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Tampa Bay Rays failing early sniff test

ST. PETERSBURG — It is still early. And I promise that is the last time I will write that.

On the other hand, the Rays still stink. And I am unable to make any promises about not writing that again.

Nearly one-quarter of the way into the season, there is something missing in Tampa Bay. It might be consistent starting pitching. It might be clutch hitting. Or it might be some hard-to-define quality that made 2008 a one-of-a-kind joyride.

All we know for certain is these guys are quickly becoming annoying. They have the top two home run hitters in the American League, and they still stink. They have three of the top 15 hitters in the AL, and they still stink. They lead the league in stolen bases, and … well, you get the idea.

Tampa Bay's 16-20 start has been more infuriating than any previous season because there is no reasonable explanation for it.

This team has far too much talent to have been up-and-down for this long. It is not injuries. It is not bad luck.

Yes, the Rays had a challenging schedule, but that's not the problem. Not when they've gone 4-7 against last-place teams. And, yes, they've had a handful of players in slumps. But they're still scoring more runs than last season.

If you're looking for a statistical explanation, you might want to consider the starting rotation. A year ago, the rotation was one of the things that set Tampa Bay apart from the rest of the AL. It was young, it was talented, and it was mostly consistent.

The rotation was so strong and so deep, the Rays felt comfortable dealing a 14-game winner to Detroit to pick up a promising outfielder. Yet, here we are on May 15, and the rotation has kept the Rays from putting together any kind of winning streak.

A year ago, the rotation had quality starts in 51 percent of the games and posted a 3.95 ERA. This season, the Rays have gotten quality starts in 42 percent of their games, and the rotation has a 5.02 ERA.

"My biggest concern is health. And I think they're healthy. I know they're healthy. And because of that they're going to keep getting better," manager Joe Maddon said. "We haven't pitched to the level we're capable of, I will agree with that."

Yet, I'm not even sure that is the biggest problem. It is far harder to document, but this team seems to be lacking fire. It seems to have less of a killer instinct.

I don't know if they miss Cliff Floyd's leadership. I don't know if they miss Jonny Gomes' energy. But I do know they are not winning the same kind of games they won last season.

It is as if they have removed a handful of pieces from the puzzle, and suddenly nothing fits. Pat Burrell was supposedly one of the great signings of the offseason, and, so far, he has looked like the worst designated hitter in the majors. He has a .315 slugging percentage, which means the Rays are paying him $7 million to hit like a skinny shortstop. The rightfield platoon of Gabe Gross and Gabe Kapler is not working as well as last season's platoon with Eric Hinske and Gross.

"You can be concerned if you choose to, but I believe our best baseball is ahead of us. I believe we're going to get better as the season progresses," Maddon said. "But I can't fault anybody for questioning our record right now. That's fine. We just have to play a better brand of baseball, and I know we've got it within us."

The Rays may not have been an overpowering team in 2008, but they were efficient. They were opportunistic. They held their own against the league's elite, and they beat the snot out of everyone else.

Here is a fairly stark difference between the two seasons:

In 2008, the Rays went 42-19 against teams that had losing records. So far in 2009, the Rays are 9-14 against teams with losing records. Think about that. It is mid May, and already they have nearly as many losses against bad teams as a year ago.

That, to me, is a sign of a lifeless club. Give them the Red Sox, and the 2008 Rays show up again. Give them a last-place team, and they play like the limo is gassed up and pointed toward a nightclub.

"We're struggling. We've got the same guys, the same mentality, things just aren't going our way," shortstop Jason Bartlett said. "We're just not playing well. It's not that we're not trying out there or we don't want to win. It's just not going our way."

Maybe Bartlett is right. Maybe there is no difference in the attitude. And maybe Maddon is right. Maybe the good times are just around the corner.

But all we know for sure is, six weeks into a season, these Rays are far closer to last place than first place.

John Romano can be reached at (727) 893-8811.

Tampa Bay Rays failing early sniff test 05/14/09 [Last modified: Friday, May 15, 2009 9:50am]

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