The conundrum that is the Tampa Bay Rays and what appears to be a lost 2016 season has baffled fans.
Over the span of the past week, I have tried to look for some sunshine amongst the clouds that hover over the Tampa Bay Rays. Unfortunately there was none to be found. The team has two wins and eight losses over its last ten games and was just swept by a Kansas City team that outscored them twenty-two to ten for the series. Is there an answer to this slump? I’m not sure there is but let’s give it a try.
The Rays starting pitching, for years the strength of the team, has been very up and down. The core of the staff, Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Matt Moore and Drew Smyly, has a grand total of nine wins in forty-four starts. It is rare for any of them to get any further than the fifth inning. How is this possible when they all have excellent track records and Jim Hickey is one of the best pitching coaches in the game? One possibility is that they are pitching not to lose as opposed to pitching to win. That mentality causes them to try to out think the batter rather than trusting their stuff. Given the inept play of the rest of the team, that isn’t easy.
Another possibility is that the Rays pitchers miss a veteran catcher. Curt Casali may someday be a fine staring catcher with a little bit of power. However, he has less than 100 starts under his belt and is still learning his trade both behind the plate and at the plate. Hank Conger is worse. Wonder why the Rays put up with Jose Molina’s terrible offensive output for three years? He caught nearly 1000 games in fifteen years and was regarded as one of the best handlers of pitchers in baseball. Sadly, there is no answer to the catching issue on the horizon.
The bullpen has also had issues. They are easy to understand but tough to solve. First of all, they miss Brad Boxberger. His absence has left them without a third setup/closer in the pen. That put pressure on the rest of the bullpen and no one was up to the challenge. In the middle innings, Steve Geltz totally fell apart and was sent to Durham and Enny Romero has been inconsistent. And finally, the entire bullpen has been overworked as starters often do not go past the fifth inning. There are no answers at Durham unless the team wants to push Jaime Schultz and it may be too late by the time Boxberger returns from latest DL stint.
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Even the usually steady defense has come under question. The Rays have made twelve errors in their last ten games and that doesn’t help a team with sketchy pitching. The biggest issue has been the middle of the infield. Second baseman Logan Forsythe is a potential all star but he went down to a shoulder injury won’t be back until mid June. His replacement Steve Pearce is a nice ball player but an average fielder. Shortstop Brad Miller has been just ok. They have tried to use utility man Taylor Motter at both short and second but he has proved to be terrible in the field. Forsythe’s return will help but the Rays’ coaches need to light a fire under the whole team.
Of course, we have to always get around to the failings of the offense. The team is second in baseball in home runs but also second in striking out. It’s a team that is terrible in situational hitting. In one at bat against the Yankees, with runners on first and second with nobody out, Steven Souza Jr. watched five pitches go by without taking the bat off his shoulder. The Rays never advanced a man to third and didn’t score a run. Souza is not the whole problem but he is indicative of a team that doesn’t know how to score runs. This has been going on for the past several years. Without a change in philosophy and coaches, I don’t see it improving.
Beyond the poor play and mental mistakes, this Rays team has a genuine lack of leadership on the field and in the clubhouse. Because of the constant turnover of players, there is little veteran leadership on the field or in the clubhouse. Evan Longoria could be that leader but he doesn’t seem to wish to assume the role. Kevin Cash seems to be only comfortable as a player’s manager. It’s almost as if he is trying too hard to be Joe Maddon.
Small market teams have very little margin for error. They must take the players they can afford and mold them into a cohesive unit. There is no margin of error for runs left in scoring position, mental errors, sloppy defense, inconsistent starting pitching and lack of leadership. Right not the Rays are plagued with all of those problems and no amount of solo home runs are going to provide the solution.