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Cutting Edge - A Tampa Bay Rays preview

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A look ahead at our first AL East opponents of 2016

Today, smiling is most efficient. Tomorrow, the situation may call for frowning, scowling, or possibly laughing.
Today, smiling is most efficient. Tomorrow, the situation may call for frowning, scowling, or possibly laughing.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

After the 2014 season, the Tampa Bay Rays had to stomach the losses of general manager Andrew Friedman and manager Joe Maddon. That's a heck of a lot of innovation and tactical brilliance wrapped up in two men.

Yet, even though the on-the-field and off-the-field leaders of the Rays organization left for less artificial pastures, the Rays have continued to think outside the box to get that extra edge, simply because that's the only way they can stay afloat in their current situation. In 2011, Tampa Bay outdrew the Oakland Athletics by 646 fans per home game. That's the last time the Rays have beaten another major league team in attendance. With such meager revenue streams and their brilliant run of success from 2008-2013 firmly in the rear view mirror, the Rays have little in the way of natural competitive advantages they can exploit. Whatever extra edge they get is self-created, and that's why Tampa Bay continues to work so hard to be the first team to advance to the new frontier of baseball strategies, philosophies, and even technologies.

Last season, one of those key strategies championed by the Rays was the attempt to minimize the Times Through the Order Penalty (TTOP). Simply, this meant that the Rays would pull their weaker starting pitchers after facing the lineup a couple of times even if they had a low pitch count or weren't in any trouble, recognizing that a fresh relief pitcher would be a superior option to a possibly-fatigued starter with whom opposing hitters had become familiar. By and large, the strategy worked. No Rays starter made double-digit starts and posted an ERA higher than 4.00 besides a broken Matt Moore. To help cover the innings, they turned their lesser relievers with options into roster yo-yos, sending them to Triple-A and back at a ridiculous rate (seriously, check out the May and June transaction logs) to keep a stock of fresh arms.

For a baseball team, it's one thing to have ideas like this and quite another to put them into practice. The Rays obviously approached finding a Joe Maddon replacement with this in mind as new skipper Kevin Cash was very willing to buy in to progressive baseball strategies. Forward-thinking managers like Cash are a breath of fresh air and essential for a team to attain any little tactical edge it can find.

Of course, a team can't simply think and strategize their way to the playoffs, but the Rays have at the very worst a mediocre roster and the tightness of the American League might help their process bear fruit. On the field, the Rays are all about run prevention, as they boast a strong pitching staff and a good defense. Center fielder Kevin Kiermaier posted a .298 OBP last year for Tampa Bay but was arguably the most valuable position player on the team thanks to his elite glove in center. Kiermaier might be the best defensive player in baseball and he's a true joy to watch in the outfield. He's flanked by strikeout-prone thumper Steven Souza in right and disabled list enthusiast Desmond Jennings in left.

On the left side of the infield, Evan Longoria is still a very strong defensive third baseman, even if he's not the force at the plate that he once was. Longoria is far removed from 30-homer seasons and no longer gets cited as the team-friendliest contract in baseball, but quietly he's strung together several straight years of good health and he's still an All-Star, albeit an oddly-shaped one. Longoria's joined by power-hitting Brad Miller at shortstop, who was acquired in a trade with the Mariners (for starting pitcher Nate Karns) and should be a defensive upgrade over the departed Asdrubal Cabrera.

The infield is rounded out by Logans Forsythe and Morrison. Forsythe is good at just about everything and was a 5-WAR player last season with his mix of power, on-base skills, and quality defense at second base. Morrison is thoroughly entertaining off the field, but completely uninteresting on it. He's a replacement-level player, despite some modest power against right-handers. With the White Sox rotation tilting so heavily to the left, we'll be more likely to see lefty-masher Steve Pearce at first base.

On the pitching side of things, the Rays are led by bona fide ace Chris Archer, who finished behind only Chris Sale and Carlos Carrasco in the American League in strikeout rate last year.  Archer's slider is a recipe for a lot of whiffs and weak contact and he has little in the way of a platoon split. He's backed by number-two starter Jake Odorizzi, who enjoyed a successful second full turn in the Rays' rotation last season. Odorizzi lets hitters launch the ball into the air all day long, but they have a little saying for that in Tampa Bay. "Let Kiermaier handle it."

Recovering laughingstock Erasmo Ramirez found new life to his career upon arrival in Tampa Bay. He now sports average control and a newfound ability to get the ball on the ground. He doesn't exactly blow away as many hitters as you think for a guy called "The Eraser", but the Rays effectively found themselves an average major league pitcher by a simple change of scenery. Speaking of change of scenery guys, Drew Smyly finally got out from under the Tigers' formerly absurd starting pitching depth and enjoyed success in the Rays' rotation when he wasn't on the shelf with shoulder injuries. Smyly basically relies on a fourseam, cutter, and curveball. There's enough of a velocity gap between the three pitches that he can still get by without much of a changeup. His major weakness is the longball.

A crop of quality starting pitchers and a stout defense should theoretically be enough to keep the Rays in the hunt, but the key question will be whether they can score enough to threaten their division rivals. To squeeze what they can out of their sub-par bats, the Rays are again doing what the Rays do: trying to find that extra edge. This time, they're pouncing on first-pitch strikes to avoid hitting from behind in the count. As always, it will be interesting to follow how this experiment plays out. The Rays may no longer have the talent that made them an AL East powerhouse for a half-decade, but they're still giving the world a reason to watch.

Projected Record and Finish: 79-83, 5th place AL East

Probable Starting Pitchers

  • Friday, April 16: Chris Sale vs. Jake Odorizzi
  • Saturday, April 17: John Danks vs. TBD (I'll guess Erasmo Ramirez)
  • Sunday, April 18: Jose Quintana vs. Matt Moore

Probable Lineup

Pitching

1. Logan Forsythe - 2B

SP1. Chris Archer - RHP

2. Desmond Jennings - LF

SP2. Jake Odorizzi - RHP

3. Evan Longoria - 3B

SP3. Drew Smyly - LHP

4. Corey Dickerson - DH

SP4. Matt Moore - LHP

5. Steve Pearce - 1B

SP5. Erasmo Ramirez - RHP

6. Brad Miller - SS

CL. Alex Colome - RHP

7. Steven Souza - RF

RP1. Steve Geltz - RHP

8. Curt Casali - C

RP2. Danny Farquhar - RHP

9. Kevin Kiermaier - CF

RP3. Enny Romero - LHP