In back-to-back games on Friday and Saturday nights at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Wilson Ramos caught 19 innings, hit two home runs, drove in five runs and shepherded a young Tampa Bay Rays pitching staff to a pair of wins over the Baltimore Orioles. And on the third day, he rested. There is still half a season left to play, but if the playoffs started today, the Rays would be the second wild card in the American League, and Ramos would be their starting catcher.
“It’s the same as when I came to the Nationals,” Ramos, 29, said, comparing his new team to his old one. “It’s a lot of young talent. Once they get some experience, this team will be really good.”
Actually, Ramos, who missed the first 2 1/2 months of the season rehabilitating from major knee surgery, can be excused for being behind the rest of baseball in recognizing the new reality: the Rays are already good. And the addition of Ramos has only made them more so. A team that appeared to be constructing a future contender around its young core now looks like it may have arrived ahead of schedule.
“We look at the division and the makeup of our team,” said veteran pitcher Chris Archer, “and we think we can win the division.”
Their series win in Baltimore left the Rays at 43-41, five games out of first place in the AL East. The final week before the all-star break will be a crucial one, with a pair of games at Wrigley Field against the defending World Series champion Cubs — and their first meeting with former manager Joe Maddon since he left for Chicago — then four games at home against the first-place Boston Red Sox, the team they are chasing in the East.
“The aspirations,” Archer said, “are very high.”
With the July 31 trade deadline just four weeks away, the Rays are also one of the most intriguing clubs in baseball, and not in the way most observers would have expected. In January, when the Rays – coming off a 95-loss season in 2016 – traded away second baseman Logan Forsythe to the Los Angeles Dodgers for pitching prospect Jose De Leon, it looked like the beginning of a money-saving teardown. Throughout the spring and well into the season, rumors swirled about who else would be departing next — perhaps Archer, veteran third baseman Evan Longoria or closer Alex Colome.
But the Forsythe move stood alone — one the front office saw a one-off trade of talent for talent — and the large-scale teardown never came.
“You kind of scratch your head and wonder ‘where are we going?’ At same time, you trust what the front office is doing,” outfielder Steven Souza said of the Forsythe deal. “It seemed like it could have gone either way. It was a bad year last year, no way around it. You get to the offseason and you have a choice: do you still believe in this group, or not? And [the front office] did, and we believed it ourselves – last year was just an anomaly.”
Designated hitter Corey Dickerson, named a first-time all-star on Sunday, put it this way: “Just because we had a bad season doesn’t mean we weren’t good players.”
Now, instead of being trade-deadline sellers, the Rays look like they may be in the buyers’ column. Last week, they sent a pair of minor leaguers to the Miami Marlins for shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria, a defensive wizard who should shore up one of Tampa Bay’s trouble spots, as projected starter Matt Duffy has yet to play this season because of injuries. For those who have been around the Rays the longest, seeing the franchise actually add a big league piece via trade has been a strange experience.
“I’ve never been a part of a Rays trams that’s done that,” said Archer, who is in his sixth season with the team. “Other than a waiver claim, we haven’t actually gone out and made a trade for an impact player. And what [Hechavarria] brings to the field is very impactful.”
The arrival of Ramos that same week had the effect of a second major acquisition. An all-star and Silver Slugger award winner in 2016 with the Nationals, Ramos saw his massive free agent payday crumble when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament at the end of the season, forcing October surgery and tamping down his market to the point where he had to accept a two-year, $12.5 million deal from Tampa Bay.
At the time, the Rays figured they would not see Ramos in the majors until after the all-star break, at the soonest, but he beat their most optimistic timetable by a couple of weeks.
“He doesn’t even look like he was hurt. He’s moving great back there,” said Souza, who spent the 2014 season with Ramos in Washington. “You know he’ll hit – the track record is there. And once he does, it’s a different ballgame. I look at our team now, and I’d put us up against anybody.”