One week before opening day, injuries have decimated the Tampa Bay Rays’ starting staff. Three-fifths of their expected rotation to begin the season–Alex Cobb, Drew Smyly, and Alex Colome €–will start the season on the disabled list, as will Matt Moore and last year’s closer, Jake McGee. Then, to top it off, one of their best young infielders, Nick Franklin, won’t play until late April at the earliest.
Unfortunately for the Rays, the injuries are only part of the problem for them this spring. They are tied for last in the major leagues in batting average in exhibition play. New manager Kevin Cash gave the starting shortstop job to a player, Asdrubal Cabrera, whose fielding skills have deteriorated. David DeJesus has no clear spot on the team yet too hefty of a salary to be traded for anything. There are still many questions about how the roster will come together.
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Yet despite all these problems, the Rays have so far managed a .500 record this spring. They lead the majors in ERA. They have recently shown a propensity for fighting their way back from deficits. Evan Longoria and Desmond Jennings, two players who must perform well for the Rays to contend, are both hitting well. If the Rays can tread water until their pitchers get healthy, they may be able to contend for the division title in a weak AL East.
Managers and sportswriters discount spring training records as predictors of the coming season. That’s generally a good idea. For example, last year the Tampa Bay Rays won more spring games than any other team yet finished the regular season with a losing record. Their strong spring only fueled the excitement after they were predicted to make the World Series, but that was the last thought on anyone’s mind just a few months later.
This spring, however, the Rays’ record could be a good predictor of how the season will go, at least in the beginning. After all, the only potential superstar on the roster right now is Evan Longoria, and he’s coming off a subpar year by his standards. No one, not even Rays’ management, expects them to score a lot of runs this year.
The team was built to win on pitching and defense. The pitching, even without some of its best hurlers, has more than held its own. The outfield defense, particularly if Steven Souza makes the roster, looks to be outstanding. Timely hitting, which the Rays have enjoyed so far this spring, can win a lot of games when combined with great pitching and defense.
Still, weak offense combined with strong pitching generally results in teams that finish around .500 for the season. That is the Tampa Bay Rays’ current spring winning percentage and quite appropriately.
Fans can still dream of a pennant, or at least the playoffs. Even so, it’s likely that the Rays will finish the season a little better than .500. From one perspective, it would be pretty remarkable if they improved by five or six games despite trading Ben Zobrist, David Price, Wil Myers, Yunel Escobar, Matt Joyce, and others since last July.
A season at .500 would fall short of the high bar that the Rays have set for themselves, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world. It would set the stage for 2016, when top prospects like Daniel Robertson should be ready to make major league contributions. In addition, we haven’t talked much about the most exciting part of a .500 team: it still has a chance. Just a few strong performances from young players and a few strokes of luck could place them exactly where they want to be.