The Tampa Bay Rays have become the Little Team that Could in Major League Baseball. The darlings of statistically minded fans as well as those that just enjoy well-rounded baseball played in a pretty way, they’ve found a way to contend in “The Toughest Division in Baseball” though crafty, forward thinking, smart managing and a little bit of luck. Considering their continued financial woes and the millstone of Tropicana Field hung round their neck until the year 3000, their path to success (inside the lines, if not the wallet) should be the path the Indians try to follow. Shoot, if Cleveland had the team Tampa did, the Tigers would be the second fiddle and people wouldn’t be worried Jacob’s Field is haunted. It’s the only reason I can think of for their attendance woes.
Cleveland is in for a long weekend, because the best thing about the Rays is their relentlessness. The only real elite offensive threat on the team is Evan Longoria, but the rest of the lineup is stocked with good to great hitters. Of the regular starters only Yunel Escobar, Ben Zobrist and Wil Myers have an OPS+ under 110, which will either change in Myers’ case once he finds a groove, or else doesn’t matter because Escobar flashes a brilliant glove. He’s been worth 10.9 bWAR the last three years while hitting .266/.333/.367. He also recieved 1% of the MVP votes in 2009, so there’s that. As for Myers, while his 105 OPS+ is decidedly underwhelming due to a slow start, his last 12 games he’s hitting .294/.333/.490, and he’s still only 23 years old. He’s got the stupid power, he’s got the bat flip aptitude and he’s got the laser gun arm in right. In order of importance. The Rays wil ltie him up in a year or two with a seven year deal buying out some free agency and he’ll club there till he’s 30. It’s a dangerous middle of the order, along with that other dude. Such a robbery from the Royals.
I could get to Longo, but Ben Zobrist bears mentioning. Long the darling of the advanced stat diamond in the rough seekers out there, he’s having a poor start to the year. Unlike the two mentioned above, Zobrist has the pedigree of a high caliber offensive player. Myers has a good shot to be a beast and Escobar’s bat is secondary in vlaue, but Zobrist along with Longoria has been the center of that lineup for years. He’s been the perfect version of what the Rays seek in their players though – above average production and versatility. He’s played 497 games at second, 200 at short and another 354 in the outfield along with a smattering everywhere else on the field except catcher and pitcher. The thing is, he plays every position very well, it’s not just a placeholder thing. He’s 33 now so the downswing is a bit understandable, but even at his best he was never talked about enough. In 2011 he was worth 8.7 bWAR to lead the AL and was 18th in MVP voting. He’s never hit 300, never hit more than 20 homers, and has only led baseball in one catagory in a season – sacrifice flies, with 12 in 2010. In a way he’s like a poor man’s Kirk Gibson, MVP caliber without doing all the things an MVP is “supposed to do”. Like I said, versatility.
We all know about Longoria at this point, he’s real good. He mashes balls like my Irish grandmother mashed potatoes, but with less butter. The thing is, despite his bonafides, it’s James Loney and Desmond Jennings doing some heavy lifting for Tampa. Jennings is a perfect Ray – talented and versatile in the outfield and they delayed his call up enough so he’ll play there through his prime without costing much money. His 131 OPS+ comes from everywhere – four homers, 16 walks, nine doubles, a triple. He does all the things. He’s tickling the “five tool” level of baseballing, basically a replacement of Carl Crawford that was ready instantly. Good work by the Rays. Loney was a reclamation project, and even if some poo-poo the idea of “change of scenery” helping a guy out, Loney certainly didn’t suffer from leaving Los Angeles. Since coming to Tampa last year he’s hit .302/.358/.431. The power isn’t what you’d want out of a first baseman, but his glove is tight and seeing as the last guy they had consistently manning first was Carlos Pena, I feel like the Rays like Loney’s oppositeness at the plate. The glove is similar though. I always liked him in LA, it’s a shame the power never developed. He looks so basebally. I like them both, like a lot of players for the Rays they’re pretty good. They don’t wow you all the time, but suddenly you’ve lost.
In a sense, the Indians actually have built a Rays-esque team. As Jason Kipnis called it a few weeks back, they’re a team without stars, but there’s a lot of talent there anyway. There’s lots of comparisons – the best player on the Indians (maybe), Carlos Santana, can play three positions pretty decently, nobody is going to hit more than 25 homers probably but everyone can hit 15, and they work the count religiously. Getting deep into counts is practically a law down there, and from Kipnis to Santana to Brantley and so on, the Indians can do it too. It’s emboldening, but they really do need that extra lightning bolt in the middle of the order. All that and their pitching staff is enough to make any team good, as long as they can field decently. Therein lies the difference.
The Rays might be the most forward thinking team in baseball, particularly defensively. While shifts have been in the game since the dead ball era, they’re the ones who have made it into a fine science. The normal positions don’t matter to the Rays, they place the seven men in the field who aren’t busy with throwing and catching wherever they need to be to get outs. Playing the percentages can mean an extra couple wins over the course of a season, and in that meat grinder of the AL East that can mean October life and death. Escobar and Zobrist up the middle are aces, Longo has won a Gold Glove already, Jennings is a beast in the outfield and the yet to be mentioned David DeJesus is a center fielder moved to left who also steps in at DH, due to versatility. They have one of the best defensive catchers in baseball as a backup in Jose Molina, and Wil Myers has that cannon I mentioned. They’re second in the league in fielding percentage for what that’s worth, they just don’t mess up. Of guys that have played more than 100 innings in the field for them, only Matt Joyce and Escobar have a negative Ultimate Zone Rating, and for at least one of them (not the part-timer Joyce, but he’s fine too) I expect that to turn around post-haste.
