ST. PETERSBURG — They are good. Better even than you might realize. The truth is, the Rays are one of the best teams in baseball, but they might be undone by one fatal flaw.
Their bullpen has not just been unreliable, it has been atrocious in pressure situations. And if the Rays do not acquire a proven arm — or two — in the coming weeks, a promising season could end badly.
That’s not hyperbole. Roughly half of Tampa Bay’s losses can be traced to late-inning meltdowns, and the problem has been getting worse instead of better.
Forget, for a minute, the blown saves. The two-run, ninth-inning lead that Jose Alvardo gave up at Yankee Stadium in May or the three-run, ninth-inning lead that Diego Castillo lost in Oakland a couple of weeks ago. Every team is going to have a handful of those tough losses during the season.
The greater issue is how unpredictable Alvarado and Castillo, not to mention Chaz Roe, Ryne Stanek and Emilio Pagan, have been in tied games. The Rays have entered the sixth inning or later with a tied score 21 times, including Friday night’s game. They have now lost 16 of those games.
Now maybe you might expect that from the Orioles or Marlins. But a team that has flirted with a .600 winning percentage most of the season should not lose three out of every four toss-ups.
The Rays recognized this might be a problem entering the season. They were rolling the dice by entrusting the bullpen to a pair of hard-throwing but inexperienced relievers. Castillo had 56 innings and no saves in the big leagues entering 2019; Alvarado had 93 innings and eight career saves.
They had performed well in limited situations last year, but that was late in the season for a team that was not in contention.
“When you have an inexperienced bunch of relievers, (or) team for that matter, the tense situations in the eighth and ninth inning become magnified, and we’ve certainly done a good job of magnifying those,’’ manager Kevin Cash said. “More than anything, you have to find ways to … execute in those situations. We’re getting our reps in right now, and hopefully we’ll be better for it soon because what’s taking place here lately in the ninth inning has not been fun.’’
If you look at the overall numbers, Tampa Bay’s bullpen actually looks quite good. Rays relievers went into Friday with a collective 3.59 ERA, second in the American League. It’s also a mirage.
Part of that ERA is due to bulk-inning pitchers who are in the game by the second or third inning. And a lot of it has come when the score was lopsided one way or another. The cumulative ERA does not differentiate between low- and high-leverage situations.
Rays relievers have combined for 20 saves, but more than half have been with a lead of three runs or more. Tampa Bay has had only three one-run saves the entire season.
So if you connect all the dots, the Rays have been terrible in tied games, and they haven’t really proven they can handle one-run leads either.
That means it’s imperative they get another reliever before the July 31 trade deadline. Alvarado and Castillo are far from lost causes — they are still young and have impressive arms — but halfway through the season they have not proven they are ready to own the late innings. It also hasn’t helped that Roe has seen a huge dropoff from a breakout season in 2018.
Tampa Bay went into the weekend two games ahead of the second AL wild-card team. That’s not the kind of cushion you were envisioning three weeks ago when they were leading the East.
So is there an obvious answer?
Well, the Giants are expected to shop Will Smith, who is probably the best closer on the market and is heading into free agency, so he would be a short-term rental. Former Ray Alex Colome, Blue Jays reliever Ken Giles and Tigers closer Shane Greene are also options.
Those are all relievers at the high end of the market, so the Rays might be wary of the prospects it would take to bring them to Tampa Bay.
On the other hand, the Rays also need to consider the cost of letting a potential postseason run go by the wayside because they have trouble getting outs in the late innings.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
It’s a tie game and the Rays are losing
Jose Alvarado and Diego Castillo have had their greatest struggles in the tightest games. Between them, they’ve entered 16 games with the score tied and surrendered runs nine times.
Contact John Romano at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes