It hasn’t been an ideal start to the year for the Tampa Bay Rays. With one quarter of the season already behind us, the Rays currently stand at an even 20-20.
The’ve really underachieved overall as a team, as things simply aren’t falling into place for them just yet.
With a strong offense and a struggling bullpen, it’s looked like 2009 all over again so far for Tampa Bay. They missed the playoffs and finished the season with just 84 wins that year, so Rays fans hope their team is not going down a similar path.
After the first 40 games of the 2013 season, here’s a graded evaluation of the Rays’ offense, starting rotation, bullpen and defense.
The Rays currently have the third best offense in Major League Baseball with a wRC+ of 108.
Evan Longoria and James Loney have both enjoyed red-hot starts to the season. Longoria has posted a .417 wOBA and Loney is leading the league in batting at .367.
Kelly Johnson and Sean Rodriguez have both been pleasant surprises. Johnson’s posted a 119 wRC+ and Rodriguez has looked like a much-improved hitter, putting up a .326 wOBA in 60 plate appearances.
Below’s a chart of every player’ wOBA compared to their preseason projections (Fangraphs’ ZIPS projections):
Overall Grade: A-
With statistically one of the league’s best offenses, I thought the Rays deserved a high grade here. The difference between an A- and an A+ for me was the first two weeks of the season where the offense was anemic. Since late April, however, the lineup has been scorching hot.
“Disappointing” is the best word to describe the Rays’ starting rotation at the first quarter mark. Tampa’s starters have posted a collective 4.05 ERA (16th in MLB) and a 4.22 FIP (18th in MLB).
Shockingly, the starting pitching struggles have stemmed from the rotation’s front two: David Price and Jeremy Hellickson. Price—who’s now on the 15-day DL—is 1-4 with a 5.24 ERA through nine starts and Hellickson is 1-2 with a 5.25 ERA through eight.
There has been two bright spots in the rotation, however, as youngsters Matt Moore and Alex Cobb have both shined. Moore is an impressive 7-0 with a 2.44 ERA and a 9.56 K/9, while Cobb is 4-2 with a 2.89 ERA and a rotation-leading WAR of 0.9.
Roberto Hernandez has been nothing more than decent in his first seven starts. He’s 2-4 with a 4.43 ERA, but he’s actually looked pretty encouraging. His career-high 8.65 K/9 rate, 3.43 SIERA and 3.45 xFIP are possibly signs of a comeback year for Hernandez.
Overall Grade: C-
What was expected to be one of the better bullpens in baseball as turned out to be somewhat of a disaster. Tampa’s ‘pen ranks fourth worst in the league in ERA (4.67) and sixth worst in FIP (4.04).
Closer Fernando Rodney has been suprisingly lousy so far, blowing three saves in 10 opportunities to go along with a 5.28 ERA and a pair of losses. Jake McGee (8.80 ERA), Kyle Farnsworth (6.52 ERA), Jamey Wright (4.24 ERA) and Brandon Gomes (5.40 ERA) have all struggled as well.
The Rays have held leads in 34 of their 40 games this season, and have blown countless leads late in games. The bullpen is simply going to have to improve if the Rays want a shot at competing in October.
Overall Grade: D
They have the best defensive corner-infield combo in the game with Evan Longoria and James Loney, Longoria, as usual, has been nothing short of amazing this season, leading the team with a 3.8 UZR as he continues to play like a Gold Glove caliber third baseman.
In the outfield, Desmond Jennings has done a fine job adjusting to centerfield, posting a 3.2 UZR. Sam Fuld and Matt Joyce haven’t done a very good job in the corners, but Fuld still covers plenty of ground and Kelly Johnson has bolstered the outfield defense a bit.
Johnson’s also played very well at second base thus far, owning a 0.8 UZR at the position.
At shortstop, Yunel Escobar has proven to be the defensive upgrade he was signed for. He gives the Rays the adequate-fielding everyday shortstop they haven’t had since Jason Bartlett in 2010.
As for the Rays’ catching tandem, both Jose Molina and Jose Lobaton have been below average in terms of throwing out runners and blocking pitching. It’s obviously a big minus for the overall defense, but it doesn’t erase the fact that Molina is the best framing catcher in the game.
Overall Grade: B
It’s been a rough start to the year for the Tampa Bay Rays. Anemic offense has been the theme of the first two weeks of the season, which shows in the Rays’ 5-9 last-place record.
