Rewind to Aug. 28, when Manchester City inflicted a humiliating 5-0 defeat on Arsenal, their third Premier League loss in a row following miserable outings against Brentford and Chelsea. It was the first time in 67 years the Gunners had lost their opening three games in a campaign and the continued presence of manager Mikel Arteta on the sidelines was dividing the fanbase.
The Gunners were bottom of the table after an inauspicious start — hampered also by the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to the cancellation of their preseason tour as well as the absence of a number of star players due to positive tests — in which they conceded nine goals and scored none.
Yet Arteta was backed by his bosses and urged the fans, with a phrase borrowed from NBA team Philadelphia 76ers, to “trust the process.” It was a rallying cry asking them to believe in the work he is doing alongside the Gunners’ hierarchy. After spending around £150m in the summer on reinforcements — more than any other Premier League team, with defenders Ben White (£50m), Takehiro Tomiyasu (£16m) and Nuno Tavares (£8m), goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale (£25m), midfielders Martin Odegaard (£35m) and Albert Sambi Lokonga (£15m) arriving at the Emirates — the north London club still wasn’t exactly where it wanted to be, but the former club captain knew better things were coming.
Fast forward three months and Arsenal sit fifth in the table, enjoying the league’s longest unbeaten run — eight games, including six wins — with a clear sense of direction. The fans are back on board and Arteta is happy.
In their last Premier League outing against Watford on Nov. 7, Arteta celebrated his 100th game as Arsenal manager and his numbers are surprisingly impressive: 54 wins, 20 draws, 26 losses. If you consider games won after a penalty shootout (which is officially a draw for stats), Arteta is actually on 56 victories.
That is only two fewer than George Graham (1986-1995), but three more than the legendary Arsene Wenger at the same stage of their coaching careers at Arsenal. Arteta’s win rate is 54%, compared to Wenger’s 51%, while he also holds a lower loss ratio (18% vs. 26%) after a century of appearances in the Gunners’ dugout.
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The other key areas of comparison with Wenger’s early days appear very similar, too. Arteta has 163 goals for, 97 against and 38 clean sheets in an arguably more competitive Premier League for his first 100 games. When Wenger arrived in 1996, his team boasted 157 goals for, 84 against and 42 clean sheets over the same span.
In stark contrast, however, Arteta’s first 100 games have been a rollercoaster, with highs and lows almost every week. Winning an FA Cup and a Community Shield in his first six months as a manager was great, but it perhaps raised expectations of further short-term success while he was still learning. He’s still learning, of course, and still grappling with an imbalanced and aging Arsenal squad, lacking in certain positions and unable to find consistency. But now there is more hope for the future.
What Arteta has tried to do
It seemed logical at the start of his tenure that Arteta wanted to emulate Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola, having joined his backroom staff as assistant from 2016-19. Arteta wanted his side to mirror City, though while the principles of play he wanted to implement were similar, the delivery was far from City’s standard.
At times, what he was asking of his players was too complex for an inherited squad not of his own making, so he worked on a simplified structure that better suited the players at his disposal. Having tried a variety of formations, there were still similarities with Guardiola, especially in how he used “asymmetrical” wide players (right-footed players on the left, and vice versa), but this season has seen Arsenal develop their own identity.
Looking at their 3-1 win against Aston Villa on Oct. 22, Arsenal set up in a 4-4-2 formation for the first time under Arteta, with Alexandre Lacazette just behind Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Emile Smith Rowe and Bukayo Saka filling the wide positions. Lacazette’s purpose was to play between the lines and link up the play, but more importantly, he was asked to block Villa’s holding midfielder, Douglas Luiz, who was responsible for starting all their attacks. The plan worked perfectly and the Gunners outplayed and outsmarted Villa.
It naturally took Arteta some time to settle, but it seems his team are now comfortable in possession, efficient in quick attacking transitions, can set their defence in a low block or a high press, and look more confident in beating the opposition press. Thanks to the work of coach Nicolas Jover, they are also one of the best teams in the league when it comes to set pieces.
Which players have shone?
To find an identity, the 39-year-old had to rebuild the squad. From the 40 players who have featured under him in the Premier League so far at Arsenal, 14 have left. Last summer, all six summer signings were aged 23 or under, which led Arsenal to have the youngest starting XI in the league this season with an average of 24 years and 242 days. His back five (Ramsdale, Tomiyasu, White, Gabriel, Kieran Tierney) only started to play together on Matchday Four, which was the start of this superb run.
The impact and leadership of goalkeeper Ramsdale, the centre-back partnership of White and Gabriel, the attacking talent of Tierney down the left and solidity of Tomiyasu at right-back has made the Arsenal defence really strong. If anything, it’s the strongest and most disciplined it has even been in Arteta’s 100 games in charge.
On top of that, the manager has been a key part in the emergence of Smith Rowe and Saka, the two prodigies from the Arsenal Academy in Hale End.
