The AL East hasn’t been overwhelmingly good in 2017, but it has at least been close. All the teams have remained within seven or so games of one another, making it the tightest division race in baseball.
The Red Sox remain the favorites, but I don’t think it would shock anyone if any of these teams was the team left standing come October. And of course, it’s not as if only one of the five teams can make it — thanks to the Wild Card, up to three AL East teams could make their way into the postseason.
The Tampa Bay Rays currently sit in third place spitting distance behind the division-leading Red Sox/Yankees. According to FanGraphs’ playoff odds, they have a roughly one-in-four chance of making the playoffs. The currently last place Blue Jays have better odds after recovering from an abysmal start that dug them into a pretty deep hole.
However, the Rays are receiving a boost that those other teams are not in the form of Wilson Ramos’ debut. Coming off a 3.5 fWAR season in 2016, Ramos would have been the third most valuable position player on the Rays last season, behind only Evan Longoria and Kevin Kiermaier. Were it not for a torn ACL toward the end of the season, he would likely not be in Tampa, as he would have cost too much for the famously frugal Rays.
Because of the injury, Tampa was able to swoop in and sign him to a two-year, $12.5 million deal — dirt cheap considering his age (29) and the numbers he compiled last year. It almost could not have worked out worse for Ramos, but it’s a steal for the Rays.
The question then becomes whether Ramos’ return is enough to keep the Rays in the AL East race. Kiermaier broke his hip earlier this month, and will likely not be back until August at the earliest. That’s a big hole to fill, as Kiermaier had put together a 124 wRC+ since May 1. The Rays always seem to have to put their team together with tape and glue, but his absence makes that even more true than usual.
For one thing, it’s impossible to know at this moment in time whether Ramos’ is still the player he was in 2016. Conventional wisdom would say that he's not, at least not yet as he gets more comfortable with that surgically repaired knee.
And if he’s not, what then? Will he get back to that level in a few weeks? A couple months? Ever? That’s difficult to say, of course, but the Rays’ at least need him to be serviceable (read: better than the now-departed Derek Norris) if they are to keep pace with the rest of the division.
The projections aren’t particularly rosy, at least as compared to 2016. Both FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus peg Ramos as about a league-average hitter, if not a little bit below. That’s fine — especially for a catcher, but it doesn’t lend a lot of credence to the theory that Ramos is a masher just waiting to be unleashed.
The Rays don’t necessarily need a star to remain in the thick of the AL East pennant race. If they can tread water until Kiermaier comes back — especially if they can get their pitching in order (more on that later in the week) — they’ll be able to hang in there just fine. But if — and I stress if — Ramos is capable of performing like he did in 2016...well, that would be a much welcome addition to the Rays lineup.
Tampa Bay hasn’t made the playoffs since 2013, and they would surely like a trip back. For them to get there, it would be nice for their biggest free agent acquisition in years to play like the bargain we all thought Ramos was when the Rays inked a deal with him.
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Joe Clarkin is a featured writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Clarkin.