When Astros fans tune into Wednesday night’s AL wild card tilt, there will be plenty of familiar faces on display. Fans have no doubt become familiar with much of the Oakland roster over the last couple of years, as the A’s have been the Astros’ fiercest division rival in the AL West to date. On the other side, Astros World Series champion Charlie Morton will take the hill in this win or go home contest. Morton has continued his dominant late career run with the Rays, who snapped him up on a two year deal when the Astros decided against offering him a competitive contract.
In fact, Morton has enjoyed the best season of his career in 2019, and is likely to get some down-ballot Cy Young support. Across a career-high 194.2 innings, Morton has put together a 3.05 ERA and 2.81 FIP, supported by a career high K rate of 30.4% and his lowest walk rate since 2012 with Pittsburgh, 7.2%. There’s no smoke and mirrors here- the 35 year old Morton has been a top five starter in the AL for Tampa, and a bona fide ace.
Opposing Morton will be... well, we’re not yet sure. The A’s are yet to announce their starter for the game, and there’s a chance that it will actually be a member of their bullpen. Much like last season, the A’s come armed with one of the more impressive pens in the majors, anchored by Aussie stopper Liam Hendriks, and have a scrap heap rotation with no clear top dog. If Oakland does opt to use a starter, expect to see either Sean Manaea or Mike Fiers, who both have their share of warts.
The 34 year old Fiers is still capable of frustrating lineups on his best nights and has a solid 3.90 ERA, but, as he did last season, he’s greatly outperforming his FIP of 4.97. His strikeout rate has dipped all the way to 16.7% this year, which has translated to a 9.7% K-BB%, the lowest he has posted since 2013. Manea, on the other hand, has premium stuff in his high octane heater and plus slider, and he’s been aces when healthy this season. The issue? He’s been healthy very little- as we enter the postseason, he’s started five games and thrown 29.2 innings. Manaea made his 2019 season debut on September 1, and has started once per week since then, his last start falling on 9/30.
In that five start stretch, Manaea has gone at least five innings and allowed two runs or less in each outing, including a start against the Yankees and two against Texas. At his best, Manaea’s fastball-slider combo can baffle a lineup, but it’s worth noting that his fastball velocity isn’t nearly what it used to be. The big lefty came into the league averaging 93.3 MPH on his four seamer in 2016, but that figure has dipped steadily to where it is now, a flat 90.0. The A’s may not be as comfortable using Manaea in a must-win situation with less juice on his heater, but they don’t have a ton of options. If the starter isn’t Fiers or Manaea, a bullpen game is most likely- and may be the A’s best option.
The A’s have been a superior offense to the Rays for more or less the entire year, but it isn’t a huge gap. Oakland ranks as the 5th-best offense in the majors by wRC+ with a mark of 107, besting the 9th-place Rays at 103, and hold a similar lead when the sample is limited to the second half. The Athletics defense has also been a calling card, led by their dynamite left side of the infield, Matt Chapman and Marcus Semien, both of whom could get MVP votes.
The Rays lack the star power of Oakland- there’s no Matt Chapman in the Tampa lineup- but their depth has carried them throughout the season, and their outfield has been one of the league’s best. Their stable of corner sluggers- Jesus Aguilar, Ji-Man Choi, Yandy Diaz and Nate Lowe- give them a diverse group of hitters to deploy both in the starting lineup and off the bench to attack favorable matchups- facilitated by the ample defensive versatility on their roster.
Overall, the A’s have a bit of an advantage on the offensive side, but easy outs are rare to come by against Tampa as well. And while the A’s bullpen has been dynamite, the Rays are one of the few teams that could claim to be better in that regard. Over the course of the season, Rays relievers threw a league leading 772 innings, inflated by their use of the opener. Despite the massive volume (the A’s threw 581.2 and only two other teams topped 700), the Rays posted outstanding numbers, with a 3.71 ERA, lowest in the majors, and a 3.94 FIP, second to Minnesota.
The names out of the Tampa pen aren’t big ones, but they make up a diverse arsenal for the coaching staff. There are fireballers such as Diego Castillo, spin artists like Chaz Roe, and novelties a la Colin Poche and his ghost fastball or Oliver Drake with his extreme over-the-top arm slot. In short, the A’s have their work cut out for them against this group, and things won’t look much easier for future opponents if the Rays advance. Even if you’re able to chase Morton, you’re up against a parade of extremely tough matchups out of the pen. It might not even be a death knell if the starter has to exit in the first few innings, as long men Yonny Chirinos and Jalen Beeks are in the mix to get the game to the later stages. And, while Morton has had to rise to the occasion with multiple injuries to the Tampa rotation, the team is almost full strength entering the postseason. 2018 Cy Young winner Blake Snell is back and throwing well, as is 6’7” monster Tyler Glasnow, who has been one of the league’s best arms when healthy.
To me, if you’re an Astros fan, there’s little question who you’d rather face. The A’s lineup is nothing to sneeze at, and their bullpen is capable of protecting a lead of any size. However, it’s hard to imagine their rotation sustaining a playoff run of significant length against the powerful offenses in the AL postseason picture. Tampa’s offense is probably the weakest on the AL side of the bracket, but they still have powerful, patient hitters up and down the lineup even if it lacks a superstar- and Austin Meadows could be blossoming into just that. Their pitching staff won’t need a ton of help to carry them a long way if they get production out of their top three starters- and it’s hard to imagine that they won’t. I think a case can be made that the Rays’ stable of arms makes them a bigger postseason threat than the Yankees, even with the return of Luis Severino. As far as this Astros fan is concerned, go A’s.