Saka has been Arsenal’s best player since Arteta’s arrival and the player the most used by the Spaniard, featuring in 82 games. While, given Smith Rowe went on a six-month loan to Huddersfield in January 2020, the impact of the 21-year-old has been exceptional and rarely seen in the Premier League at his age. Arsenal have a 58% win percentage with him as a starter, compared to 33% without. Every time Smith Rowe scores — he’s found the net in 12 different games since making his Premier League debut — Arsenal have won.
The turning point?
The turning point in Arteta’s 100 games in charge is without a doubt the game against Chelsea on Dec. 26, 2020. Arsenal were 15th in the table at the time, and winless in their last seven. With little reason to be cautious, Arteta started Smith Rowe, Saka and Gabriel Martinelli (all 20 years old or younger) at the time, in attack and the Gunners played with intensity, an aggressive high press and plenty of movement.
Their 3-1 win that day proved to be a seminal moment. Since then, Arsenal have won 67 points in the Premier League. Only Manchester City (86) and Chelsea (68), with new manager Thomas Tuchel for most of it, have more over the same period of time.
There are more challenges ahead for Arteta, starting with a tough trip to Liverpool on Saturday — they’ve played three times in the league under the Spaniard, winning once and losing twice — but the aim now is to keep building on the last three months.
Beyond that, Arteta’s goal is for his next 100 games in charge to be more successful than the first.
A day that will rock baseball — and the rest of sports? What’s next in the RSN battle
This week could turn out to be a major turning point in Diamond Sports Group’s bankruptcy proceedings, one that could significantly influence how baseball games are broadcast — not just now, but well into the future.
Diamond failed to pay the San Diego Padres before the end of its grace period Tuesday, a monumental development that will prompt Major League Baseball to take over the team’s broadcasts moving forward.
Soon, more teams could find the same fate.
On Wednesday in Houston, a bankruptcy judge will preside over Diamond’s claims that it should essentially pay lesser rights fees to the Cincinnati Reds, Texas Rangers, Arizona Diamondbacks and Cleveland Guardians to account for market forces that have greatly diminished the traditional cable model in recent years. (Diamond initially missed its rights payments to those four teams and was ultimately forced to pay 50% of what it owes them in the weeks leading up to the hearing.)
The judge’s ruling, which should come by Thursday night at the latest, will play a big role in determining which other contracts Diamond sheds, if any. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred will be among those testifying. With that milestone ahead, here’s a look at the current regional sports networks (RSN) situation of a few other teams across sports.
Why the Padres takeover happened so fast
Diamond, which airs broadcasts under the name Bally Sports, owns the rights to 14 major league teams. Eight of them are included as part of the company’s bankruptcy filing, so their unraveling would likely require weeks in the courts. The six that aren’t — partly because the teams own an equity stake, making them joint ventures that operate as separate legal entities — are the Padres, Reds, St. Louis Cardinals, Los Angeles Angels, Miami Marlins and Kansas City Royals.
Those teams operate outside of the bankruptcy proceedings, so their paths are relatively straightforward — if Diamond misses a rights payment, a contractually agreed-upon grace period is triggered, usually between seven and 15 days. If the grace period expires without a payment being made, those teams can break from their contracts, at which point MLB is expected to take over broadcasts, as they will with the Padres beginning Wednesday.
MLB has taken issue with the delay tactics that have been used throughout this process, alleging that Diamond is capitalizing off teams’ intellectual property — particularly regarding the Reds, Rangers, D-backs and Guardians — without abiding by their contractual obligations. Diamond counters that it is trying to keep all of its options open while the dust settles on bankruptcy proceedings and it gets a better handle on what it will owe and which additional streaming rights, if any, it will acquire. Some much-needed clarity on that front could come real soon.
Separately, Diamond has offered to pay all rights fees moving forward in exchange for the remaining streaming rights, sources with knowledge of the situation said. MLB, leery of giving more rights to a company that was forced into bankruptcy, has not engaged, sources said. Diamond only has the streaming rights to five of its 14 teams — the Kansas City Royals, Milwaukee Brewers, Tampa Bay Rays, Detroit Tigers and Marlins. — Alden Gonzalez
MLB’s New Age of Streaming depends on … the Yankees and Red Sox?
Amid the uncertainty foisted on baseball’s entire economic landscape, the game’s haves — big-marketed and healthy RSN’d — surveyed the fallout and understood that others’ pain could significantly benefit them. The New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, New York Mets, Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Dodgers either own their RSNs or receive massive annual payments from them, and as MLB surveys its options going forward, it’s aware that a handful of teams hold a disproportionate amount of power.
MLB’s desire to turn the failure of the RSN model into an opportunity to nationalize a streaming package with all 30 teams hinges on the willingness of all 30 teams to participate. And as one high-ranking official for a large-market team said: “Without us, there’s nobody buying the package.”
What might sound like big-market arrogance is instead a truth that smaller-market owners acknowledge — and fear. An MLB streaming package without the game’s most popular teams isn’t much of a streaming package at all. The larger markets know this, and they are ready to leverage it, with one official saying: “We’ll never give up our rights.”
