ALDS Red Sox Rays Baseball

Wander Franco is major league baseball’s next superstar.

The Tampa Bay Rays have cracked the "Moneyball" code.

A small market franchise with significant financial limitations, the Rays have become baseball's most efficient, well-run organization.

Far from a little club that could, these Rays are now a veritable juggernaut. Tampa Bay won a franchise-record 100 games, handily took its season series against all four AL East rivals, and in case anyone forgot, is still the defending American League champion.

All despite boasting a payroll of just $71 million and often fielding entire lineups collectively worth less than what the Red Sox paid retired second baseman Dustin Pedroia this year.

Needless to say, the Red Sox are going to have their hands full this week.

While the Rays are overflowing with talent, the club's stars generally lack name recognition. You probably know Nelson Cruz, and you might remember stud rookie Randy Arozarena from last year's World Series run, but they're hardly alone.

So get to know these names, Red Sox fans. One way or another you're going to learn to respect these guys when all is said and done.

1. Wander Franco

The heir apparent. The next great one. Wander Franco is a capital-S Superstar in the making and he is going to be causing the Red Sox problems for many years to come. At only 20 years old, Franco made an immediate impact following his call-up in late June and has continued getting better with each passing game.

Franco's batting average has increased every month, reaching .313 in August and .338 in September and October, and he finished his rookie season with a .810 OPS and 3.5 Wins Above Replacement. He also reached base in 43 consecutive games, a historic feat for such a young player matched only by a handful of inner circle Hall of Famers.

Most worrisome, he also seems to be a Red Sox killer. In 16 games against Boston, the most he's played against any single opponent, Franco has hit .311 with a 1.007 OPS, three home runs and 16 RBI. Getting him out will be a top priority for the Red Sox in this series.

2. Brandon Lowe

This guy might be the Rays personified.

A former third-round pick, Brandon Lowe came up through the system without much fanfare and quietly developed into a really solid all-around player. He broke out during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, and this year the 27-year-old has truly come into his own as a dominant yet somehow still anonymous force.

Look at these numbers. He hit 39 home runs and 99 RBI. He posted an .863 OPS. He led the team with a 4.8 WAR — anything around 5.0 is basically all-star level — and last Saturday he buried the Yankees with three home runs, which is pretty much the main reason why Tuesday's AL Wild Card Game was played at Fenway Park instead of Yankee Stadium. He's also only being paid $2.5 million, and get this, he's still going to be under team control for another five years!

Also, for the record, his last name rhymes with "now."

3. Shane McClanahan

The Rays may not have much in the way of starting pitching now, but they sure have plenty of it on the way, and Shane McClanahan looks like he'll be a big part of Tampa's equation going forward. The rookie made his major league debut during the playoffs last October, and since being called up to the big club permanently in late April he's been outstanding.

The 24-year-old former first-round pick is 10-6 with a 3.43 ERA and 141 strikeouts over 123.1 innings. He's also been great against the Red Sox, posting a 2.81 ERA in three starts against Boston. He will start Game 1 for the Rays.

4. Austin Meadows

Immediately one of the most lopsided trades in MLB history, the Tampa Bay Rays completely fleeced the Pittsburgh Pirates when they traded Chris Archer in exchange for prospects Austin Meadows, Tyler Glasnow and Shane Baz. Glasnow, who is currently on the shelf after undergoing Tommy John surgery, is a legitimate ace, and Meadows and Baz are both huge parts of the team's present and future. The team even got Archer back again later!

Meadows is the more established of the two who will play in the ALDS, and this year the 26-year-old turned in another terrific season, hitting 27 home runs with 106 RBI and a .772 OPS. He's a formidable middle of the order presence, and one who is batting nearly .300 with runners in scoring position this season.

5. Shane Baz

Now, as for Baz, this guy could be Tampa Bay's ace in the hole this postseason. The 22-year-old currently ranks as the No. 1 prospect in the Rays system (no small feat) and as the No. 11 prospect in the sport according to Baseball America.

More importantly, he was called up to the big club for the final two weeks of the season and has absolutely shoved. In three starts Baz has gone 2-0 with a 2.03 ERA and 18 strikeouts in 13.1 innings, and he's allowing well under a baserunner per inning on average.

Baz throws gas, has an excellent slider and projects as exactly the kind of spoiler who could come out of nowhere and wreak havoc in the postseason. He will start Game 2 for the Rays.


2021 American League Divisional Series

Boston Red Sox vs. Tampa Bay Rays

Game 1: at Tampa Bay, Thurs., Oct. 7, 8:07 p.m., FS1

Game 2: at Tampa Bay, Fri., Oct. 8, 7:02 p.m., FS1

Game 3: at Boston, Sun., Oct. 10, 4:07 p.m., MLB Network

Game 4*: at Boston, Mon., Oct. 11, TBD

Game 5*: at Tampa Bay, Wed., Oct. 13, TBD

* If necessary

Email: mcerullo@northofboston.com. Twitter: @MacCerullo.

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