Friday, August 17, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Rays Tales: Rays' best, worst midway through a lost season

A Rays season that started with grand expectations has deteriorated into a massive mess due to injuries, inconsistencies and ineptness. Spring chatter about 90 wins and a playoff berth has been replaced by projections of 90-plus losses, speculation about how many players will be traded, and discussion over long-term direction. While there were a few highlights, a review of the Rays' play to date is somewhat of a painful read. Nevertheless …

Most valuable

There are only two legitimate candidates, and deciding between RHP Alex Colome and 3B Evan Longoria is kind of like the usual end-of-season debate over whether to select the player who has the best stats or the one who meant the most to his team.

Colome has done the best at his job of any Rays player thus far, stepping into the closer's role for injured RHP Brad Boxberger and, realistically, exceeding even what last year's AL saves leader could have done. Colome, through Friday, had converted 19 of 19 saves, tied for fifth in the AL, and posted a 1.71 ERA. And he was selected to the American League All-Star team.

But Longoria's contributions have been more vital to a Rays team that has seen its lineup decimated by injury, depth-tested (if not exhausted) and flaws exposed. On pace for what could be among the best seasons of his decorated career, he's hitting .290 with 19 home runs, 47 RBIs and an .865 OPS. Longoria has been their most consistent performer, their leader, their true star.

And he has been their most valuable player.

Runnersup

• Colome: His impressive work, and All-Star selection, should not be discounted.

• 2B Logan Forsythe: The month lost to injury impacts his cumulative stats, but average, OPS, quality ABs, defense show his value.

• CF Kevin Kiermaier: Not so much for what he did in six weeks before breaking hand, but because of how little the Rays have done without him.

Also worth mentioning: RHP Erasmo Ramirez, INF/DH Steve Pearce.

Most disappointing

The temptation here is to take the easy way out and just list the starting rotation. Or the entire pitching staff. Or the whole team. Or the complete organization, from Stuart Sternberg and Matt Silverman on down. Or anyone named Ray.

There, obviously, is ample disappointment to go around when they field a product that has been this bad for this long and did not do enough to address it before the season became lost.

But that starts with a couple of starting pitchers.

Going into the season, there was a debate among Rays people over who was better:

RHP Chris Archer, who had the great early 2015 run that propelled him into the All-Star Game and national prominence but then struggled into the second half; or LHP Drew Smyly, who impressed after being acquired from Detroit in July 2014 and returned from spring 2015 shoulder issues to finish last season strong.

Now there is a different kind of debate: Who has been more of a disappointment, as they rank 1-2 in the American League in losses and have two of the highest ERAs, Archer at 4-12, 4.66 and Smyly at 2-10, 5.47.

Archer has yet to get on any kind of a consistent roll, showing brief glimpses of past success but plagued by a frustratingly repeated series of problems: poor first innings that put the Rays in a hole; a lack of strike-throwing that runs up his pitch count; an inability to finish off hitters and innings. It seems to be the same story pretty much every time, and despite all the words spewed there have been no solutions.

After a rough season opener, Smyly showed well in April, 1-2, 1.91 over five starts. But in 11 starts since, he has been a 1-7, 7.27 mess and has gone nine straight without a win. He has been, maybe more than any of the other starters, a victim — as his body language often shows — of weakly contacted and well-placed hits through the shifts plus bad defense behind him, though not as much as he makes it sound after each game. Smyly's biggest problem — which he insists has nothing to do with the shoulder or any other physical issue — is an elevated fastball that previously got swings and misses or weak contact but is now being hit hard, including 20 homers, and his breaking pitches don't bite enough to get the hitters off it.

That said, Archer is the bigger disappointment, as he had more success and grander expectations.

Runnersup

• Smyly.

• OF Desmond Jennings: The years tend to blur, but coming out of spring he was counted on to be a key part of the lineup and instead struggled, got hurt and became a nonfactor. Wash, rinse, repeat.

• OF Corey Dickerson: The Rays were asking a lot in moving him out of Coors Field, into the more competitive AL East and to primarily a DH role. The 13 homers are helpful, but the .229 average and .740 OPS show it has been a tough adjustment.

Also worth mentioning: SS Brad Miller, LHP Enny Romero, Cs Curt Casali and Hank Conger, OF Mikie Mahtook, LHP Xavier Cedeno.

Most pleasant surprise

RHP Alex Colome transitioned well enough to relief work in the second half of last season that the team felt confident he could be a valuable piece in the bullpen.

But no one had any expectation that, with closer Brad Boxberger sidelined, Colome could be this good this quickly, stepping up and converting 19 straight save opportunities (having never done it in the majors or minors), showing a sense of calm and command on the mound beyond his age and experience and earning a trip to the All-Star Game.

Runnersup

• INF/DH Steve Pearce: Forced his way into the lineup with consistently good at-bats and steady production until being hurt.

• OF Brandon Guyer: Took advantage of an opportunity and showed he could be an everyday player.

• 1B Logan Morrison: Defense has been better than expected, so at least there is that.

Most impactful injuries

The hardest place at the Trop to get a table is in the trainer's room.

After a healthy first six weeks, the Rays were besieged by injuries, placing 10 players on the DL, including their starting outfield and two of their top relievers.

CF Kevin Kiermaier's absence has hurt the most, taking arguably the game's best defensive outfielder off the turf and his game-changing speed and ample energy out of the lineup. Their 14-33 record since he broke his left hand, as compared to 20-19 before, makes that loud and clear.

Runnersup

• RHP Brad Boxberger: Between the March surgery to repair a torn core muscle and oblique he strained during his 17-pitch cameo return May 31, this has been a lost season. Though you can argue that Boxberger might not have done as well as RHP Alex Colome did in replacing him, there is no debate the bullpen would be much better with both of them. And the two-plus weeks both were out made it even worse.

• OF Steven Souza Jr.: With Kiermaier and OF Brandon Guyer already sidelined, Souza was positioned to carry the team, then he got hurt, too.

• INF/DH Steve Pearce: Had become a key part of the middle of the order.

Also worth mentioning: Guyer, 2B Logan Forsythe.

Notable

• In 41 days since May 30, the Rays have made 36 roster moves.

• The Rays have gone more than a month, from June 8 through Friday, without a win on the road and have yet to have a winning homestand.

• Five Rays have already made their major-league debuts this season: RHP Dylan Floro, RHP Ryan Garton, INF/OF Taylor Motter, LHP Blake Snell, RHP Tyler Sturdevant.

• The Rays are 22-41 against teams currently above .500 and 12-11 against teams currently below.

• OF Brandon Guyer has been hit by pitches an MLB-most 18 times, despite missing nearly a month with injury. Playing in just 293 career games, Guyer has broken the franchise record (and no bones) in being hit by pitches 53 times. He has only walked 51 times.

Rays rumblings

As short as the Rays have been in the outfield, consider that three players they pretty much gave away are playing elsewhere in the majors — Tyler Goeddel (Phillies), Joey Rickard (Orioles), Andrew Toles (Dodgers). … Stretching RHP Matt Andriese out for a return to the rotation sure seems like good prep for the pending trade of a starter — or two. … Three Rays made Baseball America's updated midseason prospects list — SS Willy Adames 23rd, RHP Brent Honeywell 28th, OF Jake Bauers 54th. … Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan told 620-AM that work continues on winnowing potential stadium sites and they'll have "a game plan" in 6-9 months. … In not replacing Emily Austen, or expanding Rich Hollenberg's duties, Fox Sports Sun does not have a reporter asking questions in the clubhouse after some home games. … As of now, the Rays would have the fourth pick in the 2017 draft.

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