The Week Ahead: Last chance for Rays

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rays_090906.jpgWith apologies to the Philadelphia Phillies, the Tampa Bay Rays were the story of the postseason last year. They were the plucky little low-budget engine that could, discarding all comers — including mighty Boston in the ALCS — until meeting up with the eventual champions in the World Series.

They’ve still got a nice ballclub, entering the week at 72-64 and possessing the best team ERA in the AL East. But alas it hasn’t been enough to keep up with the division bullies known as the Yankees and Red Sox.

(Go here for a nice breakdown of all the playoff races)

If ever there was a week to rediscover the magic of 2008, this would be it. They can forget about catching the Yankees, who they trail by 14 1/2 games. And sitting 7 games behind the AL wild-card leading Red Sox, things are looking bleak. Also in the mix are the Texas Rangers, who are three games behind Boston, and four ahead of Tampa Bay.

But with all of that considered, the Rays still have a chance to make a move, but they have to do it now. They head to the Bronx for a four-game set against the Yankees, including a double-header on Monday. Then over the weekend they’ll be in Fenway for three games against the Red Sox.

A mediocre showing won’t be enough. They have to get hot. They have to go on a streak and gain some ground.

After this week, the Rays will only have 19 games left to play this season. If they’re still sitting 7 games back in the wild card chase, they can start making fishing plans. The Trop won’t be rocking in October.

It won’t be terribly surprising if the Rays fail, but it will still be a little sad. Everyone likes to root for an underdog. But the Rays’ run in the spotlight might be just about finished. Always facing budget issues, the Rays will have to make decisions on Carl Crawford ($10 million option), Akinori Iwamura ($4.35 million option) and Jason Bartlett (arbitration), among others this offseason.

Is the Rays’ dream over? Anything less than a huge week could prove it so.

FIVE SERIES TO WATCH
Rays at Yankees, Sept. 7-9:
Garza vs. Sabathia kicks off this key series, which begins with a doubleheader on Monday. The Rays are 5-6 against the Yankees this season.

Mariners at Angels, Sept. 8-10: The Mariners have made a nice run this season, but any serious thoughts at contending could end this week. After this series, Seattle heads to Texas.

Mets at Phillies, Sept. 11-13: Will the Mets collapse again late this season and surrender the division to the Phillies? Oh wait, that was last year. Yeah, I wouldn’t expect too much trash talk this time around.

Dodgers at Giants, Sept. 11-13: The Giants may be too far behind to catch L.A. But there’s still the wild-card chase, making this a huge series in San Francisco.

Rays at Red Sox, Sept. 11-13: It’s sort of become a mini-rivalry over the last couple seasons, but while the Rays remain a winning team, they remain a distant third in the AL East. Is there time to rediscover the magic?

ON THE TUBE
Wednesday, 7:05 p.m.: Rays at Yankees (ESPN)
Wednesday, 10:10 p.m.: Dodgers at Diamondbacks (ESPN)
*Saturday, 4:10 p.m.: White Sox at Angels (FOX)
*Saturday, 4:10 p.m.:  Mets at Phillies (FOX)
*Saturday, 4:10 p.m.:  Braves at Cardinals (FOX)
Sunday, 4 p.m.: Dodgers at Giants (TBS)
Sunday, 8:05 p.m.: Mets at Phillies (ESPN)
*Check local listings

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If you Twitter, you can find me there at @Bharks.

Report: Diamondbacks acquire Steven Souza from Rays; Yankees land Brandon Drury

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Update (6:35 PM ET): This is a three-team deal also involving the Diamondbacks, per Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic. The Diamondbacks will receive outfielder Steven Souza from the Rays and second baseman Brandon Drury will head to the Yankees. Lefty reliever Anthony Banda will go to the Rays, Piecoro adds. The Diamondbacks will also receive prospect Taylor Widener from the Yankees, per Joel Sherman of the New York Post. MLB.com’s Steve Gilbert adds that the Rays will get two players to be named later from the D-Backs.

Souza, 28, is earning $3.55 million in his first of three years of arbitration eligibility, so the Rays are presumably saving money in moving him. Last season, Souza hit a productive .239/.351/.459 with 30 home runs, 78 RBI, 78 runs scored, and 16 stolen bases in 617 plate appearances. Souza’s arrival almost certainly pushes Yasmany Tomas out of a starting gig.

Drury, 25, has played a handful of positions in his brief major league career. Last year, he played second base in Arizona, batting .267/.317/.447 with 13 home runs and 63 RBI in 480 PA.

Banda, 24, made his major league debut last season, posting an ugly 5.96 ERA with a 25/10 K/BB ratio in 25 2/3 innings. The peripherals suggest he pitched better than his ERA indicated.

Widener, 23, was selected by the Yankees in the 12th round of the 2016 draft. This past season with High-A Tampa, he pitched 119 1/3 innings and posted a 3.39 ERA with a 129/50 K/BB ratio. MLB Pipeline rated Widener as the 14th-best prospect in the Yankees’ system.

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Robert Murray of FanRag Sports reports that the Rays will acquire second base prospect Nick Solak from the Yankees. The Yankees’ return is presently not known.

Solak, 23, was selected by the Yankees in the second round of the 2016 draft. He spent last season between High-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton, hitting a combined .297/.384/.452 with 12 home runs, 53 RBI, 72 runs scored, and 14 stolen bases.

MLB Pipeline ranked Solak as the eighth-best prospect in the Yankees’ system and the fifth-best second base prospect in baseball, praising him for his ability to hit line drives as well as his speed.