

The turnover that occurs over the course of a 162-game season probably makes the Rays bad subjects for a movie. But it doesn’t inherently make them a bad baseball team — or a bad postseason baseball team. The Rays know that well. Randy Arozarena powered their 2020 pennant run having played only 23 games for the franchise prior to his star turn in the postseason.

A good lineup has a bad series

Manager Kevin Cash, declining to make excuses for the team’s anticlimactic exit in his postgame comments Wednesday, called the idea that the Rays didn’t have the same roster from their dominant April “an easy narrative.”

“We are who we are, and we finished the regular season with the guys that we had,” Cash said. “I still feel that we could have had a better showing with the roster that we had.”

And he’s right, of course.

The lineup the Rays fielded against the Rangers still packed the theoretical punch of five hitters who were at least 25% better than MLB average (by park-adjusted wRC+) in at least 300 plate appearances in 2023. They carried two more consensus top-50 prospects in Junior Caminero and Curtis Mead, who certainly have the talent to make an impact, despite their lack of track record.

The Rays featured a mix of October experience — Arozarena and Yandy Diaz — and relatively fresh faces — Josh Lowe and Isaac Paredes. They had contact hitters and home run hitters. They had lefties and righties in a series in which they faced one starter from each side.

No, there was no silver bullet that snared the Rays. Mostly, they fell short of their own standards. In the regular season, the Rays were one of the game’s most successful teams against breaking and offspeed pitches (fourth by wOBA), and they did that by being one of the most aggressive teams against them — swinging 50.8% of the time, a rate topped only by the Rockies, and batting .259 vs. such pitches.

In this wild-card series, though, their aggression didn’t pay off. They kept swinging at Montgomery’s curveball and changeup and at Eovaldi’s splitter. The result, in these two games, was disastrous. It meant they had fewer chances to strike back against a Rangers bullpen that struggled mightily down the stretch, running up a 4.67 ERA after the Aug. 1 trade deadline.

It meant that the Rays were themselves, even if that didn’t manifest in the ways we’d come to expect.

What led to the downfall of a 99-win team?

When we remark upon a baseball season having a “storybook ending,” we do so because such tidy arcs are way, way outside the norm. Recognizing that doesn’t help us make sense of all the other ones, though, so we try to retcon some foreshadowing or knowing pattern into the season.

In truth, it just doesn’t work. The final staccato notes that conclude every epic baseball season are clueless representatives of the whole. The juggernaut 13-0 Rays are not the same as the 99-win Rays, who are not the same as the punchless playoff Rays.

There are a lot of narratives you can try to pull out of a resounding loss. None of them is going to be satisfying.

Could employing more bold-name stars give the frugal Rays — who only recently secured plans for a more amenable future stadium and, relatedly, drew historically low attendance this series — a more reliable October attack? Perhaps, but their regular-season strategies are pretty tough to criticize, and a similarly constructed team navigated all the way to World Series Game 6 in MLB’s most wide-open postseason ever in 2020.

Could the Rays have done more at the trade deadline to improve their chances of outrunning the Baltimore Orioles in the AL East and avoiding this best-of-three situation altogether? Almost certainly, but at the time, their energy was focused on dealing for Aaron Civale to patch up a pitching staff that had lost two ace-level starters. With the Rays sitting 1.5 games back on deadline day, even that lower-key addition might’ve been enough had the team not lost McClanahan, a Cy Young contender, less than a week later. (Franco also left the team in mid-August as the allegations surfaced.)

After the trade deadline, the Rays — these Rays — played at a 104-win pace, while the Rangers — these Rangers — went 30-26 (an 87-win pace). But by virtue of baseball’s playoff format, the Rays earned the virtual coin flip of facing a similarly talented team, by projections’ estimations.

Maybe that 8-16 July, including a series loss to the Orioles, doomed Tampa Bay in the AL East. Or maybe it was the series split against the Orioles in September, when a sweep might’ve changed everything. Or maybe it was the stretch of bullpen struggles that followed the team’s hot start and contributed to a 22-25 record in one-run games.

Whatever the case, the 2023 Rays got our hopes up for good reason. This was a very good baseball team, one that will probably precede some more very good baseball teams. But in this particular year, 99 wins weren’t enough. In this particular series, the Rays’ bats weren’t good enough. In the crucial moments that decided first a division title and then playoff advancement, the Rays played second fiddle.

They faded into the noise, a piece of the backstory to be known but not explained.

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