It’s A Race!

Three games? Whatever. Two games? Now that’s something.

Most of the baseball world had their eyes, ears, hearts and an assortment of other organs pointed toward Boston this weekend for the four game set between the Tampa Bay Rays and hometown Red Sox. Entering the series four games back of Boston for the American League Wild Card, the Rays took three of four and now find themselves only two games behind the Red Sox, with ten games remaining for both teams.

While Boston faces the Orioles seven more times this season and the Yankees three more times, the Rays have a theoretically more difficult schedule, closing out the season with seven games against the Yankees and three against the Blue Jays. However, considering the different directions that the two clubs have been heading for most of this month, it would hardly be shocking to see the Rays win two more games than the Red Sox out of their last ten.

It’s not all doom and gloom for Boston fans though. Despite the proximity in the standings, CoolStandings.com still lists the Red Sox as having a better than 90% chance of making the playoffs compared to the Rays’ 8.6%.

Obviously, with a race that has ended up being this tight, we have a habit of using hindsight to imagine how different scenarios might have played out. The biggest monument to what if thinking for the Red Sox has been the play of Carl Crawford, who despite signing a seven year contract for $142 million this past off season, has only managed to contribute a measly 0.4 wins above replacement thanks to a sub .300 OBP and a barely above .400 SLG. It’s easy to focus on what a massive disappointment that Crawford has been this season, but the Rays have their own stories of woe and what ifs.

How quickly we’ve forgotten that Manny Ramirez was a part of this Rays team that suddenly finds itself just on the outside, just looking in to the American League Wild Card. Even a non-performance enhancing and declining Ramirez would’ve provided a better option than Sam Fuld, Justin Ruggiano and Brandon Guyer at different points of the season. However, when you account for the possibility that more Manny would’ve also meant more Johnny Damon in the outfield and possibly even less Desmond Jennings on the active roster, Ramirez’s bat in the lineup isn’t such an obvious advantage.

Perhaps even more diappointing that Manny’s lack of contribution has been Reid Brignac. Never one to take a free pass, the Rays’ middle infielder has seen his walk rate plummet even further with a 3.7 BB% this year. Over 242 plate appearances, Brignac has struck out almost a quarter of the time while contributing more to the team losing, in terms of win probability added (or loss probability added when it comes to Brignac), than any other player on the roster.

Earlier this morning, Jonah Keri wrote about how this coming off season would be an interesting one for the Red Sox no matter what happens in the last ten games. However, I’d suggest that the Rays will be the more interesting team to wach once the World Series has been won. While it would only take a couple of upgrades to push the club into a different stratosphere this offseason, there are players currently in their system who could stake a claim on certain positions on the roster. It will also be interesting to see how the Rays handle James Shields coming off a career season and bound to attract interest from other clubs. With the Rays so close to a playoff spot this year, will they hold on to him for one more run in 2012?

Fortunately for Rays fans, the next ten days come first, as there’s the possibility of playoff baseball to consider long before any roster managment thinking has to be done. And I’m sure that the organization would love to push haaving to answer those question back for one more month.