Springtime Storylines: Do the Tampa Bay Rays have the best rotation in baseball?

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: The Tampa Bay Rays.

The Big Question: Do the Rays have the best rotation in baseball?

The Phillies and the Giants certainly have something to say about it, but the Rays have a great claim to the title.  And even if they don’t fit your definition of “best,” it’s hard to argue that they’re not the deepest.

Last year the Rays had the best ERA in the American League, and they had to face the two best offenses in baseball — the Yankees and the Red Sox — a lot. This year, with the addition of Matt Moore, they’re likely better. Add in David Price, James Shields and Jeremy Hellickson, it’s hard to find a better 1-4 than the ones the Rays have. As for the fifth spot, they’ll go with Jeff Niemann, but if he doesn’t work they could use Wade Davis, who would make most teams’ rotations.

But the depth doesn’t end there. As Jonah Keri put it recently, “The Rays’ second five: Wade Davis, Chris Archer, and the three Alexes, Cobb, Torres, and Colome … could very well be better than the Orioles’ actual rotation.”

The point here is that the Rays never seem to run out of arms.  And if for some reason the bats are lacking, they have all of the pitching depth in the world from which to deal.  And that’s the stuff that makes a team that can’t compete on the balance sheet into one that has competed and will continue to compete in the toughest division of baseball for the foreseeable future.

So what else is going on?

  • To go with that pitching is the game’s best defense. I think that a lot of people who never seem to think the Rays can compete and then act shocked that they do are discounting just how much being able to pick it helps a team. How many games do you watch a year where it all turns on one big inning and that big inning happened because of an inning-extending error? I see a few from every team. And then the Rays go and make the playoffs by a single game. This is not an accident.
  • Kyle Farnsworth surprised us all by being a fairly reliable closer last season. How much confidence should we have that he’ll continue that? Maybe he can — at times it looked like he actually learned to pitch instead of throw last year — but if this team has a potential weakness, it could be the pen.
  • Pitching and defense is nice, but not enough, and the Rays had a pretty power-deficient lineup last season. Out goes Johnny Damon and Casey Kotchman, in comes Carlos Pena and Luke Scott. Both have struggled quite a bit this spring, but if they’re their usual selves, the lineup is gonna have more thump. Not sure it’s better, however.
  • Evan Longoria had a slight down year last year in terms of OPS and average, thanks in part to some injuries. But he hit 20 homers with a .907 OPS in the second half last year and is having a great spring. It’s weird to talk about an established star having a breakout year, but part of me smells an MVP campaign in the offing.

So how are they gonna do?

They always find a way, don’t they?  If Pena and Scott have decent years, this could be a special team. If they don’t, they can still be quite good thanks to that rotation.  They should be in it all year, and with the added wild card this season, they have to be considered strong playoff contenders, even in that stacked AL East.

Terry Francona once again leaves a game due to illness

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For the second time in two weeks, Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona left a game when he wasn’t feeling well.

Last night he left Cleveland’s 15-9 win over the Texas Rangers sometime before the fourth inning. He was evaluated by the medical staff and was said to be fine, but he did not return to the game. Francona was briefly hospitalized on June 13 following a game against the Los Angeles Dodgers due to similar symptoms. He returned to work the following night.

Francona experienced some chest pains and had an elevated heart rate that caused him to leave a game early last season. In 2005 a similar episode caused him to miss three games while managing the Red Sox. He also has a history of embolisms and blood clots, some of which have hospitalized him in the past.

Back in spring training he said this:

“It gets harder and harder physically. It really does. It takes me longer to recharge every year . . . I’ve had a lot of surgeries, a lot of health problems. It just takes a toll on you. I love [the game of baseball]. I really do, but I can’t see myself doing something else. But there is going to come a day when I feel like I’m shortchanging the team or the organization. That’s not fair.

“Even now, during batting practice, I’ll come in and get off my feet a little bit. I think everybody understands. But when there comes a day when it gets in the way, I’m going to have to pull back, and it’s not because I don’t love managing. You have to have a certain amount of energy to do this job right.”

Here’s hoping that’s still far off in the future.

And That Happened: Monday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Indians 15, Rangers 9: The Rangers took a 4-0 lead after one, a 7-1 lead after two and had a 9-2 lead heading into the bottom of the fourth before the Indians decided to wake up and score 13 unanswered runs. Francisco Lindor, Lonnie Chisenhall and Carlos Santana each had three RBI as the Indians scored a run in the fourth, four in the fifth, five in the sixth and added three in the seventh. Cleveland set their season high in runs and tied their season best with 19 hits. Every starter except Kipnis had at least two hits. They also regained first place in the central because . . .

Red Sox 4, Twins 1: Chris Sale outpitched Jose Berrios, allowing one run and striking out nine while working into the seventh inning. The Sox got to Berrios early with two in the first, including a Mitch Moreland homer. It was his third straight game with a dong.

Cubs 5, Nationals 4: It was only a 2-0 game heading into the ninth when the Cubs piled on three insurance runs. They needed all of the insurance as the Nats scored four in the bottom half. Close —Wade Davis had to struck out Ryan Zimmerman with runners on second and third to end the game — but no cigar. Willson Contreras hit a leadoff homer. Catchers don’t lead off that much. Jason Kendall used to do it a lot. Kurt Suzuki and John Jaso have. I feel like Russell Martin did a fair amount. But it’s not common. You could probably take all of the catchers who have batted leadoff more than ten times a year in the past 25 years, put them in a Volkswagon Vanagon with the Westphalia camper mod and still have a lot of room leftover for bikes and stuff.

Diamondbacks 6, Phillies 1: Zack Greinke wasn’t efficient — he needed 102 pitches to make it through five innings — but the Phillies got bubkis off of him regardless. Left fielder Chris Herrmann homered and walked with the bases loaded to drive in two. Daniel Delscalso drove in three with a pair of RBI singles.

Cardinals 8, Reds 2: Randal Grichuk homered for the second straight game. He had been in the minors until this past Sunday, spending about a month down there after being demoted for poor play. In his two games since coming back up he’s 4-for-10 with two homers and four RBI. Jedd Gyorko homered too. Michael Wacha, who has been terrible recently, allowed only one run on five hits in six innings. The Reds bein’ kinda interesting and frisky seems like a million years ago.

Yankees 6, White Sox 5: The Yankees had a 6-1 lead heading into the bottom of the ninth. They held on to win, but the Sox made it interesting, scoring four runs off of Chasen Shreve — who gave up a three-run shot to Tim Anderson — and Aroldis Chapman, who gave up an RBI double. Tyler Austin homered and the bottom third of the Yankees order — Chase Headley, Austin Romine and Ronald Torreyes — each knocked in a run.

Giants 9, Rockies 2: San Francisco snaps a five-game skid overall and a nine-game skid against the Rockies as Jeff Samardzija struck out five and worked into into the seventh. Buster Posey hit an RBI double. Brandon Belt and Denard Span each hit RBI triples. Colorado now, just recently the talk of the league, has dropped six straight. They’ve been outscored 57-17 in those losses.

Angels 4, Dodgers 0: Another skid was snapped: the Dodgers’ ten-game winning streak. Doing the snapping was Ricky Nolasco, who snapped a winless streak of ten starts. Nolasco shut out the Dodgers into the seventh inning, only to be knocked out by a comebacker that hit his shin. He’s fine. For the Dodgers, the silver lining here was that Rich Hill pitched seven innings. He lost, but it was the first time he made past five innings all year.