While that’s the public posture, the reality is that there’s a price on everything — and the Yankees and Red Sox have established that with their own direct-to-consumer streaming services. New York’s YES Network is charging $24.99 a month or $239.99 annually, while Boston’s NESN 360 costs $29.99 and $329.99, respectively. The teams are targeting customers who are blacked out from watching games, and the success will offer a sense of fans’ willingness to stomach a price point higher than almost every streaming service, including those beyond sports.
Successful launches by the Yankees and Red Sox would make the difficulty for MLB — which is seeking streaming rights for all 30 teams so it can offer a blackout-free package — that much greater. As long as the 30-team package is MLB’s goal, the big-market teams will maintain their posture, the small-market teams will brim with frustration that the game’s already hefty financial chasm may yet grow and the league will grapple with the herculean task of trying to satisfy everyone. — Jeff Passan
Heaven is the end of blackouts in Iowa
“Is this purgatory?”
“No, it’s Iowa.”
Doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it? Yet that was the analogy made by a friend from my hometown in Iowa when we got together after a recent Chicago Cubs game. He was in Chicago with his daughter to see the club their family has worshiped for generations. This club, incidentally, can rarely be watched back in southwest Iowa since the Cubs brought their television production in-house three years ago.
During the years in which we grew up, the Cubs were omnipresent via WGN on basic cable in Red Oak. Now, in order to get the Cubs there, you have to buy an expensive satellite service and add the option that includes the Cubs’ network. For many baseball fans living in rural areas, it’s not a viable path.
The thing is, with six MLB teams bordering the state, Iowa should be a baseball heaven, in reality and not just fiction. That should be true whether you live in northern Iowa and root for the Minnesota Twins, in southwest Iowa and like the Kansas City Royals, live on the Mississippi River in Keokuk and love the St. Louis Cardinals or perhaps live in the northeastern part of the state and have thrown in with the Milwaukee Brewers, Cubs or Chicago White Sox.
Instead, most sports fans in Iowa can find Royals — three hours from Red Oak — and Cardinals — 315 miles away — games on basic cable. But if a baseball enthusiast is looking for others — including games at Wrigley Field, 400 miles away — good luck.
All six MLB teams in the states bordering Iowa have long been blacked out in the Hawkeye State. It’s enough to wonder how anyone could possibly be a baseball fan and live in Iowa.
Despite it all, there are plenty of baseball fans back in Iowa, and they would love to see more. And thus my friend made another analogy when asked about the RSN crisis possibly hastening the demise of baseball’s blackout guidelines, finally making all teams available to stream. He described it as like being in East Germany, circa 1989, with the wall about to go down. — Bradford Doolittle
Will the Suns set the standard for local TV — and could anyone else follow?
The Phoenix Suns announced in late April that their games will be broadcast for free on over-the-air channels and streamed online on a new direct-to-consumer service for in-market fans, prompting speculation about whether other Diamond-owned teams could follow a similar path.
At the moment, though, they seem to be an outlier.
First, it’s important to note that the plan might not even get off the ground. Earlier this month, a U.S. bankruptcy judge blocked Phoenix’s attempt to move ahead with the deal, saying the team couldn’t yet move on from its existing agreement with Diamond.
The judge, Christopher Lopez, ruled that the new deal was void because it interfered with Diamond’s contractual right to negotiate an extension to its current deal. The Suns, on the other hand, argued that their deal expiring after the 2022-23 season meant that they could go ahead with the agreement now.
Recently hired Suns CEO Josh Bartelstein told reporters after the hearing that the Suns would work toward a way of resolving the dispute “that will be in the best interest of our fans, our community and our players.”
In the NBA and elsewhere, it’s important to understand the uniqueness of the Suns’ situation — on an expiring contract, with a relatively small RSN deal that paid them about $40 million a year, and a new, aggressive owner, Mat Ishbia, with enough liquidity to absorb financial losses in an effort to expand his team’s brand. This model, if it ultimately comes to fruition, can increase the Suns’ reach from 800,000 viewers to 2.8 million. But it is unclear how Ishbia — also owner of the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, who are also part of this venture — will ultimately make money.
What this whole situation says about the state of these discussions across the NBA is that the next few months should be awfully interesting, as the league continues to try to navigate what to do with the 16 teams broadcast by Diamond last season.
MLB, meanwhile, is navigating through this in the thick of its season and holds the long-term goal of fitting streaming and broadcasting rights under one umbrella, seeing that as the best way to eventually maximize revenue.
Though they’ve kept an eye on the Suns deal, major league teams for the most part would prefer to stay with their lucrative RSN contracts for now. Even a team like the Marlins, who consistently field some of the lowest payrolls in the industry, is believed to make more on an annual basis than the Suns did.
