The Rays Are Officially Trying To Make The Playoffs

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Considering the long list of things that have gone wrong for them this year, it’s pretty incredible that the Tampa Bay Rays are right in the thick of the American League playoff race at 54-52. They’re just 2.5 games back of the Kansas City Royals for the second Wild Card, three games back of the Boston Red Sox for the first Wild Card and second in the AL East, and 3.5 games back of the New York Yankees for first in the AL East.

The Rays Are Officially Trying To Make The Playoffs

Injuries And Disappointments

Where to begin with that list? The man they planned on being their starting shortstop this year, Matt Duffy, has yet to play this season due to repeated setbacks in his recovery from heel surgery.

Meanwhile, some were predicting an offensive breakout for Gold Glove center fielder Kevin Kiermaier to make him a true superstar. Not only did that not happen, but his defense also took a step back this year. Then, he suffered a fractured hip on an ill-advised slide into first base on June 8. Kiermaier is nearing a return, but will have missed around two months with the injury.

They signed Colby Rasmus to be their starting left fielder against right-handed pitching. He was good when healthy, but he wasn’t healthy much, playing in just 37 games. He started the year on the disabled list with a hip injury, and was back on the DL with a hip injury when he announced during the All-Star break that he was stepping away from baseball. The Rays reportedly don’t expect him to return this season.

Brad Miller‘s 30 home run breakout was one of the bright spots of a terrible 2016 season for the Rays. He began this season as their cleanup hitter. He’s hitting .199 with four home runs. That gives him two more homers than disabled list trips on the year. His transition to second base has also not been nearly as smooth as the Rays hoped it would be.

Evan Longoria had a big bounce-back season last year. It was even a career year in some ways, setting new personal bests with 36 home runs and 173 hits. He’s had an underwhelming season this year, though, with his .272/.325/.453 line making him look more like the good but not great player he was in 2014 and 2015. He hit 21 and 22 homers, respectively, in those two years. With just 16 so far this year, Longoria looks like he’ll end up much closer to that than last year’s 36.

Bullpen Woes

The bullpen, of course, has been a mess. It’s consistently been the worst part of this season for the Rays.

Brad Boxberger and Xavier Cedeno were the guys the Rays expected to lean on most to help them bridge games to Alex Colome. Boxberger missed the first 80 games of the season, and has had some bad outings in high-leverage situations since returning. Cedeno got off to a terrible start before being placed on the DL with a forearm strain in mid-April, and he still doesn’t seem close to returning.

In their absence, the Rays struggled to find relievers they could trust besides Colome, and even he’s had his fair share of struggles. Tommy Hunter emerged as one of those guys they could trust for the most part, but he also ended up spending a month on the DL. The Rays recently brought in guys like Sergio Romo, Dan Jennings and Steve Cishek as they desperately searched for ways to improve their bullpen.

That brings us to the rotation.

The Rotation

After missing almost all of the last two seasons due to Tommy John surgery, Alex Cobb has had a solid year. He has a 3.46 ERA and 4.22 FIP while logging 138 innings over 21 starts so far.

Chris Archer, named an All-Star for the second time in three years, has pitched well for the most part. He has a 3.09 FIP with 177 strikeouts in 142 innings. With a 3.80 ERA, though, the results haven’t always been there this year.

Jacob Faria is off to an incredible start to his MLB career. Since being called up, he’s posted a 2.93 ERA and 3.80 FIP. He recorded a quality start in each of his first seven starts and in eight of 10 total so far.

The news with the rest of the rotation, though, hasn’t been as good. Matt Andriese was off to a solid start to the season, and though his 4.65 FIP suggested he may not have been pitching as well as the 5-1 record and 3.54 ERA in his 12 starts, the Rays certainly weren’t gonna complain about what they were getting from the guy who entered the season as their fifth starter. However, Andriese has been on the disabled list since the end of May.

Blake Snell has been a mess. The Rays had high hopes this season for their former top prospect who showed promise as a rookie last year. However, the 24-year-old lefty has struggled mightily, with a 4.87 ERA and 5.08 FIP. The strikeout rate last season (9.91 K/9) helped make up for the walk rate (5.16 BB/9). This season, though, the strikeouts have gone down (7.77 K/9) and the walks have gone up even more (5.27 BB/9). Snell was even sent down to Triple-A for seven starts.

Snell might be the biggest disappointment in Tampa Bay’s rotation this year, perhaps even their biggest disappointment overall. He has a challenger, though.

The Rays Need More From Jake Odorizzi

Jake Odorizzi entered the season as the Rays No. 2 starter behind Archer. He was worth 2-3 fWAR in each of his first three MLB seasons from 2014-2016. He had a 3.69 ERA last season, after posting a 3.35 mark in 2015. Odorizzi wasn’t an ace, but he was a reliable, consistent mid-rotation starter.

So far this season, Odorizzi has been worth negative-0.3 fWAR. His 4.47 ERA is ugly, and the 5.75 FIP suggests he’s actually pitched considerably worse than that. Home runs have been Odorizzi’s biggest problem this season. He’s given up 23 in 94.2 innings, an average of 2.19 per nine innings. Though Odorizzi is currently on the disabled list for the second time this season and has been limited to just 18 starts so far, still only nine pitchers in all of Major League Baseball have given up more home runs. He’s also walking batters at a career-high rate (3.33 BB/9, up from 2.59 last year and 2.44 in 2015). Giving opponents more free baserunners is a terrible thing to combine with an awful home run problem.

When Odorizzi returns from his back injury, the Rays will need much more from him. Because…

The Rays Are Officially Trying To Make The Playoffs

If you would’ve been told at the start of the year that all those things would go wrong, you might think the Rays were in store for another 90-loss season. Of course, it hasn’t been all bad. The Rays have enjoyed breakout years from guys like Corey Dickerson, Logan Morrison and Steven Souza. Rays management has shown that they believe in this team, adding the aforementioned relievers as well as slugging first baseman Lucas Duda from the New York Mets prior to the non-waiver trade deadline. They also brought in shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria from the Miami Marlins back in June.

The Rays have been slumping lately, losing eight of their last 11 games. That included losing three out of four in a devastating series at Yankee Stadium this past weekend, dropping them from 1.5 games back of the Yankees to 3.5 back. However, the Rays didn’t follow in the footsteps of the Minnesota Twins, who abruptly changed course and became sellers, just days after making a buyer’s move with the brief addition of Jaime Garcia.

It’s not going to get any easier for the Rays after that tough series in New York. Tonight they will start a four-game series in Houston against the AL-leading Astros. They’ll then return home for a nine-game homestand against other contenders like the Milwaukee Brewers, the Boston Red Sox and the Cleveland Indians.

Cobb will start tonight’s opener in Houston. With the Rays holding on to him, as well as other pending free agents like Morrison and Hunter past today’s deadline, Tampa Bay’s front office is signalling that it still believes in this team. The trade of Tim Beckham to the Baltimore Orioles was about clearing up the logjam in the middle infield that they’ll have when Duffy and Daniel Robertson return from injury to join Miller and Hechavarria. The Rays believe they can break out of this slump and reach the postseason. Now it’s up to the players to go out and prove them right.
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