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Unsung Heroes - A Tampa Bay Rays preview

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A look ahead at the surprise team of the AL East

"Maybe that 9 = 8 nonsense will work again...."
"Maybe that 9 = 8 nonsense will work again...."
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

To put it mildly, the Tampa Bay Rays had a humbling offseason.

The first of many dominoes fell a week before the beginning of the 2014 World Series, when it was announced that longtime general manager Andrew Friedman was leaving for the Los Angeles Dodgers. This was a major blow, as Friedman had been the mastermind that dragged the Rays out of the dregs of the AL East and turned them into a force to be reckoned with in 2008, when they shocked the world (well, except Baseball Prospectus) with a 97-win season. The Rays sustained competitiveness each year until 2014's disappointing finish. With another rebuild on the horizon, it seemed as good a time as any for Friedman to jump ship.

The second major departure took place ten days later when manager Joe Maddon decided to opt out of his contract. Maddon was to the dugout what Friedman was to the front office, a guy who had a knack for maximizing results on the field by thinking outside the box and defying conventional wisdom in his search for that extra edge. While the impact of a manager is certainly debatable, it's telling that Maddon is considered by many baseball minds of varying schools of thought to be the best manager in the game.

After the deflating management turnover, new general manager Matthew Silverman began the process of jettisoning players as the Rays prepared to re-tool. Tampa Bay won just 77 games in 2014, and from that roster, they sent away Sean Rodriguez, Jose Molina, Joel Peralta, Jeremy Hellickson, Cesar Ramos, Wil Myers, Ryan Hanigan, Matt Joyce, Ben Zobrist, and Yunel Escobar. Some of that is simply swapping out filler, but in any case, this year's Rays team has a much different look to it.

The downgrades haven't simply been due to guys they've voluntarily traded away, either. Budding ace Matt Moore was lost to Tommy John surgery in early 2014, and he's still working his way back. Alex Cobb was lost to Tommy John surgery in early 2015, and he'll miss this entire season.  Finally, as if those weren't big enough blows to the starting rotation, Drew Smyly tore his labrum in May and won't return until at least late July. Few (besides projection systems) looked favorably upon this Rays team coming into the year, and these recent injuries seemed like the nail in the coffin.

Yet, like the Texas Rangers, the Rays find themselves a few games over .500 and firmly in the mix for a playoff spot in spite of all the roster churn and starting pitchers on the shelf. A big part of their relative success is that Chris Archer has been magnificent at the top of the rotation. Archer, like Chris Sale, has been on an absolute tear lately, as he's recorded double-digit strikeouts without a walk in each of his last three starts.  He is currently the major league leader in FIP, largely thanks to his excellent slider.

The Rays have also received a great performance from Jake Odorizzi, who is in the midst of a breakout season. Despite low ground ball rates, hitters have had a difficult time squaring up Odorizzi's offerings, and now that he's cut his walks, he's become quite a tough customer. A lot of his improvement can be attributed to further development of his split changeup, which has really kept hitters off-balance this season. He recently was placed on the DL with left oblique tightness, and Matt Andriese will be taking his place this evening. It will likely be a "bullpen game" for the Rays, as Andriese has made three spot starts this year and has yet to complete four innings. He hasn't done much well in the big leagues in limited time besides limit walks, and looks like classic Quad-A filler.

As one might expect for a staff with this many injuries, the remainder of the starting pitching is not too impressive.  Nate Karns walks too many guys and has a minuscule BABIP. The latter is why his ERA is below four rather than above five. Alex Colome is utterly hittable. His stuff is good but he has problems commanding it, and many believe that he'd be a better fit in the bullpen. Alas, the Rays don't really have a choice. Erasmo Ramirez is a terrible pitcher that managed to allow laughable home run rates at Safeco Field, of all places. So far, he hasn't been blasted quite as hard in his new pitcher-friendly park, but hey, give it time!

Despite a shaky back three, the Rays' pitching has been able to hold its own so far this season. That's been made possible partially because of the excellent defense that Tampa Bay seems to put on the field each and every year. There are few household names in their surprisingly decent cast of position players, and a lot of that is due to favoring efficient glovework over more headline-generating offensive prowess. Speedy center fielder Kevin Kiermaier is probably the poster child for that ideal. He's a great defender, and comes packing just enough power to keep his offense afloat.

Third baseman Evan Longoria has been slipping closer to that sort of profile as he approaches age 30. He's no longer the power threat he used to be, but he still gets on base at a decent clip and provides plenty of value with his glove at third base. Second baseman Logan Forsythe has more or less matched Longoria's profile over the course of this season, and that's been a pleasant surprise. Forsythe is in the midst of an all-around breakout, as he's vastly improved his strike zone command and has already surpassed his career high in home runs.

Probably the biggest contributions on offense for the Rays have come from their designated hitter slot. David DeJesus and Joey Butler have combined to create a formidable DH platoon. Both guys have hit over .300, and while you can attribute DeJesus' performance to a random late-career BABIP spike, Butler is a more curious case. He's 29 years old and had only 21 major league plate appearances prior to this season, but currently finds himself with an OPS close to .900. It's probably premature to call Butler the "find of the year", though, as he's amassed 32 strikeouts compared to just two walks so far this year.

The guys in the outfield corners have chipped in as well. Plodding slugger Steven Souza easily leads the Rays in home runs with 11, though he does carry an astronomical 36.2 percent (!!) strikeout rate and is rough in right field. Brandon Guyer is another one of those under-the-radar high-effort guys that has plus range in left and gets on base at a good clip. Neither guy is anything close to a star, but they're both holding their own and providing value far in excess of their paycheck.

That's the extent of the good, as the Rays have had to deal with two gaping holes in their lineup. Asdrubal Cabrera was signed in the offseason, presumably with the intent to flip him to a contender at the deadline for something of value. Even if the Rays fall flat over the next month and a half, the "something of value" part of that outcome seems pretty unlikely, as the switch-hitting Cabrera has pancaked across the board from both sides of the plate. Catcher Rene Rivera has been even worse, with his .443 OPS serving as a caution flag against completely selling out for pitch framing. The sad thing is, that OPS is about 100 points higher than what backup Bobby Wilson has managed.

Despite the weaknesses on the roster, the Rays find themselves in the thick of a playoff race. They're soon going to have to decide whether to trade for more help this year, and the clock is ticking. The return of Moore and possibly Smyly should give the team a boost, but that may not be enough. Still, 2015 already feels like a success for the Rays. They essentially punted on this year before the season, and wound up with a roster that has shown surprising resilience. It may not be such a long rebuild after all.

Predicted Record and Finish: 79-83, 4th place AL East

Probable Pitching Matchups

  • Friday, June 12: John Danks vs. Matt Andriese
  • Saturday, June 13: Jeff Samardzija vs. Chris Archer
  • Sunday, June 14: Chris Sale vs. Nate Karns

Probable Lineup

Pitching

1. Kevin Kiermaier - CF

SP1. Chris Archer - RHP

2. Joey Butler - DH

SP2. Nate Karns - RHP

3. Evan Longoria - 3B

SP3. Alex Colome - RHP

4. Logan Forsythe - 2B

SP4. Erasmo Ramirez - RHP

5. Steven Souza - RF

SP5. Matt Andriese - RHP

6. Jake Elmore - 1B

CL. Brad Boxberger - RHP

7. Asdrubal Cabrera - SS

RP1. Kevin Jepsen - RHP

8. Brandon Guyer - RF

RP2. Jake McGee - LHP

9. Rene Rivera - C

RP3. Steve Geltz - RHP