But of course, it’s still very early, and anything can happen in the next 149 games. Life in the AL East is never easy, however, as the Rays have plenty obstacles to overcome in duration of the season if they want to be crowned division champs in October.
Without further adieu, here are the four biggest barriers for the Rays standing in the way of a division title.
The Rays have their work cut out for them this year, as they compete in what is maybe the toughest divisions in all of sports.
The New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Toronto Blue Jays and Baltimore Orioles are all potential playoff teams in 2013. Each one of them is a definite threat to a division title, but the Rays have a good enough team to compete with all four of these talented clubs.
There are a few things we’ve learned about Tampa Bay’s competitors after the first two weeks of the season. If one thing’s for sure, the Yankees are no team to overlook. Despite having a huge chunk of their roster out with injury, the Yanks stand at a surprising 8-5, as they’ve been finding ways to win ballgames while on the mend.
Once they get the rest of their team back—which includes Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson and Michael Pineda—they should be very dangerous.
The Red Sox didn’t come into the season with high expectations at all, but have started off the season very strongly with a first-place 10-4 record. Boston’s rotation was supposed to be the team’s main weak spot, but has shockingly been outstanding thus far. Their rotation has been by far the best in the division and probably the best in the American League, posting a 2.30 ERA and a 3.45 FIP.
The Orioles have began to prove that their 2012 success was not a fluke. They’ve played solid baseball and appear to have a pretty well-rounded team. The O’s are a team to watch out for if Chris Davis continues to put up big-time numbers at the DH spot.
As for Blue Jays, it’s been a disappointing start for them. As bad as they look right now, they’re a team that can turn things around quickly with that star-studded roster. Jose Reyes’ ankle injury, however, will be a big blow for them until he returns after the All-Star break.
The Rays’ offense has been flat-out awful in the first two weeks of the regular season. With a wOBA of .277 and a wRC+ of 77, they are currently the worst hitting team in the American League.
Outside of Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist and Kelly Johnson, who’ve all had solid starts to the year, nobody in the lineup has given the Rays any kind of significant production offensively.
Lack of power is one of the main issues for Tampa Bay, as they’ve posted just a .113 ISO. Another major concern is the how much runners the Rays are stranding on base. They’ve had a very tough time getting the man in, hitting just .192 with RISP.
Although the offense is very worrying for Rays fans at the moment, there is an optimistic way of looking at it: It will more than likely only get better from here.
Designated hitter Luke Scott has been out with a calf injury since spring training and has yet to play this season. Once he gets back, the lineup will surely be more potent with Scott in and Sam Fuld out.
As the season progresses, the Rays will also get a boost from their minor league system. Wil Myers should be terrific addition later in the year, and Brandon Guyer could also contribute.
In 2012, the injury bug was the largest barrier that stood in the way of a third division title for the Rays. Evan Longoria’s hamstring tear highlighted a plethora of injuries suffered by a very banged-up ball club.
So far this season, the Rays have done a pretty good job avoiding the DL. Luke Scott is the only player who has missed any time at all this year due to injury.
For this team to function properly, the entire team is going to have to stay relatively healthy throughout the season. I don’t see the Rays winning the division as a possibility if they’re hit with injury issues again.
Tampa Bay has a handful of prospects who could be a key part of the team later this season.
Wil Myers, who is arguably baseball’s top hitting prospect, may be the Rays’ X-factor once he’s called up to the majors. He appears to be about ready for The Show, but it’s possible he won’t make his MLB debut until July due to financial reasons.
Whenever he is called up, his immediate impact will be crucial, especially with the lineup as weak as it is.
Outfielder Brandon Guyer and middle infielders Hak-Ju Lee and Tim Beckham are other position player prospects who could all see big league action this year. All three have the potential to bolster both the Rays’ offensive and defensive depth down the stretch.
the Rays have probably more pitchers on the verge of breaking into the majors this season than they do hitters. Chris Archer—the organization’s top upper-level pitching prospect—looks to be ready to take over a spot in the rotation once the time comes. This time, he’ll likely stay there for good.
The development of these Triple-A prospects will definitely come to play in this year’s pennant race. They Rays might need as many minor league contributions as they can get in order to win the AL East.
It will be another hard-fought battle for the AL East in 2012, and the Rays will likely be in the hunt to win it all season long. Tampa’s great starting pitching is definitely good enough to win the division, but the question is whether they will hit good enough.