Were it not for a demon in black and grey that ruined a beautiful day in Cleveland, Kluber would have had a tasty win over a division rival to cap a record setting day. Seriously, when you can break a Bob Feller record as Kluber did with seven straight strikeouts against the White Sox, you know you’re doing alright. Over his last three starts spanning 22.2 innings he’s got a 1.66 ERA with 23 K’s, and is 1-1. Whatever, wins are dumb anyway. His continued focus on the two-seamer and sinker seem to be working out, phasing out that straight four-seamer that sometimes got him in trouble. I don’t know if Mickey Calloway is a wizard with him and McAllister or this is just hard work paying off, but I don’t care. All hail our unsmiling Kluberian overlord. He’s faced only five players on the Rays roster, all are 0-for-1. That will continue.
Odorizzi came to the Rays as a throw-in for the Shields-Myers deal that will make the Indians happy in the coming years, after Shields leaves. He’s likely to be a middle to bottom of the rotation starter barring some kind of amazing leap. He throws five pitches, a four- and two-seamer in the low 90’s, slider to change pace against righties and an early development change-up for lefties along with a curveball. He also throws something called ‘The Thing”, a type of split-change he learned from teammate Alex Cobb. That could be neat to see. The Indians actually saw him twice in 2012 when he had his first cup of coffee. Only four current Indians have faced him, Brantley, Santana, Chisenhall and A-Cab with all of them hitting, and Santana homered. That was a long time ago though. He hasn’t lasted much this year though, getting out of the sixth only once in his first start and owning an 8.49 ERA his last three, lasting only 11.2 innings. Feast?
McAllister hasn’t been on that Kluber level (who has) but outside of that short rest start he had a bit ago he’s been nearly as good. On Monday he silenced the Twins into the 7th inning before the bullpen coughed it all up. Like Kluber he’s coaxing everything he can out of his repertoire, staying off the straight stuff and leaning on his two-seamer to get velocity with movement. It’s apparently helped. He may be a candidate for regression as his HR/FB rate is 2.2, compared to 7.5 a year ago, but hey, you never know. Matt Cain bucked that trend for years. Even if it flips back on him, Zach is doing a fine job and just needs some offensive support. I think he’s more what we saw last time out than the ugliness of that short rest start. The only Ray to have any success of him is Longoria, who is 2-for-6. He’s got a 2.86 ERA against the Rays over four starts in his career, and considering this is the best we’ve ever seen him it’s not blasphemy to think it won’t continue. Sure the Rays are better, but so is he.
The Rays are in a bind with injuries, and combined with their yearly reclamation project, Erik Bedard has appeared. He’s not doing well, strikeouts are at a career low rate of 5.7/9 with walks a career high at 4.8/9. At least he hasn’t given up a homer. He’s still a dirty old vet, so you never know when he’ll dig deep and shut you out for seven innings, but it probably won’t be in May. The Indians do have a knack for bringing that out in people though, so we’ll see. The Tribe has done pretty well against Bedard the last five years when he was better, A-Cab, Yan Gomes and Raburn all homering along with multiple hits, and Santana is 4-for-10. Again, this was against a better pitcher, when some of these guys were younger. Could be a good day.
It’s good to see Tomlin back, it’s especially good to see him ball outrageous. In his first in the majors since 2012 he held the Twins to a run over 6.2 innings with four K’s and a walk. His cutter and four-seamer were used on a 4 to 3 ratio and he mixed in a change in the low low 80’s to mix it up with his curve. The biggest worry with Tomlin isn’t his pitching, it ’s the defense behind him. They’ve been pretty bad this season, worst in the AL in defensive efficiency, and with how he leans on a defense it’s bound to bite the team in the butt. For now though, it’s all roses. He’s back to being that command and control guy who never walks anyone, and as the Hardball Times pointed out, velocity isn’t everything. He’ll never be Maddux, but I feel like he’ll be in the rotation for a while.
My podcast-mate Ed Carroll bemoans the departure of Chris Archer whenever he hears his name it seems, but it’s not the Indians fault he decided to break out after he left. Baseball does that. As it stands, he’s number two on the Rays’ depth chart with the injuries to Matt Moore and Jeremy Hellickson, and his SIERA and FIP belie his ERA. In English, he’s been better than his numbers suggest, notably mitigating homers. That might turn around though. He’s mostly a three pitch pitcher at this point ,able to reach back and hit 97 on the gun with his fastball though he usually sits around 92-93, and a sweet slider will make the Indians unhappy a few times this weekend. That or a well-placed two-seamer are his out pitches to this point, but don’t overlook that change-up. It’s nice to see him turn into a good player, it’d just be nice to see it with a smiling Wahoo on his shoulder. There I go, bemoaning. The Indians have seen him once, only Asdrubal got a hit though. It was a homer. More of those, please.