Even once some of those RSN contracts are shed, the understanding is that they have a better chance at generating revenue by falling under the scope of MLB than they would by venturing out on their own and incurring the overhead that comes with it. Ishbia’s approach might be attempted by some major league owners — perhaps the higher-revenue Bally-operated teams — but it is not necessarily being viewed as a template. — Tim Bontemps and Alden Gonzalez
What happens in Vegas … won’t just stay in Vegas anymore
In the NHL, like in the NBA, most of the uncertainty around RSN television deals is being put off until the fall. But the Vegas Golden Knights, looking to win their first Stanley Cup, aren’t waiting until then to find out. The Golden Knights, whose deal with AT&T SportsNet ended this season, signed a multiyear deal earlier this month with Scripps Sports that will air all Vegas’ games in Nevada and four nearby states. Not included in the package are Golden Knights’ games broadcast nationally on ESPN or TNT.
That agreement, which includes a direct-to-consumer offer, kicks in for the 2023-24 season. Games will be distributed on cable, satellite and local over-the-air channels in the team’s territory.
This is the first deal Scripps Sports has made with a professional franchise since launching in December; it also launched a multi-year partnership with the WNBA in April.
The Golden Knights previously had an RSN agreement with AT&T SportsNet, owned by Warner Bros. Discovery, which announced months ago that it would be shutting down its local sports division. Vegas’ decision to bypass the RSN route altogether could be the start of a new trend for other NHL clubs looking to get their product in front of viewers for free. Broadcasting over local channels is more cost-effective — and could be more popular with fans — than being locked into a provider that viewers must pay separately to watch. That’s particularly true for teams in markets that don’t get as much national coverage.
Vegas is the perfect example. It’s a popular local club that’s enjoyed significant success since joining the NHL as an expansion team and beginning play in 2017. The Golden Knights can continue to boost their own profile via the Scripps contract and extend goodwill to the fanbase with a legitimate and inexpensive way to keep up with the action. — Kristen Shilton
… but another Finals team is still in the dark
The Denver Nuggets will play in their first NBA Finals beginning Thursday against the Miami Heat (8:30 p.m. ET on ABC). And the team’s arrival on the sport’s biggest stage will also shine a spotlight on the fact that fans within the team’s home market have struggled to watch them for years.
For the past four years, Altitude Sports — which is owned by Stan Kroenke, the owner of the Nuggets and Colorado Avalanche, among several other teams — has been locked in a bitter dispute with Comcast, the largest cable provider in the state.
So while Nikola Jokic has grown into arguably the best basketball player on the planet, he remains hard to find on TV in Denver, where 2019 court filings state 92% of cable subscribers use Comcast. Since Altitude’s deal expired with the provider in 2019, Jokic has won two MVP Awards — and come close to a third — while the Nuggets are tied with the Suns for the most wins in the NBA over the past four years (194). They are one of five teams — along with the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, the Suns and the Boston Celtics — to have won more than 60% of their games over that stretch.
Though the playoffs mostly air on national television, even this postseason saw a dustup when Altitude had to lift a local blackout for a game against the Timberwolves airing on NBATV. While the two sides settled an antitrust lawsuit back in March, there still isn’t an agreement in place to air the games on Comcast, and it’s unclear if one will happen before the start of the 2023-24 season. — Tim Bontemps
How can you watch the Padres? What you need to know about MLB’s TV takeover
It took a little longer than Major League Baseball might have anticipated, but the San Diego Padres, fielding one of the most expensive, star-laden rosters in the industry, have become the first team to fold into its long-term plan of fitting all broadcasting rights under a national umbrella.
Diamond Sports Group, the Sinclair subsidiary navigating through bankruptcy proceedings, let a grace period come and go on Tuesday without paying the Padres, allowing the team to break free from its contract.
Through a statement, a Diamond spokesperson said “the economics of the Padres’ contract were not aligned with market realities.” And so, beginning today and continuing on in perpetuity, MLB will take over the Padres’ local broadcasts. It’s a major transition, but fans are not expected to miss any games; they’ll be available through the league’s MLB.tv app, initially for free, and through various cable companies on a different channel. MLB had been anticipating something like this for months.
“I think the whole thing’s unfortunate,” MLB chief revenue officer Noah Garden told ESPN. “Since Day 1, we had hoped that our partners lived up to their contractual obligations. And through a variety of, quite frankly, mismanagement and continued mismanagement, their company fell on hard times.
“We’ve been forced to take a step back and find a way that we can continue to service the fans — and we’re going to do so, as it’s the lifeblood of our industry and so important to our fans, especially locally. We’re gonna invest in the product; we’re gonna make it better than ever; we’re gonna distribute it more widely than it’s ever been distributed; and we’re gonna stand behind our content. That’s our goal.”
The mechanisms of that approach are highly complex, but a lot of the details were sorted out on the front end, given Diamond’s publicly tenuous financial situation. Here are the answers to some of the most pertinent questions.
Wait, it’s going to be free to watch the Padres now? How is that going to work?
From Wednesday to Sunday, Padres games will be free for all fans on MLB.com and Padres.com — two road games against the Miami Marlins and three home games against the Chicago Cubs. All that will be required is an MLB.com login. Starting next Monday, a subscription cost will kick in for Padres streams in the local market.
