Series Preview: Cleveland Indians at Tampa Bay Rays

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This is one of those seasons the Tampa Bay Rays hope for every year. I’d say their fans do too, but, well, you know. The American League East is typically dominated by two of the richest franchises in the game in the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, and for years the division crown went to one and the AL Wild Card went to the other. This year, the Yankees have been savaged by injuries and the Red Sox are in an admitted down season, somewhere just shy of rebuilding. After all, when you can just spit money at things, rebuilds don’t take long and with the farm system the Sox still seem to have even after a host of trades, they look good for the future.

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Anyhow, this means good things for the Rays, a team on the most stringent of budgets whose sole competitive advantage is a magic general manager and a zigzagging manager. They know how to draft, they know how to fleece dumber franchises (Wil Myers anyone?) and they know how to work the numbers to their advantage.

It all starts with Evan Longoria of course. No, he doesn’t lead off, but don’t be a knucklehead, you know what I mean. Longoria is an MVP candidate every year, a beast at the plate with a career .876 OPS at only 27 and he’s got a shiny glove at third. About his only knock is he gets hurt more than would be nice for a franchise player. He played only 77 games last year and still had a 149 OPS+ with 15 homers, but considering how much the Rays need him on the field, even with all their machinations, It can’t become a trend. His hamstrings seem to be a problem, so perhaps the ever-forward thinking Joe Maddon should suggest yoga. Makes my hammies bark. Longoria is healthy now though, so there’s where the Indians focus will be.

That attention drawn by Longoria lets one of the best players in baseball do his business in relative obscurity. I speak of Ben Zobrist (Zorilla for you nickname aficionados), a do everything hyper-utility man with some thunder in the bat and skill everywhere. Seriously, every manager in the game would commit heinous crimes for this dude. I can’t tell you where he’ll be playing against the Tribe (second? Right? First? Quarterback?) but he’ll do something none of us smile over.

One of the fun parts about the Rays is their constant fluidity on the roster. Last year Maddon used 151 different starting lineups, and never repeated one more than three times. He has to, otherwise the various deficiencies this group of misfit toys has will be taken advantage of. We’re going to see everything the Rays have to offer in this series because that’s just what the Rays do. So add some extra paper to your scorecards.

There’s going to come a point in this series when the Rays get a call or two by the home plate umpire and those of you watching will be sure it wasn’t a strike. This is because one of the Flying Molinas, this time Jose, sits behind the plate. His prowess for pitch framing cannot be overstated. Yeah, it breaks out to maybe three or four balls turned strikes a game, but that’s big both for the pitcher’s confidence and for the final outcome. He can’t hit a lick, but he sure can be a brilliant backstop.

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Maybe the biggest loss for the Rays this offseason was B.J. Upton leaving in free agency to the Atlanta Braves. Though lackadaisical at times and seemingly not invested in the game, B.J. was and is a brilliant center fielder with a loud bat. He strikes out a lot and has middling consistency, but I for one wondered how they’d replace him. Defensively at least, it looks like they Band-Aided it with Desmond Jennings in center, Super Sam Fuld in right and Matt Joyce or Whoever They Plug In There in left. Maybe they’ll miss Upton’s career 18.7 UZR (though he was actually a detriment to the team last year) but with Fuld and Jennings in particular, it won’t be too bad. Plus, Jennings may be a better hitter, and Wil Myers is coming along probably in June, so they’ll be just fine.

Quickly for the Indians, the first series of the year was a lot of fun. The outfield can go and get it, just as advertised, and to see the bats of Reynolds, Santana and others wake up is just exciting. Who woulda thought, watching a team actually hit is fun! Plus, that slugfest of a third game showed us they can score at the least. The back end of the bullpen looks good even if Chris Perez made us relive last season’s opener, (and how can he not feel Vinnie Pestano breathing down his neck?) but the rest, particularly Albers and some of those middle relief guys, need to be better. It’s a long season though, better they iron out the kinks early.

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