The Week Ahead: Smoltz returns, a day early

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John Smoltz makes his anticipated return to the mound on Thursday. It
is also his anticipated debut for the Boston Red Sox, who signed him
away from Atlanta in the offseason after the Braves showed somewhat
tepid interest in keeping their aging star.

There is one problem with Smoltz’s return, it would have been a lot more fun if it had come a day or two later.

On Thursday, Smoltz will take the mound in Washington against
baseball’s worst team – the Washington Nationals. On Friday, Boston
begins a three-game series at Turner Field against the Atlanta Braves.

Clearly the Red Sox are easing the veteran right-hander back into things, and Smoltz himself says that’s fine with him.

“I’m not afraid of any challenge or anything that comes about. It’s
just, I’ve got to be realistic to see that this scenario would have
been much more than just a regular first-game start.”

Smoltz already paid respects to his former teammates when the Braves
were in Boston this past week, but it still would’ve been fun to have
them face off against each other. Now the only way that happens this
year is if both teams reach the World Series – unlikely to say the
least.

Meanwhile, Boston fans, already undoubtedly pleased with Dice-K’s trip to the disabled list,
can get excited about adding another strong, veteran pitcher to the
rotation. A guy who has made it a habit to be dominant on the mound, even when injured.

“Even when he’s not healthy, his numbers don’t fluctuate,” marveled
Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell. “He’s had a remarkable career.”

FIVE SERIES TO WATCH

  • Cardinals at Mets, June 22-25: This four-game set could go a
    long way toward determining whether the Mets can hang with the
    contenders for the rest of the season.
  • Phillies at Rays, June 23-25: A rematch of last October’s World Series. Only this time, Pat Burrell will be wearing the home whites at Tropicana Field.
  • Cubs at White Sox, June 26-28:
    The Cubs enter the week on a four-game winning streak and have climbed
    within 2 ½ games of the NL Central lead. The White Sox have won two
    straight and have climbed within throwing distance of .500.
  • Red Sox at Braves, June 26-28: Smoltz is back in the house, though he won’t pitch for the Red Sox in Atlanta. Unless … anyone want some rain on Thursday?
  • Yankees at Mets, June 26-28: The Subway Series, Part Deux. The
    Yankees took two of three at Yankee Stadium, but now we’re travelling
    to Queens. Will it make a difference? Will A-Rod take a break?

    ON THE TUBE

    Monday, 7:10 p.m. ET: Cardinals at Mets (ESPN2)
    Wednesday, 7:10 p.m.: Yankees at Braves (ESPN2)
    *Saturday, 4:10 p.m.: Cubs at White Sox (FOX)
    *Saturday, 4:10 p.m.: Red Sox at Braves (FOX)
    *Saturday, 4:10 p.m.: Angels at Diamondbacks (FOX)
    Sunday, 1:30 p.m.: Red Sox at Braves (TBS)
    Sunday, 8:05 p.m.: Yankees at Mets (ESPN)

    *Check local listings

  • Evan Longoria: ‘I just kind of feel sorry for the Rays fan base’

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    The Rays were busy over the weekend, trading starter Jake Odorizzi to the Twins, designating All-Star outfielder Corey Dickerson for assignment, and then picking up C.J. Cron in a deal with the Angels. The Rays saved about $4 million — Odorizzi’s $6.3 million less Cron’s $2.3 million salary — and picked up a prospect. They’re still on the hook for Dickerson’s $5.95 million salary until they can find a trade partner, which seems likely.

    Those are some head-scratching moves if you’re a Rays fan or a member of the Rays. Dickerson hit .282/.325/.490 with 27 home runs, 62 RBI, and 84 runs scored in 629 plate appearances last season, part of which resulted in his first trip to the All-Star Game. Designating him for assignment is strictly a financial move, assuming he can be traded. The Rays are currently operating with a payroll below $70 million. This comes just a week and a half after Rays ownership proposed the public footing most of the bill for the club’s new stadium. And the Rays had traded third baseman Evan Longoria — then the face of the franchise — to the Giants earlier this offseason.

    Longoria expressed sympathy for Rays fans for having to put up with this. Via Andrew Baggarly, Longoria said of the curious Dickerson move, “I just kind of feel sorry for the Rays fan base. … I’m not going to take too many shots but it’s pretty obvious that guy is a valuable player and didn’t deserve to be DFAd. Corey was our best player last year.”

    Longoria isn’t quite on the money there. By WAR, Dickerson ranked fifth among position players on the team, according to Baseball Reference. FanGraphs is also in agreement. Still, it’s indisputable that Dickerson, who turns 29 years old this May, more than pulled his weight. The Rays do not have a surfeit of starting outfielders, so it wasn’t like they were making room for other capable players. Mallex Smith, who put up a .684 OPS in 282 PA last year, is slated to start in left field at the moment. Designating Dickerson for assignment, as well as trading Longoria and Odorizzi, were simply cost-cutting decisions.

    The Rays’ M.O. has been part of the problem leading to the current stagnant free agent market (sans Eric Hosmer‘s eight-year deal on Saturday). Teams like the Rays, Phillies, Reds, and Tigers have been explicitly putting out non-competitive teams in order to facilitate a rebuilding process. Longoria is right to express sympathy for Rays fans, who see their favorite team worsening a roster that went 80-82 last year. The Rays haven’t finished at .500 or above since 2013 and doesn’t figure to halt the streak this year.