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.

Washington Nationals roster and schedule for 2020

Nationals roster and schedule
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The 2020 season is now a 60-game dash, starting on July 23 and ending, hopefully, with a full-size postseason in October. Between now and the start of the season, we’ll be giving quick capsule previews of each team, reminding you of where things stood back in Spring Training and where they stand now as we embark on what is sure to be the strangest season in baseball history. First up: The Washington Nationals roster and schedule:

NATIONALS ROSTER (projected)

When the season opens on July 23-24, teams can sport rosters of up to 30 players, with a minimum of 25. Two weeks later, rosters must be reduced to 28 and then, two weeks after that, they must be reduced to 26. Teams will be permitted to add a 27th player for doubleheaders.

In light of that, there is a great degree of latitude for which specific players will break summer camp. For now, though, here are who we expect to be on the Nationals roster to begin the season:

Catchers:

Yan Gomes
Kurt Suzuki

Infielders:

Eric Thames
Starlin Castro
Carter Kieboom
Trea Turner
Howie Kendrick
Asdrúbal Cabrera

Outfielders:

Juan Soto
Victor Robles
Adam Eaton
Michael Taylor
Andrew Stevenson

Starters:

Max Scherzer
Steven Strasburg
Patrick Corbin
Aníbal Sánchez
Austin Voth
Erick Fedde

Relievers:

Sean Doolittle
Daniel Hudson
Will Harris
Tanner Rainey
Wander Suero
Hunter Strickland
Roenis Elías


BREAKDOWN:

The Nationals shocked the world last year, recovering from an abysmal start to the season to win an NL Wild Card before cutting through the Dodgers, Cardinals, and Astros to win the first championship in franchise history. While the roster is largely unchanged, there is one gaping void: the loss of third baseman Anthony Rendon, who signed with the Angels. Rendon, a perennial MVP candidate, led the majors with 126 doubles and the NL with 44 doubles while smacking 34 homers with a 1.010 OPS last season. He’ll be replaced by the young Carter Kieboom and the veteran Kendrick and Cabrera. Those are some large shoes to fill.

With Rendon out of the picture, Juan Soto becomes the crux of the Nationals’ offense. Last year, he tied Rendon with 34 homers while knocking in 110 runs. He also, impressively, drew 108 walks, by far the highest on the team. The Nationals will likely have to utilize their speed even more. Last year, Soto stole 12 bases while Adam Eaton swiped 15, Victor Robles 28, and Trea Turner 35.

As was the case in 2019, the pitching will be how the Nationals punch their ticket to the postseason. Max Scherzer finished third in Cy Young balloting, his seventh consecutive top-five finish. The club retained Stephen Strasburg and brings back Patrick Corbin as well. There really isn’t a better 1-2-3 in the game. The rotation will be rounded out by Aníbal Sánchez and one of Austin Voth or Erick Fedde, though both are likely to see starts during the season.

The back of the bullpen is led by closer Sean Doolittle, who posted an uncharacteristically high — for him — 4.05 ERA last year. He still saved 29 games and averaged better than a strikeout per inning, so they’re in good hands. Daniel Hudson and Will Harris will work the seventh and eighth innings leading up to Doolittle.

As mentioned in the Braves preview, it’s tough to make any definitive statements about a 60-game season. Variance is going to have much more of an effect than it would in a 162-game season. Additionally, the NL East is highly competitive. It would be wrong to say with any degree of confidence that the Nationals will win the NL East. For example, the updated PECOTA standings from Baseball Prospectus only project a five-game difference between first and last place in the NL East. What we can say is that the Nationals will give everyone a run for their money in 2020.

NATIONALS SCHEDULE:

Every team will play 60 games. Teams will be playing 40 games against their own division rivals and 20 interleague games against the corresponding geographic division from the other league. Six of the 20 interleague games will be “rivalry” games.

  • July 23, 25-26: vs. Yankees
  • July 27-28: vs. Blue Jays
  • July 29-30: @ Blue Jays
  • July 31-August 2: @ Marlins
  • August 4-5: vs. Mets
  • August 7-9: vs. Orioles
  • August 10-13: @ Mets
  • August 14-16: @ Orioles
  • August 17-19: @ Braves
  • August 21-24: vs. Marlins
  • August 25-27: vs. Phillies
  • August 28-30: @ Red Sox
  • August 31-September 3: @ Phillies
  • September 4-6: @ Braves
  • September 7-8: vs. Rays
  • September 10-13: vs. Braves
  • September 15-16: @ Rays
  • September 18-20: @ Marlins
  • September 21-23: vs. Phillies
  • September 24-27: vs. Mets

The entire Nationals schedule can be seen here.