Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Opposition Research: Steve Kinsella Talks Rays

For those of you that make your way to Wahoo’s on First on a regular basis, you may be familiar with the work of Steve Kinsella. He often times provides a unique take in his articles that demonstrates new school thinking with old school sensibility. He’s a true historian of the game and takes every chance to point it out in our staff email chains. There is talk of declaring him as a national treasure. In addition to writing for Wahoo’s on First, Steve also covers the Tampa Bay Rays over at D-Rays Bay. so he seemed like the perfect person to talk to about this weekend’s three game series and he did not disappoint. You can follow Steve on Twitter @MrNegative1.

Wahoo’s on First: The Rays are currently ranked in the top 10 in all of baseball in runs (5th), batting average (9th), OBP (7th), and slugging (9th). After how they started the season, are you a bit surprised by the offensive turnaround?

Steve Kinsella: I am surprised by the offensive output the Rays have had thus far this season but it’s not because of the turn around from the first 15 games. Early in the season there were a few guys really struggling. Yunel Escobar started the season 4 for 41, James Loney 5 for 29, Matt Joyce 5 for 34, and Kelly Johnson 5 for 27. The quartet of hitters all are established major league hitters and at some point those numbers had to turn around.

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

The one aspect of the Rays offense that was most surprising after the poor start was the amount of home runs the club hit. Over a 17 game period from April 15th through May 3rd the Rays hit an impressive 31 home runs after hitting only 4 homers their first 11 games. Since May 3rd the home runs have tapered off somewhat hitting 21 in their last 24 games.

The two players that really stand out this season are James Loney and Kelly Johnson. Loney has an impressive slash line of .329/.389/.485 and has done his damage against both right-handed pitchers and left-handed pitchers enabling Joe Maddon to park him at first base on a daily basis after platooning him for the first few weeks of the season. Kelly Johnson has a slash line of .298/.357/.563 with 10 home runs and 34 RBI. He has been on an absolute tear in the month of May hitting .353/.385/.694 with 7 home runs and 26 RBI.

Wahoo’s on First: How is it that the Rays are constantly able to piece together a solid team? I know all about the extra 2%, but at this point it’s almost ridiculous. Kelly Johnson, James Loney, Ryan Roberts, and even Roberto Hernandez have had their moments this year. Is it luck or are the Rays just better at this than everyone else?

Steve Kinsella: The Rays front office personnel are absolutely above the curve when it comes to acquiring bargain basement players and getting a huge return on their investment. I believe the key is to evaluate players based on skill set and utilization and not muddy the waters with the negatives. Also, when a player with talent falls to their pay range they will go after him.

An example of this is Kelly Johnson this past winter. The Rays already had Ben Zobrist who can play both infield and outfield and had utility guys Sean Rodriguez and Ryan Roberts both with the ability to play all over the diamond but when Johnson’s price tag fell to around $2.45M the Rays recognized possible performance outweighing the contract and signed him. They’d worry about where to play him later.

James Loney is another example of a player that the Rays targeted for upside and specific skills. In his career he has shown the ability to be a very good defensive first baseman which is something Joe Maddon is a big believer in. He also has hit right-handed pitchers very well and is a high contact type guy. The Rays figured that at the least they’d have a good glove and strong side platoon that when in the lineup can allow the Rays to put guys in motion and manufacture runs. Additionally, there is a good chance his production will outperform the $2M in salary the Rays are paying him.

Roberto Hernandez is another example of a skill set that they want. With a healthy Evan Longoria and the acquisition of Yunel Escobar and James Loney the Rays infield may be the best it’s ever been. Roberto Hernandez is a ground ball pitcher who has the ability to deliver close to 200 innings. The Rays gambled that with a veteran catcher like Jose Molina, a stout infield defense, and a new environment that Hernandez could resemble more of the 2007 pitcher.  All Hernandez has to do is keep the ball in the park to be successful. Unfortunately for Hernandez one of his problems this season has been surrendering the long ball but he has delivered 7 out of 10 starts of 6 innings or more and 3 of his 5 starts in the month of May were quality starts.

Wahoo’s on First: Do you feel like the baseball world fully appreciates Evan Longoria? There was a lot of hype early in his career, and for good reason, but it seems like the excitement has tempered a bit. He’s batting .313/.373/.537 and 150 ops+! Why is there not more love?

Steve Kinsella: What I believe suppresses the hype for Evan Longoria a bit is his injury history and many are just waiting for that next trip to the disabled list to short-circuit another productive season. In 2008 he missed 25 games due to a broken hand, in 2010 he was hampered down the stretch by a strained quadriceps, 2011 was an oblique strain, and in 2012 was a slight hamstring tear.

