This isn’t where fans of the Tampa Bay Rays thought the team would be a month into the season. The sting of losing Blake Snell and Charlie Morton in the offseason has certainly been felt, but people had higher hopes for April.
After a couple lopsided wins against Anaheim on Tuesday night, the Rays find themselves with a record just barely above mediocre: 16-15. They sit two-and-a-half games behind the suddenly-relevant Red Sox in the AL East, and tied with the suddenly-no-longer-doormat Yankees. Through 31 games in the COVID-shortened 2020 season, the Rays were 20-11 and in first place.
Now, in the immortal words of famed Jeopardy! guest host Aaron Rodgers: “R-E-L-A-X.” The season is in its infancy, and there is lots of baseball to be played. But that said, what’s going on with the Tampa Bay Rays? This is only the first of many rhetoricals that can be asked about the Bay Boys. Let’s ask a few more.
When does a slump stop being a slump?
Brandon Lowe, considered by many to be an anchor of the Rays’ lineup, is hitting .190 on the young season, after hitting .118 in 20 postseason games last year.
Yoshi Tsutsugo through just under 1000 games in the Nippon Professional Baseball Organization: .285/.382/.528/.910. Yoshi Tsutsugo through his first 74 games with the Rays: .184/.289/.333/.622. His K%, Whiff%, and Out of Zone Swing%, are all up from last year, which was his first in MLB.
As a team, the Rays are 7-for-their-last-59 with RISP. Since April 24, the Rays have allowed 3 or fewer runs in 9-out-of-11 games. They are only 5-4 in those games.
So what gives? “Big Bopper” Joey Wendle, leading the team in almost every offensive category, can’t do all the work. With Kevin Cash still tinkering with the rotation after the loss of Snell and Morton and with extensive injuries to his bullpen stable, the Rays lineup needs to step up, and in a hurry. They rank second-from-last in the league in strikeouts with 319, and with pronounced slumps from Tsutsugo, Lowe, Austin Meadows (6-for-his-last-37), and Willy Adames (4-for-38), hitting coach Chad Mottola may find himself in the hot seat before long.
When does a consistent lineup become necessary?
In 2019, manager Kevin Cash used 152 different lineups in 162 games. In 2020, he was 60-for-60. So far in 2021, he’s — you guessed it — 31-for-31 in varying the starting lineup.
But is that good for the team?
Kevin Cash is a Manager of the Year Award winner, and I’m a chubby nerd. Clearly the skipper knows what he’s doing. But one has to wonder if the struggles facing Yoshi Tsutsugo and others could be affected by the constant flux in the lineup. We all saw the result of Blake Snell being pulled from World Series Game 6 last year because the metrics “said” to — the Rays out of the series and Snell out of St. Petersburg. Even Wendle has hit in four different lineup slots the past week.
Consistency can be key, and the mindset of a Rays-patented “opener” might not work for a struggling hitter bouncing up and down the lineup.
Does a team need a starting catcher?
So far this season, Mike Zunino and Francisco Mejia have been a platoon behind the dish; they’ve both played in 15 games. The results have been stellar, especially when compared to last season. In 2020, Zunino, Michael Perez, and 13 games of Kevan Smith combined for a BA of .174 with 6 home runs and 75 strikeouts in 60 games. This year, through 26 games, Zunino and Mejia have contributed 6 homers and an AVG of .256, and Mejia’s 6 doubles is good for second on the team.
So who is the starter? We might not need one. Both Zunino and Mejia hit well off lefties (.368 and .364 AVG respectively), while Mejia has shown stronger AB’s against righties (.286 vs. .108). We will likely continue to see a platoon manning the plate, with Zunino’s power numbers and Mejia’s ability to get on base both being utilized along with their defensive prowess.
What’s up with the outfield defense?
You have to look beyond the stats to see light dysfunction in the Rays outfield this season, and look to the video.
While Margot, Meadows, and always-having-fun Brett Phillips are the only Rays with OF errors this season, both Randy Arozarena and Kevin Kiermaier have shown mental mistakes in the outfield, and have cost the Rays runs. Most recently, Kiermaier in CF literally jumped in front of Arozarena to nab a fly ball in left, missing an opportunity to catch Oakland’s Matt Olsen at the plate and baffling fans and talking heads alike. After the game, Kiermaier spoke at length about his decision, ending with this: “My arm feels really good, feels really powerful. And once again, if a ball’s hit in the air and I can get to it, I want to throw. And I think that gives our team the best chance of winning, and I’ll stand behind that any day of the week.”
And that may be true! But the play may have cost the Rays a run, and shows a chemistry issue percolating. Phillips and Arozarena had both balls sail over their head after being turned around, and it looks ugly at times. With as much speed and talent as the Rays have out there, a regression to a solid defense is needed, and hopefully coming.
Will we ever have a lights-out closer again?
When was the last time the Rays had a no-doubt closer? Alex Colome? Fernando Rodney? Rafael Soriano? Esteban Yan?!
In seriousness, with the injuries to Nick Anderson and Colin Poche and Pete Fairbanks and Chaz Roe (I could go on) the last few innings of games have been stressful. Diego Castillo, the hard-throwing righty and de facto closer, is 7-for-9 in the save department, but has also managed a walk-or-hitless outing only twice out of 13. Ryan Thompson and Jeffrey Springs have performed admirably, but neither have the imposing nature of a true closer.
The Rays tend not to “name” a closer; Kevin Cash is too crafty and creative for that. That being said, the Rays have a team ERA of 4.02 in Late & Close (7th inning or later with batting team leading by 1 or tied) situations. I don’t need any more reason to have a heart attack at the end of close games, thanks.
And our last question, of course, is…
When is it Wander time?
It was announced that MLB #1 prospect Wander Franco would start the season with AAA Durham, skipping AA Montgomery altogether, when the Minor League schedule began on May 4. This was not unexpected, even with his strong showing in Spring Training, with the team deciding that the 20-year-old SS needed more time in the high Minors before making the jump to the Show.
But how much time?
Rays fans may remember a not-dissimilar situation with Evan Longoria in the 2008 season, when Longoria, drawing comparisons to Ryan Braun while in AA, started the year in Durham to complete his development. He was called up 11 games into the MLB season. So now that 31 games have gone by, when can we expect Wander?
It might not be soon. Situations are extremely different. Wander missed an entire year of baseball last year due to the COVID pandemic nixing any MiLB season. When Longoria was promoted to the Rays, he had spent 105 games in AA and 31 in AAA; until yesterday, Wander hadn’t seen a pitch over High-A ball except for his 19 games in Spring Training. The Rays also currently have a bona fide stud at SS in Willy Adames, aside from his 2021 scuffles.
Wander will have his time in the Bigs, just as fellow Top 5 Rays prospects Luis Patino and Shane McClanahan already have. An injury to the Rays infield or the demotion of a player may lead to Wander making a Longoria-like entrance (who made his 2008 debut replacing an injured Willy Aybar), but the Rays will likely want to see Wander hit AAA pitchers before organically calling him up.
So where does this all lead us?
Well, right here. The Rays are in a close third place in the AL East with an uncertain starting rotation, a stressful bullpen, some major slumps, and hope waiting in the wings. The pace that they’re on, an 83-79 season, would be nothing short of a major collapse for a team that made the World Series a year ago. But slumps end, injuries heal, chicks dig scars, yadda yadda. In a few months, we could be asking “How have the Rays become so dominant?” Watch it happen.