2015 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 2015 season. Next up: The Tampa Bay Rays

The Big Question: Is the party over?

The party I refer to is the seven-season party in which the Rays were competitive. Or maybe just six, as they only won 77 games last year. But perceptions and expectations matter, right? People thought they’d contend last year. When the season started there was hope. This, in contrast, to the feeling Devil Rays fans had between 1998 and 2007. What I’m really asking is if, for the first time since the Rays took control of the AL East midway through the 2008 season, do their fans lack any basis of hope? Has the club that Andrew Friedman built and Joe Maddon managed ceased to be and are the Rays back out in the wilderness in which they roamed back when they had neon stingrays on their uniforms?

Hard to say. But we can say that the departure of Joe Maddon and Andrew Friedman should not, in and of itself, cause Rays fans to despair. Kevin Cash is a rookie manager, but he comes from a good pedigree, having been mentored by Terry Francona for the past few years. Matt Silverman may not be a household name, but he served in the same front office as Friedman for quite a long time. It’s not like the wheel which rolled the Rays into contention is being totally rebuilt. In some ways it’s the same plan as before — look for bargains, trade a guy earlier rather than too late and hope that the pitching comes through — just with fresh faces implementing them. It’s not like they went out and hired Dusty Baker and Jim Hendry here.

But, on the talent side, well . . . it’s gonna be rough for the Rays to convince people, like they’ve convinced us so often in the past that, with a little luck, they can be in the thick of the AL East race. Even a generally down AL East. Their big offseason pickup: Asdrubal Cabrera, who will be a defensive liability at short. Second base looks like the witness protection program. They upgraded at DH with John Jaso, and he’ll be a positive contributor if he doesn’t have to catch. They lost Ben Zobrist who was probably their best offensive performer last year. This from a team which already had the worst offense in the American League.

Good outfield defense, some live bullpen arms and a shot at a good rotation (see below) is nice, but it’s not enough. The Rays look to be in the middle of a transition period, and shouldn’t be expected to contend.

What else is going on?

  • Offense is the real question here, but are there answers? Eh, maybe. I mean, it’s not hopeless. Evan Longoria hit a mere .253/.320/.404 last season. He’s better than that. Desmond Jennings has long been thought to have the potential to be an offensive star. He’s 28 now and hopes for sustained stardom are probably gone, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see him have one or two spike years around now. A big x-factor is Steven Souza, who has raked in the minors in the past. Jaso can hit. James Loney has come back to life and died again a few times in his career. It’s not a lot to build on outside of Longoria — and it may be wishcasting to even hope for half of that stuff to break right — but I suppose it’s not nothing.
  • The rotation could be a strength, at least if you’re an optimist. Matt Moore, Chris Archer, Alex Cobb, Drew Smyly, and Jake Odorizzi figure to be a solid rotation at some point this season, but it’s nowhere near a lock that they’ll all be together at once at any time. Moore, of course, is rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and could be back by July. But Cobb and Smyly have had health problems this spring. Alex Colome is supposed to be there until Moore arrives, but his spring has been interrupted with pneumonia. Unlike in the past where the Rays had a “next-man-up” feel to their starting pitching, there isn’t a ton of depth to make up for injured starters anymore.
  • I mentioned Jaso catching above. He’s not likely to do a lot of that due to the pickup of Rene Rivera. Rivera has had only 673 plate appearances across six seasons as he backed up in San Diego, Minnesota and Seattle while shutting to and from the minors. He’s been knocking around forever, but he’s supposed to be an amazing defensive catcher, though. And he even hit a decent amount last year in San Diego, where he saw his most consistent playing time as a big leaguer. Could be an interesting dude.
  • The bullpen should be serviceable. The closer and setup men, some of whom may be interchangeable if Kevin Cash wants to play the hot hand, look to be Jake McGee, Grant Balfour, Brad Boxberger and Kevin Jepsen. McGee had elbow surgery this offseason and will hopefully return in the season’s first month. Jim Miller and Ernesto Frieri are knocking around. Each are projects who pitched well once but then sort of melted down. The Rays could try to rehab and flip them. Heck, they may be flipping a lot. I bet Asdrubal Cabrera is on the block by June. Like I said: team in transition.

Prediction: I can envision a path to the division title for every team in the AL East except for the Tampa Bay Rays. They are rebuilding in their own particular Tampa Bay Rays way in which the Rays are always kinda rebuilding, but there are far fewer usable parts here. I think that amounts to Fifth Place, American League East.

Juan Soto steals the show, powering Nationals past Astros 5-4 in World Series Game 1

Rob Tringali/MLB Photos via Getty Images
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Nationals outfielder Juan Soto stole the show on Tuesday night in Houston, going 3-for-4 with a double, a homer, three RBI, and a stolen base to power his team past the Astros 5-4 in Game 1 of the World Series.

The Astros jumped on Max Scherzer for two runs in the bottom of the first inning to open the scoring. Scherzer allowed the first two batters he faced to reach on a single and a walk, then struck out the next two batters before allowing a two-strike, two-out, two-run double to Yuli Gurriel. Given the way Gerrit Cole has pitched all year long, two runs seemed like plenty.

Cole did not have his best stuff on this particular night. Ryan Zimmerman answered with a solo home run to center field with two outs in the top of the second inning, cutting the deficit to 2-1. Juan Soto would absolutely obliterate a Cole offering for a solo homer of his own in the fourth inning, tying the game at two apiece. Soto became the fourth player in baseball history to hit a World Series home run before his 21st birthday.

The Nationals hung a three-spot in the top of the fifth against Cole, putting their first two batters on base thanks to a walk and a single. Adam Eaton brought home the go-ahead run with a line drive single to right field. Soto followed up by scorching a line drive off of the wall in front of the Crawford boxes to plate two more runs, padding the Nats’ lead to 5-2.

The two runs the Astros got in the first inning would be all they would get off of Scherzer, though they did make him labor in every inning. Scherzer ultimately threw 112 pitches over five innings, yielding five hits and three walks with seven strikeouts.

Patrick Corbin worked a scoreless sixth, working around a one-out single. His usage out of the bullpen likely means he starts Game 4, not Game 3. Manager Dave Martinez handed the ball to hard-throwing right-hander Tanner Rainey for the seventh inning, but it didn’t work out. Rainey gave up a leadoff home run to George Springer to make it 5-3. Springer has now homered in five consecutive World Series games, breaking a tie with Reggie Jackson and Lou Gehrig to set a new major league record. Rainey got into yet more trouble, issuing back-to-back one-out walks to Michael Brantley and Alex Bregman, forcing Martinez to use Daniel Hudson a little earlier than anticipated. Hudson, however, was able to wriggle out of danger in the seventh.

Hudson wasn’t as fortunate in the eighth inning as the Astros continued to claw their way back. Pinch-hitter Kyle Tucker led off with a single, advanced to second base on a deep fly ball to center fielder Victor Robles. Springer brought Tucker home on a fly ball to right-center field that bounced high off of the fence, very nearly becoming a game-tying two-run homer. He settled for an RBI double. Hudson got José Altuve to fly out before handing the ball to lefty Sean Doolittle, who got Brantley to line out to end the inning.

In the ninth, Doolittle returned to the bump to close out the game. He struck out Bregman, got Gurriel to fly out to center, and Correa did the same to end the contest. Nationals take Game 1, 5-4 over the Astros, earning their first World Series victory in franchise history.

Cole, by the way, was still able to complete seven innings. The right-hander threw 104 pitches, allowing the five runs on eight hits and a walk with six strikeouts. He allowed more than one run for the first time this postseason, and more than two runs for the first time since August 28 against the Rays. The Astros lost a game he started for the first time since July 12 against the Rangers.

The Nationals, big underdogs entering the World Series, now have a 1-0 series lead over the Astros, successfully vanquishing Cole. The two sides will meet again for Game 2 on Wednesday night. Justin Verlander will oppose Stephen Strasburg.