As late as June 10th of last season, the Tampa Bay Rays had the worst record in baseball. However, their worst month of the year was actually April–counting Opening Day on March 31st, they went 11-16 for .407 winning percentage. Of course, we also know that it wasn’t just April that did them in. Their 13-26 record from May 1st to that June 10th date is what truly sealed their fate and the fact that April was their worst month is pure coincidence.
Even so, it sure looks like April is going to be a tough month for the Rays yet again. Last year, the team managed just a 4.41 ERA in April as Alex Cobb and Matt Moore joined Jeremy Hellickson on the disabled list, forcing Erik Bedard and Cesar Ramos to join the rotation. Add in a 4.75 ERA from David Price and Jake Odorizzi‘s issues with the second time through the batting order, and the result was one of the best rotations in baseball turning into one of the worst.
In 2015, the sequence of events will not be the same. Last year, Cobb and Moore made their first couple of starts before disappearing for an extended period. In this case, Cobb will miss a few starts, as will Drew Smyly and Alex Colome, but then they will return and the hope is that they will be back to stay. Nate Karns, Burch Smith, and either Matt Andriese or a trade pickup will be pressed into service for now, but in this case, they will be the ones making only a few starts before disappearing.
That 4.41 ERA in April also includes the complete collapse of Grant Balfour and Heath Bell in the Rays’ bullpen. That duo combined for just a 6.66 ERA in 20 appearances and 24.1 innings pitched. Will a similar thing happen to the Rays this season? Even if we say that Jake McGee will be dominant when he returns from the DL while Brad Boxberger and Kevin Jepsen overpower hitters the entire month, what about guys like Balfour and Ernesto Frieri?
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This year, we can’t expect the Rays to have any patience with their relievers. Frieri is only guaranteed $800,000, and if he falters in seven or eight appearances to begin the year, he will be gone. Balfour may be owed $7 million, but that money is a sunk cost and the Rays would gladly pay it to have Balfour not pitch if it would make their team better. If that worst-case bullpen scenario happens in April, we will see guys like Jose Dominguez and Mike Montgomery in the big league bullpen by May.
At the end of the day, we can say that unless Evan Longoria and the offense play out of their minds, the Tampa Bay Rays are primed for another poor April. The rotation will be in shambles and the bullpen will have its questions, and it is hard to believe that the Rays will be able to overcome that. This is a team whose strength is pitching, and once that falls apart, this team probably will as well.
On the other hand, once the starters return and the worst relievers are cut, the Rays will be back to normal. There is no reason to expect that a bad April will be followed by even worse performance from the start of May to the middle of June. Of course, that doesn’t mean the Rays will be great starting May 1st or May 15th. This team had enough reasons for skepticism before everybody got injured.
What we can say, though, is that this team won’t be digging nearly as big of a hole for itself as it did last season. It won’t spend the summer months knowing that its odds are incredibly long and hoping for a miracle. If the Tampa Bay Rays are going to exceed expectations and contend this season, a poor April won’t stop them.