Despite the injuries he recorded the following fWAR: 2008 (5.5), 2009 (7.5), 2010 (7.6), 2011 (6.2) and 2012 (2.5). He currently has already surpassed his 2012 fWAR and as he stays healthy his name will start to be mentioned once again in the conversation as one of the best in the game.

Wahoo’s on First: Should we be worried about David Price? Alex Cobb and Matt Moore have been great picking up the slack, but Price hasn’t been himself. Is there an issue here or simply a rough patch and bad luck?

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Steve Kinsella: David Price was ineffective before the injury (strained triceps) landed him on the disabled list. He had a decreased velocity and a lack of command which are the two things that can really hurt a fastball dependent pitcher like Price. I do not believe the injury was the reason for the drop in velocity and command issues rather I believe that he was taken out of his routine over the off-season with a number of speaking engagements that are usual for a Cy Young winner. Some refer to this as the Cy Young hangover.

If he is able to use the down time from this injury to get back into his routine and get his muscle memory back to where it was in 2012 we should see the 2012 version of David Price and that guy is a welcome sight at the top of any rotation.

Wahoo’s on First: Is Joe Maddon a the best manager in baseball? Where would you rank him historically? Will we look back one day and remember him fondly like some of the all-time greats?

Steve Kinsella:  I believe Joe Maddon is one of the best managers in major league baseball. Some suggest that he tries to prove he’s smarter than others, some say that he believes in stats too much, while others criticize him for going by his gut, and some say he tries too hard to play the role of psychiatrist. It’s mind-boggling that even many in the Tampa Bay media seem to want to find and point out his flaws. All he has done since 2008 is put up the 3rd most wins in baseball and the 2nd most victories in the American League. Accomplishing the gaudy win-loss record while playing on an ever-changing roster with a limited budget in the toughest division in baseball.

The final chapters of his career have yet to be written and it is hard to compare a Joe Maddon style manager with the greats of the past because the game has changed in so many ways. I rank Maddon up there with the likes of Earl Weaver, Sparky Anderson, Tommy Lasorda, and Tony LaRussa and believe history will compare future managers style to Maddon’s similar to the way that today’s defenses in the NFL still are compared/referred to as the  Tampa 2 or a hybrid of the Tampa 2.

Wahoo’s on First: Are you happy so far with where the Rays are and how they’ve played? Do they have enough fire power to take the East?

Steve Kinsella: I am happy that the Rays have survived the early season yips in the bullpen and are still in the thick of the race for the top spot in the AL East. I am not happy with the way the team has played – specifically the pitching staff. Outside of Alex Cobb and Matt Moore the rest of the rotation has been iffy and David Price’s injury compounded the problem. The bullpen has been erratic, especially closer Fernando Rodney who has blown 5 saves (Rays are 1-4 in those games). To make the 5 blown saves hurt even more all 5 were against AL East teams and 3 of them were the 1-out/1-strike away variety.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

I have a saying that the Rays are built for 162 games. That means that they will have their ups and downs but the starting pitching on the 25-man in addition to the arms in Triple-A Durham will carry through the grind. The position players have the experience of 162 game seasons and understand the ups and down and the challenges that come with it yet the roster isn’t an aging roster. They have a manager who isn’t going to treat every game like game 7 of the World Series and is going to allow his bench guys to play and give proper rest to his regulars. The Rays, like Earl Weavers Baltimore Orioles squads, seem to pick up steam as the season enters the dog days of summer and down the stretch while other teams seem to be fighting fatigue and father time. I do believe they will take the AL East.

Wahoo’s on First: How do you think the weekend plays out?

Steve Kinsella: It will be an interesting series this weekend at Progressive Field. A tall task awaits the Tribe on Friday evening when they take on Matt Moore but Saturday and Sunday’s starters may be Chris Archer and Jeremy Hellickson.  It should be noted that the Rays could send Alex Cobb to the mound on Sunday but with an off-day Monday they may want to give his finger (cut) an extra day and start him Tuesday in Detroit.

Former Indians draft pick Chris Archer has yet to find the consistency in Triple-A this season as his command has eluded him somewhat. He is 5-3 with a 3.96 but has a walk rate per 9 innings of 4.1. The Indians are a patient team and if Archer falls behind too many hitters it could be a long afternoon for the Rays.

Jeremy Hellickson’s last start was dreadful and he’s been as erratic as can be game to game and inning to inning. It’s been one of those years for Hellickson and the results show in his numbers as he is 2-2 with a 5.61 ERA.

In the end I expect the Rays to have the upper hand Friday and take the first game of the series and the teams to split the Saturday/Sunday games. I look for the Rays left-handed bats to be very productive in Progressive Field and for the Rays offense to take advantage of the Indians shaky bullpen.

Tags: Alex Cobb Ben Zobrist Cleveland Indians David Price Evan Longoria Joe Maddon Kelly Johnson Matt Moore Tampa Bay Rays

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