It’s not quite time to hit the panic button, but a 16-19 start for the defending AL champs definitely calls for some explanation. While it is a long season, playing in baseball’s toughest division means there’s a much smaller margin of error.
As much as I hate to be critical of Joe Maddon and the Rays’ brass, it’s time to take a look at what’s gone wrong and consider some changes.
The starting rotation was supposed to be the strength of this team. While Matt Garza and James Shields have held up their end, Scott Kazmir has had control issues, and Andy Sonnanstine and Jeff Niemann have left a lot to be desired. The Rays starters have a 5.09 ERA (9th in AL) and have issued more walks than all but two other AL clubs.
The rough start has made many question the offseason trade of Edwin Jackson, who won 14 games last year and is off to a hot start for Detroit. The reason for the trade, we were told, was to make room for David Price.
That hasn’t happened, nor have we used the player we got in return (Matt Joyce). Why trade Jackson if you aren’t going to use those pieces?
Instead they’re stuck with Sonnanstine, who is a good control pitcher, but has maxed out his potential, and Niemann, who is so wild that he always seems to reach his pitch count-max by the third or fourth inning. He’s also lost velocity and is not the same pitcher he was when they drafted him fourth overall in 2004.
Solution: The fact remains that Price is a major league talent right now. His struggles at AAA are not as alarming as many in the media have suggested, as his strikeout per innings pitched ratio is still very high.
Wade Davis is also waiting in AAA, and while he’s a prospect they don’t want to rush, he is a better pitcher right now than Niemann or Sonnanstine. At some point you have to go with the guy that gives you the best chance to win.
It may not be time to make a change just yet, but don’t be surprised to see Price and Davis show up sooner rather than later.
If there’s one area where I think Joe Maddon just doesn’t cut it, it’s his bullpen management. It was on display for the whole world in Game Five of the ALCS, but for those of us that follow the team, it’s an every day adventure. His pitching changes often seem to be done completely at random.
It’s hard to manage when you don’t have the personnel though, and this bullpen is definitely lacking talent. Outside of J.P. Howell, I don’t have confidence in any Rays reliever. Joe Nelson has looked good at times, Dan Wheeler has been disappointing.
You then have Grant Balfour, who I’ve given the slogan “Hide the Children”, because you know it’s gonna get ugly. Brian Shouse has managed to be the “lefty specialist” who has trouble getting lefties out. The worst act of the group though is Troy Percival, who is way over the hill and can make even the biggest lead feel unsafe (see tonight’s win).
Solution: Jason Isringhausen is currently on the AAA team, a guy with closing experience. He’d be worth a look. Either way, Maddon would be best suited to use the dreaded “closer by committee” method. At this point there’s not much they can do as far as bringing in new guys.
So I’m going to go ahead and suggest something drastic that I know will never happen, but would be awesome if it did. Pedro Martinez. Yeah, I said it. Closing for the Rays. He has the mentality, the winning attitude, and has way better stuff than Percival.
It’d be crazy, and not within the Rays budget, but I really think it would bring more stability than they’ve got. Price is also a possibility here, but I doubt that will happen (only in the postseason).
You have to point out some positives here first. Crawford, Longoria and Pena are off to great starts. Longoria and Pena are actually on pace to threaten baseball’s RBI record by teammates, held by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. The team ranks near the top of the AL in most offensive categories, so where can they improve?
The leadoff spot. Obviously BJ Upton has been abysmal thus far. Some of that is a result of no spring training, while some of it stems from taking a young hitter and thrusting him into an unfamiliar role, then telling him to change his approach.
While Upton does have the speed and the walks you look for in a leadoff hitter, he strikes out way too much to be most effective in that spot. Meanwhile, Maddon has been very stubborn about keeping things this way. Confidence is key for young hitters and I fear that Maddon is doing more harm than good here.
Solution: Jason Bartlett would be a perfect candidate for the leadoff spot, as he’s more of a contact hitter, still gives you some speed and is seeing the ball very well right now.
As for Upton he needs to be moved down in the order, where he has been successful throughout his career. Somewhere between in the No. 5-7 range would be good for now. Similar to the way they used Crawford when he came back from injury in the postseason.
He has the potential to hit in the three-spot, where he was most effective last year, but needs some time to figure things out. For those who suggest moving him him to AAA to figure things out, I am going to go ahead and thwart that idea based on the fact that his defense in center is too valuable to the big league club.
Perhaps if Fernando Perez wasn't injured, but with anyone else you lose a lot of ground out there.
Right Field. Once again the RF position has been a hole in the offense. Ben Zobrist has played well when given the opportunity, just like last season when he hit a homerun every 16 at bats. Maddon is a big fan of the Gabe ‘I look athletic but I can’t play athletic’ Kapler/Gross platoon.
Solution: Give Zobrist most of the playing time, which Maddon has begun to do anyway. The Rays also have Matt Joyce hitting well at AAA. A Zobrist/Joyce platoon would be a major upgrade over the All-Gabe team. I’m willing to keep one Gabe if we must, but one of them needs to go.
The last general problem with the offense does not have a ready solution, but it is interesting to note. While the Rays are hitting .271 as a team (5th in AL), their batting average slips to .242 from the 7th inning on (12th in AL). Pat "I seem to have lost my bat" Burrell and Dioner Navarro in particular have been “rally killers”, and the Rays will have to start getting more late/clutch hits to get things turned around.
They’ve played 13 home games, compared to 22 games on the road so that will work in their favor later on. They’ve also had 15 games against Boston and New York, which can take a lot out of you. What’s interesting though is that they are 9-6 against the Yankees and Red Sox, 7-13 against the rest of the league.
What happened to the homefield advantage?
After dominating the competition at the Trop last year, the Rays are 6-7 at home. Their 5.23 home ERA ranks as the second worst in baseball (better than only the Yankees, who spent billions to build a park where their pitchers have a 6.59 ERA).
Solution: Rays fans: Get to a game! The Rays had the best home record last season and were almost unbeatable playing in front of 25,000+. Slow start or not, this is one of most exciting teams to watch in baseball and the Tampa Bay region really needs to take it up a notch in support of this team.
They’re currently in the middle of the pack in attendance (numbers that are inflated because of the games with Boston and New York). Games with 13,000 fans aren’t going to cut it anymore. I live in San Diego, a similarly sized market, with a team that is embarrassing to watch, and even we manage to pull more than 25,000 a night.
Overall, the Rays are still a top-tier major league baseball club. They are a better team than their record indicates and have suffered from some tough breaks, inconsistent play and a tough schedule. I’d expect them to get things turned around very soon, beginning with this upcoming eight-game homestand.