Offensive production was the only thing that stood in the way of an AL East title and postseason success last year. With all the tough competition in the American League, it’s clear the Rays are going to have to hit better than they did in 2011 in order to be serious title contenders.
There are some good reasons to believe that the Rays’ offense will be better in 2012. For starters, offseason acquisitions have already made an impact in the lineup, and they should make the Rays a better team overall this season. The Rays made smart moves by signing Carlos Pena to play first base and Luke Scott to be their DH, replacing Casey Kotchman and Johnny Damon from 2011.
It’s early, but it looks like the replacement is paying off and the newer combo will produce more runs for the Rays this year. Both Scott and Pena have start the season off on a tear in the meat of the lineup. Scott is hitting .400/.438/.933 with eight RBI and two home runs. Pena has been the Rays’ best hitter after the first nine games, batting .353/.450/.735 with 11 RBI and three long balls.
As expected, Evan Longoria is also hitting very well, starting his 2012 season with a .333/.436/.545 line along with five RBI and a homer. I think Longoria will have his best season yet this year, which is another reason why the Rays will score enough runs to be at the top of their division.
The Rays have a very strong trio of big boppers in Longoria, Pena and Scott, who will likely lead the team offensively. If those three stay healthy and hit to their potential the Rays will have a great shot at winning the AL East.
Jeff Keppinger and Jose Molina are two more additions that could bolster the offense. Keppinger is outstanding contact hitter who should help lower the Rays’ high strikeout ratios, as well as contribute to the bottom of the order. Keppinger’s already been somewhat of a pleasant surprise this season, coming through with some clutch hits. Molina is no All Star either, but he probably is a better offensive option than both Kelly Shoppach and John Jaso—who were the Rays’ two main backstops last year.
Matt Joyce, Ben Zobrist and B.J. Upton are three more bats that will be key to the Rays’ lineup this season, just like they’ve been in the past. Neither Joyce are Zobrist have started to hit well yet, and Upton has been on the DL since the season began. Once Joyce and Zobrist start to get things going at the plate and Upton returns to the lineup, the Rays will instantly become a more threatening team to their AL East opponents.
The three combined for 247 RBI and 62 homers last season, finishing second, third and fourth in team leaders for both categories (behind Evan Longoria who lead in both). Ben Zobrist hit 20 homers with an impressive 91 RBI, while Joyce was selected to the All Star Game and finished the season with 75 RBI, 19 homers and a .277 average. Upton produced his share of runs as well, collecting 81 RBI with 23 home runs while stealing 36 stolen bases.
The Rays should finally have a consistent leadoff man in the lineup with the full-season addition of Desmond Jennings this year. Jennings—a late-season call-up in 2011—stole 20 bases with 25 RBI and 10 homers in his 63-game rookie season. Having an everyday leadoff guy like Jennings is definitely a big help to the lineup that the Rays didn’t really have last year.
The running game has been a big part of the Rays’ offense in past years, and Jennings huge threat on the base pads provides a big boost with Carl Crawford no longer with the team. Like Crawford, he’s a great base-stealer with excellent speed.
The Rays’ running game hasn’t got off to a good start, however, which is a big reason why the Rays are only 21st in the Majors right now in runs scored. It’s really unfair to judge Tampa’s offense at this point in the season, though, as two of the team’s three main base-stealers are out with injury. Both Upton —who lead the team in stolen bases last year— and Sam Fuld (20 stolen bases in 2011) are on the DL.
Injuries have not only hurt the running game, but they have hurt the offense overall. As I said before, Upton was one of the main run-producers last season, and not having him in the lineup is huge. Luke Scott —another huge piece— was also out with an injury for three games last week. The offense still hasn’t been healthy yet this season, which is why I think it will only get better.
Still, the Rays do have some obvious weaknesses in the lineup, mainly the bottom of the order. Elliot Johnson, Reid Brignac, Sean Rodriguez and Jose Lobaton are some names that are a bit of a concern.
It’s safe to say the Rays won’t have the best lineup—or overall offense—in their division when comparing them to the stacked rosters of Boston and New York. They likely won’t have to match their rivals’ big bats, though, with such stellar starting pitching and defense as dominant as they have.
Still, the Rays are going to need to come through for them when needed, just like it did last year in their memorable Game 162. The Rays can expect that from their talented young roster this year, as they definitely have all the ingredients for a functional offense.