How much will that cost?
In-market fans can pay $19.99 a month or $74.99 for the rest of the season to watch San Diego’s games on MLB.tv. But most local fans with cable subscriptions won’t have to.
OK, how will that work?
MLB cut deals with several cable companies — DirecTV, AT&T U-verse, Cox and Spectrum — to air Padres games through their services. Those will be available on different channels (694-3 for DirecTV, 781 for AT&T U-verse, 4 for Cox, 305 for Spectrum). Fans’ guides will list the channel simply as “San Diego Padres.”
MLB essentially eliminated territorial rights through those deals, which means that, for local fans who purchase the Padres MLB.tv package, streamed San Diego games will no longer be subject to blackouts. Yep, that’s right — no blackouts.
Who will work the team’s broadcast booth? What changes can we expect in the broadcast, if any?
In the Padres’ situation, not many. San Diego’s in-game, on-air talent is employed by the team (the dynamic is different with other clubs), which means fans will continue to watch play-by-play announcer Don Orsillo, analyst Mark Grant and on-field reporter Bob Scanlan. The makeup of the team’s pregame and postgame shows, however, is still being ironed out, according to a source with knowledge of the situation. Microphone flags will have the MLB logo rather than the red Bally Sports one. Garden said fans will immediately notice more camera angles and a picture quality that is “significantly higher.”
What does this mean for the Padres, revenue/payroll-wise?
San Diego began this season with a near-$250 million payroll that stood as the third-highest in the sport, the largest in franchise history — by a wide margin — and more than 3½ times larger than it was just six years ago. Now suddenly its financial future is uncertain, at least concerning its profits off broadcasting rights. Only one of three payments for an RSN contract that reportedly pays the team in the neighborhood of $50 million a year was ultimately made by Diamond.
That said, the Padres will still generate broadcast revenue through the deals MLB cut with the various cable companies in preparation for this possibility. Those deals, details of which have not been made public, probably aren’t close to what San Diego was generating through Diamond (particularly because streaming rights weren’t included in them). But the league believes teams eventually will benefit from broadcasting rights and subscription revenue operating through a national model. (Big-market teams such as the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, who own their RSNs, disagree.)
Well, today could be a big day. A hearing will take place in Houston, during which a bankruptcy judge will preside over Diamond’s claims that it should pay lesser rights fees to the Cincinnati Reds, Texas Rangers, Arizona Diamondbacks and Cleveland Guardians to account for market forces that have greatly diminished the traditional cable model in recent years.
Those teams are essentially on the bubble. And the judge’s ruling, which is expected no later than Thursday night, will play a big role in Diamond determining which contracts it keeps or sheds as part of the bankruptcy process, not just with those four teams but potentially with some of the other nine that remain under its ownership. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred is among those who will testify.
Other teams that fall out will follow a similar path to the Padres, with MLB offering their games blackout-free on MLB.tv and on various cable channels.
How the Rays proved in May that they can win it all in October
For a long time, I’ve considered the Tampa Bay Rays to be baseball’s little miracle, succeeding in the sport’s toughest division — the American League East — despite low payrolls, low attendance figures and a stadium situation that remains unresolved.
That view is a little unfair, though, because in one sense, the Rays are no different from the New York Yankees or Los Angeles Dodgers or Houston Astros or Atlanta Braves — they expect to contend for a World Series every season.
They have made the playoffs the past four seasons, but there always seems some surprise that they’re doing it again. Perhaps that’s because they turn the roster over rapidly and often rely upon depth more than star power. In 2019, they won 96 games, but their four best players that season (Charlie Morton, Austin Meadows, Willy Adames and Tommy Pham) are long gone. They reached the World Series in 2020, but that was kind of a scrappy team with a great bullpen. The 2021 team hit a lot of home runs and won 100 games even though its two pitchers with the most innings had ERAs over 5.00. Last year’s team snuck in with 86 wins mainly due to the emergence of Shane McClanahan, Drew Rasmussen and Jeffrey Springs. Now two of those three are injured — and this still looks like the best Rays team ever, except with two young stars to build around in McClanahan and Wander Franco.
Since 2019, only the Dodgers and Astros have won more games; since 2008, only the Dodgers, Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals. The Rays are not a miracle — they’re an exceptional organization, only one that’s less celebrated.
The national spotlight fell on them after they began the season with 13 consecutive wins and finished April at 23-6 with an incredible plus-103 run differential. That first month put them on an early pace to become one of the greatest teams of all time. There were still skeptics, however, since the Rays dominated a soft schedule and in their two toughest series, against the Toronto Blue Jays and Astros, they dropped four of six games.
May, on the other hand, presented a much more difficult slate of opponents, so we got a better idea of the Rays’ potential greatness. Let’s go back series by series and see what we learned.
