With the Rays, it's all about the pitching
General manager Andrew Friedman talks about “always trying to thread the needle” in harmonizing the present and future. President Matt Silverman says the team is operated “as if we’re balanced on the head of a pin.” Both make good “points.” The attendance-famished, cash-impoverished Rays perennially stitch together a contender with a quilt of creative contracts, bargain-basement free agents, prospect development and Joe Mad(don)-scientist field management. Improbably, despite the loss of one of the top three position players (B.J. Upton) and pitchers (James Shields) in their history, they’ve done so again for 2013. Not that they’ve really darned a threadbare offense that was the fourth-lowest-scoring in the AL, but they’ve patched it. Not that they’re likely to match an ERA that was the best in the league since 1990, but the pitching remains enviable. Not that they can replace Upton’s stolen bases or have definitively addressed a defense that led the circuit in errors, but the roster is still athletic. It’s a living-on-the-edge formula tailored to Tampa Bay’s unique situation and executed with dexterity. “We are a turnover team. We do change things on an annual basis,” says Maddon. “Welcome to the Rays.”
Hanging on the wall in a corner of the Rays clubhouse is a slogan made popular by Shields: “If you don’t like it, pitch better.” Even after dealing the inspirational soul of their staff, the team still has a backlog of moundsmen who would be shoo-ins to make many rotations, but will have to “pitch better” to crack this one. David Price can’t pitch much better than he did in 2012. He went 20–5 and compiled a 1.62 ERA in his no-decisions. The Cy Young Award winner now mixes three solid complementary pitches to go with his hot, hot heat, and he remains driven to sustain the growth. Matt Moore is Price on training wheels — outrageously gifted, but sometimes with elusive fastball command. Although he broke the team’s rookie strikeout record, and his 3.31 ERA over his last 22 starts denotes improvement, Maddon cautions, “the finished product is probably two, three years down the road.” Jeremy Hellickson consistently pitches himself in and out of peril with the net result being the AL’s third-lowest ERA (3.02) over the past two years. To take the next step, he’ll have to economize; on 11 occasions, he was yanked after passing 90 pitches yet not completing the sixth inning. Blossoming Alex Cobb will build on an impressive finish to 2012, when his seven wins after July 31 tied for most in the circuit. Despite a career ledger of 40–26, oft-injured Jeff Niemann must hold off the youth brigade for the No. 5 slot. Chris Archer is at the vanguard. “This guy’s going to be so good,” Maddon predicts — but the 24-year-old needs a third pitch to get lefties out or risk being recast as a closer. Jake Odorizzi, Alex Colome and Alex Torres face slightly longer odds. The X-factor is Roberto Hernandez, a former 19-game winner who lost track of his mojo — and his age — as Fausto Carmona in Cleveland.
Closer Fernando Rodney had, according pitching coach Jim Hickey, “maybe the best relief season in the history of the game. So I don’t expect him to do that (again).” Anything remotely close to his 48-for-50 save rate and all-time-record 0.60 ERA would be just fine. When Rodney is locating his high-90s fastball and low-80s change-up as he did in 2012, batters have no chance. Should he regress, pea-chucking lefty Jake McGee could probably work the ninth. Of the 44 men he faced in September, four got hits and 21 were punched out. Joel Peralta, the MLB holds leader with 37, was re-signed as the primary bridge man. Kyle Farnsworth brings stability and experience, but is not the fireballer he once was. The pen will fill out adequately with some combo of the losers in the starter’s derby and “4-A” veterans Cesar Ramos, Brandon Gomes and Josh Lueke.
Now that the words “Yunel” and “eye black controversy” will never again appear in print independently, we’re left to wonder whether his gay-slur incident will doom the new Rays shortstop to even more underachievement or prompt him to finally grow up. Escobar is gifted defensively and streaky-solid at the dish, but mystifyingly prone to all manner of mental mistakes. Maddon, like many managers before him, has been impressed initially by Escobar in the spring. We’ll see how long that lasts. The acquisition from Toronto frees Ben Zobrist (who finished 2012 at short) to return to second base where, as a total package, he’s one of the game’s five best. Maddon calls him “no chrome” — nothing flashy, but steely-solid. Zobrist will also see some time in right field as Maddon thrives on mixing and matching lineups.
“Nine 1/2 Weeks” was a movie about a shallow affair. That pretty much describes the Rays offense in the nine-and-a-half weeks it was without hammie-hobbled Evan Longoria. As the team’s only authentic run-producer, his absence turns the attack into a series of toppling dominoes. A full slate of the third baseman’s batsmithery is worth 30 homers and 100 RBIs — or more. “If we have Longo in the lineup all year, we win 10 more games, or 20,” Price speculates. His hyperbole was only slight. Things are not as secure at first, where James Loney succeeds Carlos Pena. He’s a hard worker, but an impatient one, both within individual at-bats and settling on an overall approach. The club would gladly take his 2008-10 production, when he averaged .279-12-89 for the Dodgers. Still, Loney is, says the skipper, “a great defender.”
