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2018 Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

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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 2018 season. Next up: The Tampa Bay Rays.

A lot of teams start one season looking very different than they did at the end of the previous season. Usually you can see those changes coming as early as August or September. What the Rays look like now, on the eve of the 2018 regular season, however, is very different than the sort of change we assumed as recently as the Winter Meetings.

We knew they’d let Alex Cobb walk in free agency and they did. But we did not expect them to trade Evan Longoria, to designate Corey Dickerson for assignment coming off an All-Star year, to trade 30-homer outfielder Steven Souza, or to trade Jake Odorizzi as spring training was getting underway as opposed to some time later when, perhaps, he could bring more value. The baseball justifications for some of these trades were better than they were for others, but the way they were done and the timing of it all cast a pall on the offseason, appearing as they did to be payroll slashing moves. The certainly didn’t impress the MLBPA, which filed a grievance against Tampa Bay last month, accusing them of pocketing revenue sharing money instead of trying to make the team better.

None of that played well, but if you take a couple of steps back, it’s possible to defend it all by realizing that even with all of those guys, the Rays were an 80-win team last year and would not have had a huge amount of upside this year if they had kept it all together. I’ll leave it to prospect experts, number crunchers to decide whether the Rays did a good job of tearing it down — and I think they could’ve done better than they did with stopgap measures until their minor league talent matures — but it’s at least understandable that they wanted to tear it down and start anew.

Until the fruits of those deals — and the fruits of a minor league system which has been pretty darn good in recent years — are ripe, though, the big league Rays are going to have a lot of question marks.

On offense the biggest question mark is health and durability. Here’s a pretty plausible Opening Day lineup Kevin Cash may send out there:

DH Denard Span
3B Matt Duffy
CF Kevin Kiermaier
RF Carlos Gomez
2B Brad Miller
C Wilson Ramos
1B C.J. Cron
SS Adeiny Hechavarria
LF Mallex Smith

Not terrible, but not durable or, in some cases, consistent. Kiermaier has had some freak injuries, but the nature of his play — hard, fast and diving for stuff — makes that a hazard and, as such, he’s really only played in one full season. Matt Duffy missed all of last year and, let’s face it, has never struck fear into the hearts of opposing pitchers. Wilson Ramos knows the disabled list like few others. Meanwhile, Carlos Gomez, C.J. Cron and Brad Miller have had fairly substantial swings in production across recent and within recent seasons. Adeiny Hechavarria and Mallex Smith are not serious offensive threats.

It’s easy to squint and to imagine Span, Kiermaier, Ramos, Gomez and maybe Cron forming the nucleus of a respectable attack, but it’s also easy to see half of that lineup playing in only, like, 107 games, Cash penciling in dudes like Jesus Sucre and Daniel Robertson a lot or putting Denard Span out in the outfield more than he should to cover for whoever. The Rays featured the 14th-best offense in the AL in 2017. I can see a case for it improving a tad, but not by much, and if the injury fairy flies through the window, this could be really bad.

On the upside, most of these guys can pick it pretty well, so the defense should be pretty decent and potentially even superior. The pitching is good on paper too, but there is gonna be some weirdness afoot if Cash sticks with the plan he outlined earlier this month.

Even with the departure of Cobb and Odorizzi — and even with the season-ending surgery to top prospect Brent Honeywell — the Rays have five good starters in Chris Archer, Nate Eovaldi, Blake Snell, Jake Faria and Matt Andriese. Except they’re not going to use all five starters in their rotation. They’re going to go with a four-man rotation and a bullpen game every fifth day. At present it appears that Andriese, who started 17 games last year, is the odd man out and will be part of the all-hands-on-deck crew on day 5, whenever that comes up.

Early on this should not make a difference. There are a lot of off days in the first month of the season, so the need for that bullpen day will be pretty limited. One wonders, though, what this will do to their effectiveness and durability as the temperature rises and the season wears on. Yes, “bullpenning” got a lot of press in the postseason, but the idea that a bullpen can stay fresh with such a high-level of use for 5-6 months with few days off is a questionable one. That’s especially the case when three of the Rays’ four starters — Eovaldi, Faria and Snell — pitched limited innings last year and can’t be expected to go six or seven innings per start in 2018 (who can anymore?). Maybe Archer is a horse, but the rest of your games you’re going to need three relievers to finish things up based on how life works these days. Maybe more.