The Pirates entered this series nearly as hot as the Rays, with a 20-9 record and as winners of 11 of their past 13 games. The Rays beat them 4-1, 8-1 and 3-2. In the finale, Zach Eflin tossed seven scoreless innings and struck out 10 with no walks — the first time in his career he recorded double-digit strikeouts with no free passes. Eflin was one of the more intriguing free agent signings of the offseason as the Rays gave him a three-year, $40 million contract — not only the largest free agent deal in franchise history but one to a pitcher with a 4.49 career ERA who had pitched just 181 innings over the previous two seasons.
What did the Rays see? A guy who throws strikes — Eflin averaged just 1.5 walks per nine over the 2021-22 seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies. “In an era of power and velocity, he’s an artist,” president of baseball operations Erik Neander said in December when the club signed Eflin. A better defense behind him — certainly better than the ones the Phillies have thrown out there during Eflin’s career — combined with the Rays’ ability to improve a pitcher’s repertoire meant the signing made a lot of sense.
Indeed, Eflin improved to 4-0 after beating the Pirates and is now 7-1 with a 3.17 ERA — allowing just seven walks in 54 innings. Sure enough, the Rays have tweaked things a little bit. He has increased his cutter usage from 15% to 31% and nearly completely ditched his four-seamer, which he threw 16% of the time last year, to stick with his sinker, with the cutter/sinker combo playing successfully off each other. The biggest change, however, might simply be the defense: He had a career .303 batting average allowed on balls in play with the Phillies and it’s at .280 with the Rays.
“Some guys out-stuff you. Some guys out-execute you. He’s got a little bit of a combination of both,” manager Kevin Cash said of Eflin after the win on May 4.
With the sweep of Pittsburgh, the Rays improved to 26-6 — the best 32-game start since the 1984 Detroit Tigers went 27-5.
Lesson learned: They already had one ace in McClanahan. They potentially had a second in Springs, but he went down for the season with Tommy John surgery in April. The Eflin signing now looks not only particularly astute, but necessary.
May 5-7: vs. New York Yankees
OK, so the Pirates had cooled after that hot April. This would be the first real test for the Rays — and it was a terrific series with three one-run games, two of those going the Rays’ way.
The Rays won the first game 5-4 while wearing their old Devil Rays uniforms — the retro look that’s now much more appealing than when the Devil Rays were losing 100 games every season. The go-ahead run scored in the seventh when Yankees left fielder Jake Bauers dropped a catchable fly ball and turned it into a double — and then kicked the ball, allowing Yandy Diaz to score from first base (instant replay overruled the tag play at home, as Diaz was originally called out). While bad Yankees defense lost the game, the Rays won with some good defense of their own. Jose Siri ranged into deep center field to corral the final out of the game, while Josh Lowe earlier made a diving catch in right field with two runners on.
When the Rays acquired Siri last season from the Astros, they knew he could play center field. Outfield defense has long been a Rays trademark, and when longtime center fielder Kevin Kiermaier left as a free agent, Siri was given the chance as the regular. He missed two weeks in April with a hamstring strain, but he’s now hitting .243/.292/.563 with nine home runs. He’s not going to be a high-average or high-OBP guy, but the power and defense make him useful. Lowe, meanwhile, has broken out in his sophomore season, hitting .300/.349/.581 with 11 home runs.
The Yankees won the next game 3-2 with three runs in the eighth off the Tampa Bay bullpen, but the Rays won the finale 8-7 in a game Gerrit Cole started for the Yankees. Christian Bethancourt hit a big three-run homer off Cole in the sixth, the Rays threw out a runner at home in the top of the 10th and then Isaac Paredes singled in the winning run.
Lesson learned: With guys like Siri and Lowe contributing, the Rays’ lineup is deeper than ever and much more powerful than last year’s team, which ranked 11th in the AL with 139 home runs. Through Monday, this year’s team already has 101 home runs — most in the majors — and owns a 136 wRC+ (park-adjusted weighted runs created), which easily leads the majors. In the wild-card era (since 1998), the highest single-season wRC+ belongs to the 2019 Astros at 124.
The Rays won 3-0 behind McClanahan to improve to 29-7, but then lost 4-2 and 2-1. At this point, the Rays were 29-9, on pace for 124 wins — but the Orioles were only 4.5 games back, off to their own blazing start.
Lesson learned: The AL East is going to be absolutely brutal and wonderful all season long.
May 11-14: at New York Yankees
In the first game of the series, Drew Rasmussen pitched seven scoreless innings, allowing just two hits, as the Rays won 8-2. In recent years, no team has been more astute at finding pitchers from other organizations than the Rays, and Rasmussen had been a shining example of this — although his journey to the majors began when the Rays drafted him 31st overall out of Oregon State in 2017. The Rays didn’t sign him due to concerns with his post-draft physical (he had Tommy John surgery as a sophomore), so Rasmussen returned to OSU, where he did indeed undergo a second TJ surgery. The Brewers drafted him in the sixth round in 2018, and he reached the majors as a reliever in 2020. The Rays acquired him early in the 2021 season along with J.P. Feyereisen for Willy Adames and Trevor Richards (in a deal, to be fair, that worked out for both teams).