Where there’s a Wil there’s a wait. At least it would seem that way, based on the team’s inclination to delay prospect debuts for both developmental and financial reasons. But unless the Rays add a thumper at the 11th hour, they almost have to slot treasured rookie Wil Myers into right field. The central return in the trade of Shields to the Royals, he’s a 22-year-old who ranked second in the minors with 37 home runs and carries a “superstar” projection by many scouts. Matt Joyce would then slide to left. His glove is fine, but a once-promising bat has yielded two straight OPS declines to a ho-hum .769. If that doesn’t improve, Myers will shift to left, Zobrist to right and giving Kelly Johnson a chance at second. With Upton off the grid, Desmond Jennings returns to his natural habitat in center, where he has Gold Glove possibilities. He’s a potential league leader in stolen bases, but not if he can’t elevate a .314 OBP that, as a leadoff man, was a literal non-starter. The issue: Jennings worked himself ahead in the count in a team-low 30.7 percent of plate appearances.
The Rays chose not to (or could not) upgrade the catching position, where Jose Molina is a liability at the plate and becoming immobile behind it. He’s still a master receiver/pitcher-handler with an adequate arm. As the team’s oldest position player by five years, he’s limited to 100 games, with replacement-level operatives Jose Lobaton or Chris Gimenez taking up the slack.
There’s no great cache of talent in reserve, just a smorgasbord of versatile grinders. Just the way Maddon likes it. He can play Sean Rodriguez (who Pena says might be the best defensive player he’s ever seen) almost anywhere and Johnson at second and the outfield, get two honest games a week out of three-position outfielder Sam Fuld, dispatch Ryan Roberts to second base when moving Zobrist to the outfield for platoon reasons … and so forth. Lefty swinging Luke Scott and righty Shelley Duncan will likely platoon at DH.
There’s none better in the bang vs. buck department. Friedman checks all the boxes as a GM; Maddon works below market because he adores the environment; owner Stuart Sternberg is fan-friendly and surprisingly agile with his bank. But, warns the latter, “At some point, it stops. You’ve got to make a decision. We’re going to eat steak, and we’re going to eat lobster, and we’re going to order some wine, but we’re not going to be able to turn the heat on, and the house isn’t going to get painted.”
Maddon says the franchise’s “DNA” is “great pitching … great defense.” When he gets both, as he should most days in 2013, the Rays are No. 1 on any opponents’ least-like-to-play list. Unfortunately, there is no forensic evidence to suggest they’ll be any better than mediocre at scoring runs. Still, in a year in which you can throw a blanket over the entire AL East, the Rays have a respectable chance of sewing up a fourth postseason appearance in six years.
CF Desmond Jennings (R)
Set team record (min. 20 attempts.) with 93.9 percent steal success rate last year.
SS Yunel Escobar (R)
Third-most hits (720) while playing shortstop since 2008, behind Derek Jeter and Jose Reyes.
2B Ben Zobrist (S)
Was, in 2012, first player in the modern era to start at least 45 games at three different positions.
3B Evan Longoria (R)
Rays went 47–27 (.635) when he started, 43–45 (.489) when he didn’t.
DH Luke Scott (L)
Hit .149 vs. lefties, .260 vs. righties last season.
RF Wil Myers (R)
Consensus 2012 Minor League Player of the Year will get a chance to win the job in the spring.
LF Matt Joyce (L)
Hit .219 when slotted third through fifth in the order, but .337 at sixth through eighth.
1B James Loney (L)
Led the big leagues in hits with runners in scoring position (161), 2008-10.
C Jose Molina (R)
Third among active catchers (min. 500 games) with 39.1 caught-stealing percentage.
INF Ryan Roberts (R)
Errorless in 225 chances at second base, but made nine in 197 at third.
INF Sean Rodriguez (R)
Has gone to 0-2 count in 1 of every 4.5 career PAs, reaching base in only 1 of 5 when he does.
C Jose Lobaton (S)
Only player ever to be married at home plate at Tropicana Field (last July 2).
1B/OF Shelley Duncan (R)
Will be the primary DH against left-handed pitching.
2B/OF Kelly Johnson (L)
Hit .201 vs. lefties last season, but carries a .274 career average against southpaws.
LH David Price
33–11 in career vs. AL East teams, including 10–2 with a 2.51 ERA in 2012.
RH Jeremy Hellickson
With runners in scoring position, OPS is .083 lower and HR rate about half as in other situations.
LH Matt Moore
Induced swing-and-miss on 11.8 percent of pitches — tied for second in AL.
RH Alex Cobb
ERA would have been 3.22 if his two eight-run stinkers were thrown out.
RH Jeff Niemann
Holds foes to .236 average first two times through order in career, but .284 thereafter.
RH Fernando Rodney (Closer)
MLB relief-record 0.60 ERA was 0.98 lower than any other in 2012 AL (min. 50 innings).
RH Joel Peralta
Has appeared in the most games (147) of AL hurlers the last two years.
LH Jake McGee
At 95.7 mph, unleashed fastest average heater (min. 50 innings) of AL lefty relievers.
RH Kyle Farnsworth
In roughly the same number of plate appearances, he allowed a .088 average in August, .364 in September.
LH Cesar Ramos
Held Triple-A lefties to .125 AVG and big-league righties to .130.
RH Roberto Hernandez
Won 32 games with a 3.41 ERA in his two best seasons with Indians.