Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Rays' Resilience

Archer and co. have pitched the Rays into contention (ISportsWeb)
Before Opening Day, the Red Sox and Blue Jays were the two teams most favored to win the AL East. Nobody gave the Rays, who finished 2014 with a losing record and recently lost Ben Zobrist, David Price, and the best manager in baseball (Joe Maddon) much of a chance. While their pitching looked great, their offense, or severe lack thereof, appeared to be a fatal shortcoming, and nobody knew what to expect from rookie skipper Kevin Cash. For the first time since becoming a powerhouse in 2008, people were picking them to finish last in their division.

Now, nearly halfway through the season, they are tops in the AL East. This isn't merely a recent development, as they've been in first or second place every day since April 24th. Until this week they were red-hot, too, having completed a torrid three-week stretch in which they went 15-5.

With each win and every day atop the standings, Tampa Bay continues to defy the pundits who forecast mediocrity for them in 2015. They've fashioned the third-best record (42-34) in the American League despite scoring just 18 more runs than they've allowed, a run differential that suggests their talent is closer to that of a .500 team than a division leader. Their record also equals that of the Los Angeles Dodgers, the team with the highest payroll in baseball at approximately $275 million--or $200 million more than the 28th-ranked Rays are spending this season.

This is nothing new, as Tampa Bay has been assembling terrific teams without much cash or offensive firepower for years now. Their budgetary constraints and pitching-friendly ballpark have prevented them from building the type of potent, star-studded lineups found elsewhere in their division, and this year is no different in that regard. The Rays rank third-to-last in the American League in runs scored, which corresponds to their bottom-five rank in doubles, average, slugging, and OPS.

Their best hitter and franchise cornerstone, Evan Longoria, is mired in another disappointing season, and because of injuries to James Loney and Desmond Jennings he's not had much help. Were it not for the unexpected production of Steve Souza (a team-high 14 home runs), Logan Forsythe (.835 OPS) and Joey Butler (.845 OPS), the Rays would undoubtedly rank last in scoring. Tampa Bay has compensated for its deficiencies at the dish with aggressive baserunning and sound defense, as the Rays rank second among AL teams in stolen bases and fielding percentage.

Tampa Bay's real strength, as expected, has been their pitching, which boasts the lowest ERA in the Junior Circuit. This comes as something of a surprise given that two of their best starters, Matt Moore and Alex Cobb, haven't thrown a pitch for them in 2015. Cobb, who underwent Tommy John surgery in May, won't be coming back (neither will Drew Smyly, who managed just three starts before needing shoulder surgery). but Moore, who had the same procedure last year, is due back this week. An All-Star and Cy Young candidate the last time he was fully healthy, Moore figures to bolster what has been the second-stingiest rotation to date.

In their absence, Chris Archer has emerged a legitimate Cy Young candidate. He currently leads the American League in ERA (2.01), WHIP (0.95), and ERA+ (194). The 26 year-old has taken the leap after a pair of good but hardly-great seasons, displaying improved command (trimming a full batter off his career walk rate) and harnessing his elite strikeout potential (10.7 K/9) in his third full season. Jake Odorizzi was also in the midst of a breakout season (2.47 ERA, 1.02 WHIP) before landing on the disabled list with a strained oblique. The Rays are eagerly awaiting his return, which should be soon.

The rotation's true X factor has been Nate Karns, who had all of five big league starts under his belt prior to this season. Thrust into the rotation because of injuries, he's already tripled that number this year. More important than the quantity of his innings has been the quality, which has been better than anyone could have expected: his 3.28 ERA is nearly half of what his career mark was coming into the season.

Tampa's shutdown bullpen has been every bit as impressive, with its top five relievers in terms of appearances all flashing sub-three ERAs. A sixth, Jake McGee, has been stellar since making his way back from offseason elbow surgery, re-asserting himself as the team's top fireman with a 1.69 ERA and absurd 24/1 K/BB ratio. The former closer has been invaluable as the setup man for Brad Boxberger, who had just three saves to his name coming into the year but has already racked up 20. Thus, on the rare occasions when Rays starters struggle, their formidable bullpen is capable of stopping the bleeding and giving Tampa's offense a chance to climb back into the game.

So with Loney, Moore, Odorizzi, and John Jaso due back in the coming weeks, the Rays should enjoy a considerable boost from their midseason reinforcements. Odorizzi and Moore will make a great rotation even better, while Jaso and Loney should provide offensive upgrades over their placeholders (Rene Rivera, Jake Elmore) behind the plate and at first base. So although there are three teams within two games of Tampa Bay, it's possible the Rays won't need to add much at the trade deadline.

It's also possible that, as well as the Rays have played thus far, their best is yet to come.

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