Thursday, June 21, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Rays hope to correct struggles before it's too late

ST. PETERSBURG

The Rays are one-fifth of the way through their schedule, which means they have officially entered the gray area where it's no longer early but it's not too late.

This is also about when teams start to make evaluations — self-assessing the offseason moves they made, and in some cases didn't make; congratulating themselves on what looks to have worked out; and, if they are serious about contending, being candid and, if necessary, harsh in addressing what has not.

So with a 15-17 mark and no real in-season injury issues to blame for their losing record, Rays officials may have a lot to talk about.

There have been some unexpected twists, such as outfielder Brandon Guyer making a legitimate push for everyday duty, given a 15-game run with a .404 average and .533 on-base percentage inflated by 10 of his 11 MLB-most hit by pitches.

And Drew Smyly, his rough Tuesday outing aside, emerging as their best and most consistent starter, more so than Chris Archer.

Not surprisingly, though they were hoping otherwise, it looks again like the Rays will play a lot of close games, which takes its toll on the bullpen (that day and in coming days) and the graying of manager Kevin Cash's hair. In the first 32, the Rays have won only once by more than five runs and scored more than eight only once.

Though Alex Colome and Every Day Erasmo Ramirez have been tremendous and lefties Xavier Cedeno and Enny Romero good overall (though not necessarily great), the Rays are going to have to do something about the B-side of the bullpen, where neither Dana Eveland nor Steve Geltz nor Ryan Webb has inspired confidence.

At least one will go when closer Brad Boxberger comes off the DL at the end of the month, but with the Rays back in a seven-man bullpen configuration (as Matt Andriese became the fifth starter), they can't afford to carry relievers they can't trust in tight games. Geltz is the only one with an option, so there would be bigger breaks with the other two.

But the biggest area of concern has to be an offense that was supposed to be improved.

That was the primary focus of the offseason, including a philosophical shift in trading arms (Nathan Karns, Jake McGee) for bats. And yet the Rays woke up Thursday 14th in the American League with 113 runs (3.53 per game), and that's despite ranking third in homers — their 46 more than even the potent Blue Jays.

Why? How? In large part because they are last in batting average (.224) and on-base percentage (.296). Diving deeper, because they rank 14th with a .211 batting average with runners in scoring position, and they lead the majors in a foreboding category, with 58.4 percent of their runs coming via home runs.

The Rays may need to scale back the aggressive offensive philosophy they switched to in the second half of last year, as opponents may be exploiting it based on their batters already striking out 309 times, third most in the AL.

And they certainly need a better approach with runners in scoring position, their failures in such situations the primary cause of defeat several times already.

But, also …

At some point, if the players they have aren't producing, it may be time to try different players. Cash has already come off their early season platoon plans by giving additional playing time to catcher Curt Casali, first baseman Steve Pearce and Guyer.

Next may be more drastic measures. And among a handful of candidates with poor offensive numbers, there are three that would seem to be in the most jeopardy.

For the past couple years, outfielder Desmond Jennings' issue has been injuries. Now he's healthy — and just ineffective, hitting .163 with a .453 on-base plug slugging percentage, mired in a 1-for-35 slump and reduced to a bench player.

Though Jennings' $3.3 million salary and additional season of team control could make a release tough for the Rays to swallow, he does have an option left, so he could be sent to Triple A. And, of related interest, outfielder Mikie Mahtook is coming off the Durham DL this weekend.

First baseman Logan Morrison was one of the five bats brought in to boost the attack but has been a bust thus far, warming recently to a .127 average with a .350 OPS that is lowest of all big-leaguers with at least 75 plate appearances. Worse, he has not driven in a run, which 440 other players, through Wednesday, had. And he has fewer homers than Mets pitcher Bartolo Colon.

Morrison would seem a candidate to be cut loose, but …

With the Rays already paying James Loney $8 million to not play first for them, are they willing to eat another $4.2 million at that position? And though Pearce has done well, they probably do need a left-handed hitting complement. Richie Shaffer, currently at Durham, hits right-handed.

Catcher Hank Conger was also brought in for his bat, but his .189 average (seven hits, all singles) and .400 OPS in limited duty shows that he isn't helping. His lack of ability to control the running game has been, as expected, a liability, evidenced by a 1-for-13 mark throwing out basestealers, the 1 snapping an 0-for-48 going back to 2015. And his overall work behind the plate has not been smooth.

Conger has an option, so they could swap him for Durham's Luke Maile, who, after a short DL stint, has thrown out three of 10 basestealers but is hitting only .196 with a .486 OPS down there.

It's starting to be that time when something has to be done. Before it gets late early.

Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

     
 
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