The Rays eventually moved Rasmussen back into a starting role. He developed a new cutter and had a breakout season in 2022 (11-7, 2.84), and after his gem against the Yankees, he was 4-2 with a 2.62 ERA. Going back to 2021, he was 18-9 in 46 career starts with a 2.63 ERA. While still relatively anonymous, he had become one of the better starters in the league. Then came the crushing news: The day after his start, the Rays placed Rasmussen on the 60-day injured list with a flexor strain in his forearm, announcing that he would be shut down for eight weeks and then would start building up again — assuming all goes well, given that a flexor strain is often a precursor to Tommy John surgery.
This gets us to the dirty little secret with the Rays: As good as they are at finding and developing pitchers, they have trouble keeping them healthy.
They had turned Springs from a journeyman reliever into a potential Cy Young candidate before his injury. In recent years, Tyler Glasnow, Yonny Chirinos, Colin Poche and Jalen Beeks all underwent Tommy John surgery. So did Shane Baz, who is out for all of 2023 while rehabbing. Reliever Andrew Kittredge, an All-Star in 2021, pitched just 20 innings last season and has missed all of 2023 with elbow issues. Colby White was one of the best relievers in the minors in 2021 but has yet to reach the majors after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Brendan McKay had shoulder issues and then underwent Tommy John surgery, which has him sidelined for all of 2023.
With Rasmussen injured and Glasnow out since the start of the season with an oblique strain, the Rays would now have to get through this difficult stretch of May without three-fifths of their projected starting rotation. Throw in a season-ending knee injury to key reliever Garrett Cleavinger and the assumption that the Rays have an endless supply of pitchers that they pluck out of Durham or off the waiver wire — or from some secret underwater lair in the Gulf of Mexico — will be severely tested.
Meanwhile, the Yankees won 5-4 the next night when Anthony Rizzo hit a two-run homer off Jason Adam in the eighth inning and then won the third game 9-8 as New York knocked out McClanahan after four innings and Aaron Judge homered twice. Rays exposed? Hardly. They bounced back with an 8-7 win as Taylor Walls belted a grand slam — yet another player hitting much better than projected. After hitting .172 with eight home runs in 466 plate appearances in 2022, the switch-hitter made some minor mechanical tweaks after visiting a hitting instructor outside the organization. The changes have produced more hard contact and a higher launch angle that has already produced seven home runs and a .488 slugging percentage.
Maybe it’s a surprise that some of these guys are hitting at this level, but it shouldn’t be a surprise that they’ve improved. “They have shown the ability coming up through the minor leagues that they can hit,” Cash said after Walls’ grand slam. “I think we thought it was more a matter of time. It doesn’t always come out of the gate.”
Anyway, the Rays hold on to split the four-game series when Judge flew out to Siri on the warning track to end it. Adam left a first-pitch sweeper over the middle of the plate and hung his head as Judge connected — sure he had just allowed the game-tying home run. “I thought it was 30 rows deep,” Adam said. “But thankfully, [Judge] missed it more than I thought.”
Overall, the Rays played the Yankees seven times in 10 days with six of the games decided by one run — two of the best series we’ll see all season. The Rays went 4-3 — and then came perhaps the most exciting game of the season so far.
Lesson learned: The Rays’ pitching depth will be tested — but if the offense keeps rolling, it might be dominant enough to cover the injuries to the rotation.
On May 16, the Rays beat Justin Verlander, knocking him around for eight hits, two home runs (both by Paredes) and six runs. Then came the game of the year. The Rays led 2-0, the Mets tied it in the bottom of the seventh, the Rays took a 6-3 lead, Francisco Alvarez hit a game-tying three-run home run in the bottom of the ninth off Adam, the Rays scored twice in the 10th and then Pete Alonso won it with a three-run walk-off blast off Pete Fairbanks. Wow.
Therein lies the biggest concern I have about this Rays team: Is this a championship-caliber bullpen? Adam, let go five times in his career, came out of nowhere last season to post a 1.56 ERA and hold batters to a .147 average. He’s got kind of a funky short-arm delivery and isn’t overpowering for a modern closer, relying on a changeup and sweeper. He has been a little more hittable this season with a .200 average and four home runs allowed. Meanwhile, Fairbanks has a 1.26 ERA over the past two seasons — but has pitched just 35 2/3 innings and is once again back on the IL with hip inflammation.
Factor in that the Rays have had to return to using an occasional bullpen arm to open due to all the injuries in the rotation and the bullpen depth is hitting a crisis point: The Rays have already churned through 26 pitchers (not counting two position players who have pitched). Rays relievers lead the majors in innings — yes, even more than the Oakland Athletics — and rank last in strikeout rate (yes, lower than the A’s). We know the Rays’ history of conjuring up good major league relievers out of thin air — Adam and Fairbanks being two examples — but that supposition is being stretched to the limits.
The Mets took the third game to take the series and drop the Rays to 32-13 — still on pace for 115 wins. But the Orioles at this point were still just 3.5 games behind.
