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.

The “Clayton Kershaw can’t pitch in the postseason” narrative should be dead

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For years, a bulk of the postseason coverage surrounding Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw focused on his poor results once the regular season ended. The three-time Cy Young Award winner carried a career 5.68 postseason ERA following his NLDS Game 1 start against the Diamondbacks last year, a sample size spanning 15 starts and four relief appearances totaling 95 1/3 innings.

Kershaw had a subpar start against the Astros in Game 5 of the World Series last year and the narrative hit a fever pitch. I dug into the numbers at that point and found that a not-insignificant portion of Kershaw’s playoff ERA could be attributed to relievers coming in after him and failing to strand their inherited runners. At the time of that writing (October 30, 2017), Dodger relievers allowed 10 of 16 runners inherited from Kershaw in the playoffs to score, a strand rate of 37.5 percent. That’s roughly half of the league average (around 75 percent).

Kershaw finished out the World Series last year by pitching four scoreless innings of relief in Game 7. He returned to the postseason, starting Game 2 of the NLDS against the Braves this year and tossed eight shutout frames on just two hits with no walks. The narrative should have died there, too. It, of course did not. As the Dodgers advanced to the NLCS, Kershaw got the Game 1 nod against the Brewers and struggled. The Brewers got him for five runs (four earned) across three-plus innings. One of those runs included a home run hit by the opposing pitcher (Brandon Woodruff). Kershaw was also hurt by a passed ball and catcher’s interference on the part of Yasmani Grandal in the third inning. Not a great outing, but not as bad as the line score read, either.

In Game 5 of the NLCS on Wednesday evening, Kershaw once again redeemed himself. He limited the Brewers this time around to a lone run on three hits and two walks with nine strikeouts over seven innings of work. The only run came around in the third inning when Lorenzo Cain hit an RBI double to center field. Kershaw’s career postseason ERA is now 4.11 and it would be much lower if his bullpen had, in the past, done its job more effectively.

According to Katie Sharp of The Athletic, tonight’s postseason start was Kershaw’s eighth in which he allowed one run or fewer and three hits or fewer. No other pitcher in baseball history has made more than five such starts. That’s partially a function of opportunity, as the Dodgers have been in the postseason every year dating back to 2013 as well as in 2008 and ’09. But Kershaw still has to go out there and make the pitches, and he largely has. The “Kershaw can’t pitch in the postseason” narrative is dead. It never should have lived.