In light of that, is the bullpen going to be able to handle nine innings once every five days? Color me dubious. I think they’ll be fried by July. At least if they truly do use that fifth day as a true bullpen day and don’t, say, just call up a new fifth starter every week and a half and use that slot to audition organizational depth before ultimately just handing it over to Andriese. Indeed, now that I’m thinking about it, I’d wager that the fifth day plan morphs into that pretty quickly and that we’ll be smiling at the notion of a true bullpen day by the All-Star break.

As for the arms in that bullpen, Alex Colome is the closer, mostly because the Rays couldn’t find anyone to deal him to this past offseason. In support are old hands Daniel Hudson and Sergio Romo, neither of whom have been relief aces in recent years, even if Romo did do well for the Rays after coming over late last season. Dan Jennings, Jose Alvarado, Ryne Stanek and a cast of similarly anonymous guys will take the ball a lot. Even Johnny Venters, who had three Tommy John surgeries, could be in the mix at some point. The cast will be as big as “Love Actually.” Whether they are as annoying depends on who you’re rooting for.

Where does that leave the Rays? It leaves them with some serious dice rolling in the lineup, some good defense, some respectable pitching but a potentially odd and possibly detrimental approach to its deployment. It leaves them with a still very good farm system and a roster that looks really nice for 2020. I think it leaves them in some pretty serious trouble for 2018, though, especially in a division as top heavy as the AL East.

As far as on-the-fly rebuilds go, it’s not a bad one, but it’s still one that’s gonna leave the Rays in the low-80s win-wise at best, with some pretty serious potential downside.

Prediction: Fourth Place, AL East.

And That Happened: Tuesday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Angels 8, Astros 7: Charlie Morton and Shohei Ohtani have been two of the most talked about pitchers to start the season and they faced off in this one. Not too stellar a faceoff, unfortunately, as Mike Trout homered off of the first pitch Morton threw him and Andrelton Simmons followed him in the act. The Angels would score two more off of him in the third and he wouldn’t last four. Meanwhile, Ohtani gave up four runs, including a homer to Derek Fisher and would see another run for which he was responsible score on a Brian McCann go-ahead blast. His night would end having given up four runs as well. Anaheim tied it back up on an Albert Pujols single and then Simmons would hit his second homer of the night — a three-run shot — to give the Angels a lead they would not surrender. Fun fact: Mike Scioscia ran out of mound visits in this one. Unless I missed one, he was the first manager to do so in a game since the mound visit rule was established.

Cubs 10, Indians 3🎶Kyle Schwarber came back to Ohio . . . and his city was gone . . . but the guy who wrote about it . . . was a Republican pawn . . . A, oh, way to go O-hi-o . . .🎶 Two homers for the best thing to come out of Middletown, Ohio over the past decade or so. A homer each for Willson Contreras and Ian Happ. Same result as Game 7 in 2016. Pretty much the same weather too. Unfit for man or beast or Josh Tomlin

Yankees 8, Twins 3: Gary Sanchez hit two homers and Aaron Judge and Didi Gregorius each went deep as well, with Sanchez and Gregorius each driving in three. Didi has been having such a fantastic year that, eventually, I’m assuming the people who run the ads at Yankee Stadium will spell his name right:

Mets 6, Cardinals 5: Jay Bruce‘s tenth inning homer gave the Mets a lead they’d hold on to for the win. Yoenis Cespedes hit a homer earlier that I’m pretty sure killed (a) a baseball; and (b) Luke Weaver:

463 feet, my man.

In other news, Matt Harvey entered in the top of the fifth inning of this one for his first relief appearance since his demotion to the pen. It didn’t go great. He gave up a run on back-to-back two-out doubles and left after throwing 35 pitches, only 20 of which were strikes. In still other news, the Cardinals initiated a replay challenge after Bruce’s homer, claiming he missed first base. He didn’t miss first base and it wasn’t even particularly close, so I have no idea what the Cardinals were doing there. La Russa may be gone but part of his essence still lingers, I suppose.

Rockies 8, Padres 0: Eight runs in Colorado — seven of them coming in the first two innings — isn’t news, but seven shutout innings from a starting pitcher is. That’s what Kyle Freeland did for the Rockies, striking out eight and grabbing the win. Trevor Story hit a grand slam. There was a scary moment when Freeland was hit by a comebacker, but he stayed in the game. Rockies manager Bud Black said it may have helped: “It smoothed him out. He didn’t overthrow. His focus might have been more heightened, because he was in a little bit of discomfort.” Sources say that Black plans to kick Freeland square in the beans just before he takes the mound for his next start on Sunday.

Giants 4, Nationals 3: Mac Williamson hit his second big homer in as many nights and once again helped the Giants to a win, with his sixth inning solo shot putting San Francisco up for good. The Giants other three runs came via a Brandon Belt two-run homer and a first inning wild pitch from Tanner Roark. Williamson credited the adrenalin from running into a wall the previous half inning for his homer. In light of that, sources say that Bruce Bochy plans to kick Williamson square in the beans just before his first at bat in his next game this afternoon.

Mariners 1, White Sox 0: Marco Gonzales (6 IP, 5 H, 1 BB, 8K) and four M’s relievers combine for a five-hit shutout and Mitch Haniger‘s RBI single in the fourth was all the scoring. Chris Volstad got the start for the White Sox. He did pretty good considering, you know, he isn’t really a starter. The White Sox are off to their worst start in 68 years. I wonder how they’d be doing if they, you know, tried.

Reds 9, Braves 7: Cincy took a 5-0 lead behind some dominant pitching from Tyler Mahle, no-hitting the Braves until the seventh inning, but the Braves finally figured him out and crushed the first couple of relievers who followed him, eventually tying things up with four runs in the ninth. Scooter Gennett put an end to Atlanta’s comeback-win delusions, however, launching a two-run walkoff homer in the 12th. That was Gennett’s second homer of the night and his third and fourth RBI. Freddie Freeman went deep twice for Atlanta, both solo shots.

Diamondbacks 8, Phillies 4: Alex Avila went deep and had three hits and Daniel Descalso and Jarrod Dyson also homered. Dbacks starter Robbie Ray struck out 11 Philly batters but couldn’t escape the fifth inning. I imagine Philly fans either didn’t care or didn’t notice since the Sixers were playing. This is a good time of year for baseball teams in hockey and basketball towns to fly under the radar for a bit.

Blue Jays 4, Red Sox 3: Curtis Granderson threw out the potential go-ahead run at the plate in the top of the ninth inning and then hit a walk-off homer in the 10th — off of Craig Kimbrel no less — to give the Jays the win in the team’s first game since Monday’s deadly terrorist attack killed ten in the city. The Sox lose their third straight game and suffer their first loss to the Jays in Rogers Centre in their last eight meetups.

Athletics 3, Rangers 2: Andrew Triggs allowed only one run over six innings while scattering for hits and punching out six. Mark Canha homered and Jed Lowrie and Matt Olson each doubled in a run to help Oakland to their fourth straight win. Worse news for Texas than the loss was Adrian Beltre straining his left hamstring. No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy, but it’s kind of ridiculous that, 25 games into the season, three of the club’s four Opening Day infielders are hurt and the fourth one is playing left field.

Brewers 5, Royals 2: Lorenzo Cain homered against his old team, but that was just late gravy. Earlier Travis Shaw hit a three-run shot that put the game away in the third inning. Sal Perez made his first appearance of 2018 after coming off the disabled list and hit a solo shot. Zach Davies picked up the win after allowing two over six.

Marlins 3, Dodgers 2: L.A. took a 2-1 lead into the eighth but Starlin Castro doubled in the tying run that inning and Cameron Maybin doubled in the go-ahead run in the ninth. The Fish snap their five-game losing streak.

Rays vs. Orioles; Tigers vs. Pirates — POSTPONED: The 27th and 28th rainouts of the year so far. So it seems appropriate . . .

28 days of rain
Flash floods in February
Back in our boats again
Bath water and the baby
What am I gonna do?
There’s been a lot of drinking
Looking at ghosts of you
While all the world is sinking

10.000 miles into the atmosphere
My body shakes
Is there a welcome here?

Closest thing to heaven
How do you do it?
Closest thing to heaven, heaven