Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Tampa Bay Rays

Tom Jones: Rays shouldn't be a heavy favorite

Not so fast. Before we start mapping out parade routes and designing World Series championship rings for the Rays, maybe we should just pump the brakes and take a longer look at the upcoming baseball season. Once again, the Rays are baseball's fashionable pick. You can understand why. They have all that pitching. They have all that defense. And they have Joe Maddon, baseball's best manager. Once again, Rays executive VP Andrew Friedman has put together a roster strong enough that everyone believes it can win it all. Well, almost everyone. I'm not on board just yet. Look, there is so much to like about these Rays. And if recent history has shown us anything, it's that no one should ever doubt what these guys are capable of. Still, this thing is not a no-brainer slam dunk. There's plenty to doubt, too. Plenty to worry about. Here are five reasons why the Rays might not have a championship season.

The American League East is really, really good.

I'm totally baffled by those completely dismissing the rest of the AL East.

Did everyone suddenly forget that the Red Sox are the defending World Series champions? Did everyone miss that the Yankees spent gobs of money to bring in a slew of talented free agents? And don't count out the Orioles and Blue Jays.

But let's go back to the Red Sox and Yankees. The Red Sox remain loaded, and just take a second to think back to last year. The Red Sox finished well ahead of the Rays (51/2 games) and dominated them in the playoffs. Meantime, everyone wants to discount the Yankees because of their age, and though it's true they are getting old and tend to get hurt, it would be a mistake to overlook a team that includes Mark Teixeira, Carlos Beltran, Alfonso Soriano and new additions Brian McCann, Masahiro Tanaka and Jacoby Ellsbury, not to mention Derek Jeter. Plus, this is setting up to be a special season seeing as how it's Jeter's last.

The American League is really, really good.

Even with two wild-card spots, making the postseason in the American League is a tough task with the likes of the Tigers, Indians, Royals, A's, Rangers and Angels among the solid teams outside the AL East. Let's remember last year. As good as the Rays were, they still had to play a one-game playoff just to get into the wild-card one-game playoff. Who's to say the Rays will be better this season? And that no other team will get better? I don't care what team you are, it's really hard to make the playoffs in the American League.

The Rays lineup has holes.

The Rays did just well enough offensively last season to get the job done. Still, they were seventh in the AL in batting average and ninth in runs. Of course, Wil Myers didn't come up until June, so a full season of him should help the Rays offense.

But Joe Maddon is constantly tinkering with the lineup because the Rays don't have a proven set lineup. And they don't have a set lineup because many of their batters don't fit traditional roles.

For starters, Desmond Jennings has the speed of a leadoff hitter, but he strikes out too much and doesn't walk enough to be a great leadoff hitter. Plus, he had only 20 steals in 28 attempts last season. Maybe David DeJesus leads off, but where would that leave Jennings?

Ben Zobrist is too good of a hitter to bat second, but he hit only 12 homers last season — too few to bat him third consistently. James Loney had the highest batting average of his career (minimum of 500 at-bats) but still doesn't hit enough homers for a first baseman. And Matt Joyce slipped back so far last year that the Rays are once again left with a giant question mark at DH.

Just a hunch, but we will go through spurts this season when we curse the Rays offense.

The pitching?

Okay, I might be the only person in the world who has questions about the Rays' pitching. Nothing in recent history suggests that their pitching is going to go into the tank.

But, a couple of things. For starters, Matt Moore (left) remains a mystery. He won 17 games last season, but his strange and often sudden lack of control has turned him into a six-inning pitcher, often taxing the bullpen beyond its limits. Maybe it's his tender age (just 24), but he still has growing to do.

Chris Archer has great stuff and will be fine if he stays out of his own head. But he, too, is just a kid. He won nine games last season, not 19.

It's not fair to say anything negative about David Price or Alex Cobb. I personally believe Cobb is the staff's best pitcher, and Price was phenomenal after coming off the disabled list midway through last season.

Yes, this is a very good staff. But not invincible. And they were outpitched by the Red Sox in the playoffs last year.

As far as the bullpen, closer Grant Balfour had a terrific couple of seasons with the A's, but he's now 36. I'm not sold just yet.

Something is due to go wrong.

Sooner or later, all of Joe Maddon's tricks are going to backfire.

Maybe he'll bring in a snake that will swallow Evan Longoria's glove. Maybe he'll bring an alligator that takes a chunk out of Wil Myers' hair, zapping him of his power. Maybe David Price will quit the team to train his dog, Astro, to compete in the Westminster Dog Show.

The point: The Rays are due for a clunker season. It happens. The Rays have put together six consecutive winning seasons. In that stretch, they have won at least 90 games five times. They have qualified for the postseason four times. Do you know how hard that is to do?

Sooner or later, you have one of those seasons where nothing goes right. You run into injuries. You run into hot pitchers. You run into bad luck. You lose your one-run games instead of winning them. Even good teams — and the Rays are a good team — just have one of those years.

This could be one of those years for the Rays.

 
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