ST. PETERSBURG — Nineteen games into this season, here are 19 things we think we know about the Rays, so far anyway.
Joey Wendle has been the best player
Wendle is their most productive hitter, most consistent (and versatile) defender and most clutch contributor, with a .365 average, 15 RBIs and a 1.007 OPS. And he has the best new nickname, manager Kevin Cash calling him the Big Bopper. T-shirts have to be next, right? Then what? At this rate, how about top candidate for the All-Star team? Potential Hall of Famer? A five-year, $75 million contact?
And he’s had the best quote
When Tyler Glasnow had an extremely dramatic reaction to a hand cramp on the mound Saturday, Wendle said he told him “he looked like (actor) Jim Carrey from Liar Liar when he was doing the claw.”
Don’t sweat the current record
The Rays’ 10-9 mark is not as much of a concern as fans and Twitterers might think. In last year’s abbreviated season, the Rays were 6-8 and 12-9 but finished 40-20. In 2019 they started 14-15, then went 10-10 and finished 96-66. In 2018, they started 6-13 and finished 90-72. In three of their first four playoff seasons, they started 9-10 or worse.
Do sweat these next few weeks
Thursday was the Rays’ only scheduled day off from April 9 through May 9. After going 8-5 playing 13 in a row, they play 17 straight starting Friday, hosting the Blue Jays, A’s (who have won their last 11) and dastardly Astros, then going west (with no day off) to face the Angels and A’s again.
Bullpen is never boring
Injury absences have turned the bullpen into even more of an adventure. Despite a solid week before Wednesday’s meltdown, they have a 5.40 ERA that ranks 26th in the majors and .265 opponents’ average that ranks 27th over an AL-most 81 2/3 innings pitched (though skewed by bulk pitchers following openers).
Look away in late innings
Their 45 runs allowed from the seventh inning on are, through Wednesday, 11 more than the next closest team and nearly 75 percent of The Rays’ total for the full 60 games last season. (That includes nine homers.) Also, their six blown saves (in 12 chances) are most in the American League.
Missing from the bullpen
Nick Anderson, Pete Fairbanks, Collin McHugh, Cody Reed, Chaz Roe, Ryan Sherriff.
What it looks like now
Diego Castillo, Brent Honeywell, Andrew Kittredge, Chris Mazza, Trevor Richards, Jeffrey Springs, Hunter Strickland, Ryan Thompson.
Mejia’s been magic
The Padres, and the Indians before them, may have given up on Francisco Mejia too soon. Of all catchers with at least 35 plate appearances, he ranks fourth with a .323 average and 10th with an .869 OPS. Equally impressive, and a credit to how they’re being used, the tandem of Mejia and Mike Zunino ranks ninth in the majors with an .801 OPS, 12th with a .242 average and is tied for fourth with four homers.
Fun while it lasts
Kittredge is (likely) not going to remain their winningest pitcher. But his 3-0 record and, more importantly, 2.25 ERA through eight appearances — as well as his versatility, already working in the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth and 10th innings — have been huge bright spots for the bullpen. And a credit to a guy who again had to battle to win a spot on the roster.
Brandon Lowe is due to get hot
His brief history in the majors has been a run of streaks, and he has homered in two straight games and three of his past seven after going without in his first 11. Further, he already has had 0-for-15 and 0-for-12 runs, his 23 strikeouts are sixth most in the AL, and his .182 average through Wednesday is second lowest of all big-leaguers with 75 plate appearances.
A decision is looming
Second year lefty Josh Fleming’s solid work in two outings since being called up — one run in 10 1/3 innings — will be hard to ignore when Chris Archer returns from the injured list.
Add Rich Hill to that discussion
The veteran lefty has yet to find his groove, giving up four runs in each of his four starts, allowing 25 of 72 batters to reach base, posting an 8.82 ERA.
Related: more help is available
With Glasnow the only consistent member of the rotation, and Ryan Yarbrough and Michael Wacha already being used at times behind openers, how long will the Rays wait before giving hard-throwing starting prospects Shane McClanahan and Luis Patino a look?
On second look ...
Though the Rays have a 4.60 team ERA that ranks an uncharacteristic 10th in the American League, some advanced metrics show more promise. Using Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP), which as fangraphs.com explains, “strips out the role of defense, luck, and sequencing,” the Rays’ ERA is adjusted to 3.70, which ranks fifth. And they also rank fifth in lowest percentage of hard-hit balls allowed at 37.6.
Yoshi Tsutsugo’s future still a question
Though Tsutsugo has been more productive with three hits and four RBIs in his last three games, the Rays still will need a roster spot when Ji-Man Choi comes off the injured list next month. Tsutsugo’s .173 average, and a .444 OPS that is fifth lowest of all players with at least 55 plate appearances, make him a prime candidate. One question several Japanese journalists have raised is how much Tsutsugo’s pride would factor into his accepting an option to the minors (or alternate training site).
Glasnow’s pitch perfect
Developing and successfully implementing the slider as an effective third pitch not only has expanded Glasnow’s arsenal, but made his fastball and curveball more effective since hitters can’t guess as much. Based on early returns, this could allow Glasnow to move from promising starter with potential to the elite level.
Platoon lineups will stay
Cash is 19-for-19 in using different lineups so far (after going 60-for-60 last year, with 59 batting orders and a defensive swap in the other) and has a reasonable chance to top his career “high” of 152 in 2019.
Remember, it’s a long season
After last season’s 60-game sprint, there is some recalibration needed on all levels, including expectations and over-reactions, to the standard 162-game, six-month marathon. The 19 games are not even 12 percent of the schedule.
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