Springtime Storylines: Did the Rays lose too many guys?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: A team that always has to try 2% harder, the Tampa Bay Rays.

The Big Question: Did the Rays lose too many guys?

It’s hard to say otherwise, isn’t it?  Gone are Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, Matt Garza, Rafael Soriano, Dan Wheeler, Grant Balfour, Joaquin Benoit and Jason Bartlett. It was a pretty mass exodus.

That said, not all of those departures are critical. A couple of those guys — Pena and Bartlett — didn’t contribute a whole heck of a lot in 2010, and their replacements — Dan Johnson and Reid Brignac — don’t represent a ton of falloff.  Likewise, I’m of the mind that Jeremy Hellickson will be an improvement over a somewhat overrated Matt Garza.

But losing Carl Crawford will be a toughie. To say Johnny Damon is a step down from Crawford defensively is criminal understatement. There is no escaping the fact that losing a player the caliber of Crawford — to a division rival no less — could be a mortal wound.

And actually, the defections from the bullpen seem to be the most critical loss for the reigning AL East champs. Kyle Farnsworth, Jake McGee, and Adam Russell all have their charms, but to suggest that the bullpen will be anything other than a profound weakness seems like unwarranted optimism to me. I know Rafael Soriano. I watched Rafael Soriano pitch. You, Mr. Farnsworth, are no Rafael Soriano.

So what else is going on?

  • While the bullpen seems like a nightmare, you have to like the rotation. Neither David Price, James Shields nor Jeff Niemann are dominant pitchers, necessarily, but all are workhorses, with Price an ace.  I think Shields will bounce back from a rough 2010 and while Wade Davis was a bit sketchy at times last season, he was a better pitcher in the second half, and that bodes well.  Hellickson may be the key to the group, though. One expects rookie pitchers to struggle, but I just have a feeling that he’ll bring more to the table than your typical rookie pitcher.
  • Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon are the big imports this year. I’m somewhat optimistic regarding both of those guys. Ramirez was hampered by injuries in 2010, but when he played he was still effective, even if his power was down.  He has seemed energized this spring and has something to prove back in the AL East so I expect good things from him, even if it’s not as good as vintage Manny.  Likewise Damon’s falloff in Detroit was not as sharp as it may have seemed. He went from a lefty hitter’s haven in Yankees Stadium in 2009 to a tough park for him in 2010 which killed his power numbers, but he should provide some decent production. At least on offense.
  • I predict a B.J. Upton breakout every year. I’ve yet to have my predictions vindicated.  I shall nonetheless, once again, predict a B.J. Uption breakout year.  Please feel free to remind me of my folly come October. Thanks.
  • While the Rays are going through a ton of changes this year, the fact that Joe Maddon is in charge may mitigate some of the disruption.  He’s a smart guy who is not married to any one strategy and, because of that, will be far more willing to make changes on the fly if and when the best laid plans of the winter go astray.

So how are they going to do?

Not well enough. Ultimately there are just too many holes to fill. For the Rays to make noise, every uncertainty — of which there are a lot — will have to break in their favor.  Manny and Johnny need to flash something akin to their production of old. Three of their starters will have to show improvement from last year, one — Price — will have to more or less maintain his production, and a rookie starter will have to excel in the AL East.  Finally, a bullpen of misfits will have to coalesce into something grand.  That’s a tall, tall order.

I think they’ll be respectable and, if the Yankees suffer some sort of disaster, they can compete for the wild card.  But I think the long haul of the season will be too much for them and I predict a third place finish.

In the playoffs, the Yankees’ weakness has become their strength

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Two weeks ago, when the playoffs began, the idea of “bullpenning” once again surfaced, this time with the Yankees as a focus. Because their starting pitching was believed to be a weakness — they had no obvious ace like a Dallas Keuchel or Corey Kluber — and their bullpen was a major strength, the idea of chaining relievers together starting from the first inning gained traction. The likes of Luis Severino, who struggled mightily in the AL Wild Card game, or Masahiro Tanaka (4.79 regular season ERA) couldn’t be relied upon in the postseason, the thought went.

That idea is no longer necessary for the Yankees because the starting rotation has become the club’s greatest strength. Tanaka fired seven shutout innings to help push the Yankees ahead of the Astros in the ALCS, three games to two. They are now one win away from reaching the World Series for the first time since 2009.

It hasn’t just been Tanaka. Since Game 3 of the ALDS, Yankees pitchers have made eight starts spanning 46 1/3 innings. They have allowed 10 runs (nine earned) on 25 hits and 12 walks with 45 strikeouts. That’s a 1.75 ERA with an 8.74 K/9 and 2.33 BB/9. In five of those eight starts, the starter went at least six innings, which has helped preserve the freshness and longevity of the bullpen.

Here’s the full list of performances for Yankee starters this postseason:

Game Starter IP H R ER BB SO HR
AL WC Luis Severino 1/3 4 3 3 1 0 2
ALDS 1 Sonny Gray 3 1/3 3 3 3 4 2 1
ALDS 2 CC Sabathia 5 1/3 3 4 2 3 5 0
ALDS 3 Masahiro Tanaka 7 3 0 0 1 7 0
ALDS 4 Luis Severino 7 4 3 3 1 9 2
ALDS 5 CC Sabathia 4 1/3 5 2 2 0 9 0
ALCS 1 Masahiro Tanaka 6 4 2 2 1 3 0
ALCS 2 Luis Severino 4 2 1 1 2 0 1
ALCS 3 CC Sabathia 6 3 0 0 4 5 0
ALCS 4 Sonny Gray 5 1 2 1 2 4 0
ALCS 5 Masahiro Tanaka 7 3 0 0 1 8 0
TOTAL 55 1/3 35 20 17 20 52 6

In particular, if you hone in on the ALCS starts specifically, Yankee starters have pitched 28 innings, allowing five runs (four earned) on 13 hits and 10 walks with 20 strikeouts. That’s a 1.61 ERA.

While the Yankees’ biggest weakness has become a strength, the Astros’ biggest weakness — the bullpen — has become an even bigger weakness. This is why the Yankees, who won 10 fewer games than the Astros during the regular season, are one win away from reaching the World Series and the Astros are not.