Lesson learned: Strong bullpens have been a hallmark of the Rays in recent seasons, but this might be the team’s soft spot in 2023, especially if Fairbanks can’t stay healthy and Adam continues to be homer-prone.
After those intense games against the two New York teams, a more subdued series followed against the Brewers, with the Rays taking two out of three, including a 1-0 victory behind McClanahan. In the Saturday night game, Diaz returned after missing four games and hit his 11th home run. Let’s talk about Diaz, who is second in MLB in wRC+ through Monday, sandwiched between two much more famous hitters in Judge and Yordan Alvarez.
I don’t know if Diaz is the strongest player in the majors, but he’s certainly the most likely to win a Mr. Universe contest. Despite his stature, he has never hit for much power — though he possesses excellent plate discipline and doesn’t strike out much. He hit nine home runs last season in 473 at-bats and his career high is 14 back in the rabbit-ball year of 2019. His issue has been getting the ball in the air enough to take advantage of his strength. His average launch angle so far this season is a career-best 9.3 degrees — still below the MLB average but high enough that his fly ball rate has improved from 19.6% last season to 27% this year. He’s also simply barreling up more balls than he has in the past with a hard-hit rate that ranks in the top 10 in MLB. Add it up and he’s hitting .320/.420/.598 with 12 home runs and nearly as many walks (26) as strikeouts (29).
It’s certainly unusual for a 31-year-old to break out with a career season like this, but Diaz has always had a good approach to build off — and he did hit .296 with a .401 OBP last season. Even though he’s not the fastest guy around, Diaz has been hitting leadoff to take advantage of his on-base ability, a lineup Cash started deploying last season. It’s another example of the Rays thinking outside the box, using a non-conventional slow runner in the leadoff position.
“To see Yandy Díaz come up as the first hitter an opponent team faces is incredible,” Eflin said after the game on May 20. “He’s everything you want in a leadoff hitter.”
Lesson learned: Diaz has been hitting like an MVP candidate — although he might not even be the best MVP candidate on the team. Franco is tied with Freddie Freeman for second in MLB (behind Judge) in FanGraphs WAR among position players and leads in Baseball-Reference WAR. Diaz is eighth. And Randy Arozarena is 10th. The Rays have many weapons.
May 22-25: vs. Toronto Blue Jays
The Rays took three of four from the Jays — although a 20-1 loss cut into the team’s run differential (a category that the Rangers now lead). While Diaz doesn’t run, the Rays have other players who can do that — as witnessed by the seven stolen bases they recorded in a 6-3 win on May 25. The Rays have always loved fast, athletic players, and they’re certainly loving the new rules that benefit teams that steal bases. They lead the majors with 75 steals, 17 more than the No. 2 team, and when they face an especially weak pitcher-catcher combo, they can go wild: two games with seven steals and four others with at least four. Franco leads the team with 20 steals, Walls is a perfect 14-of-14 and Josh Lowe has 13.
So, to sum up: The Rays lead the majors in home runs and stolen bases. And they’re tied with the Reds for the highest percentage of extra bases taken (advancing more than one base on a single or more than two on a double). Oh, and they’re also tied with the Nationals and Royals for the youngest group of position players, averaging 26.9 years of age (weighted for playing time). That gets back to Cash’s comment about the improvement in some of the younger players: It shouldn’t be unexpected. Even Franco is still just 22 years old — and while his bat has been impressive, his defense has also taken a huge step forward, to the point where he looks like a Gold Glove candidate.
Lesson learned: No team can blow off a 20-1 loss like the Rays. And fast players are fun. And 22-year-old shortstops who can hit, run and field are really fun.
May 26-28 vs. Los Angeles Dodgers
The Rays took two out of three. Sunday’s game was an 11-10 affair with Adam getting a two-inning save with four strikeouts, perhaps a sign he’s getting back into his 2022 groove.
Lesson learned: Yeah, the Rays are for real. We’ll throw out the Pirates series and the Rays still ran through a 23-game gauntlet against the Yankees, Orioles, Mets, Blue Jays, Brewers and Dodgers and went 13-10. The pitching depth is a concern, although Glasnow made his first start in this series and struck out eight in 4 1/3 innings. A top three of McClanahan, Glasnow and Eflin is a quality trio, and rookie Taj Bradley has a 42-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in six starts. We’ll see if Rasmussen can make it back after the All-Star break.
The Rays did lose two in a row to the Chicago Cubs, 1-0 on Monday and 2-1 on Tuesday, to drop their overall May record to 16-12. The Orioles are still breathing down their necks, and the Yankees — and Judge — are finally heating up. The Texas Rangers have looked impressive in the AL West, and the Astros are playing well after scuffling in April. But these Rays are absolutely loaded on offense, McClanahan is 8-0 with a 1.97 ERA and Cash certainly seems to usually get the best out of his bullpens.
The Rays are 39-18, on pace for 113 wins, and they proved in May that they’re the best team in baseball as we start the summer.
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