5 First-Half Surprises and Storylines
By Tim Smart
With the first half of 2018 behind us, we look at 5 of our favorite storylines and some of the bigger surprises this season
2018 has been full of surprises for the Rays, to say the least. The flurry of off-season trades left us assuming they’d be in full-sell mode for the entirety of the season. But while they’ve been frustrating to watch at times, the Rays have surprised us by being mostly competitive for the first three months of the season.
Yes, they’re 18 games back in the division and 9 games back in the wildcard race. And yes, the offense is still significantly worse than we’d like. But the pitching staff has been excellent, and this team has shown flashes of excitement which is more than welcome for Rays fans.
So, as we enter the All-Star break, there’s no better time to look at five of our favorite storylines and surprises of 2018.
The Blake Snell breakout
We can start with the obvious one: Blake Snell has been utterly dominant thus far in 2018. In 119 innings, Snell has a 2.27 ERA, good for third best in the AL. He also ranks 5th in bWAR, 2nd in wins, and 7th in K/9. Over his last 10 starts, Snell is 7-2 with a 1.49 ERA, 73 strikeouts to 28 walks, and has a .556 OPS allowed. He’s pitching like a top-ten starter, and he’s only 25 with less than two full seasons under his belt.
Hopefully Snell can continue to develop into one of the best pitchers in baseball because the Rays desperately need it. All the injuries this season have been severely disheartening, so to see Snell showing this much potential is a relief.
Rays bullpen usage and the ‘opener’ strategy
There’s no doubt in my mind that the Rays had no intention of utilizing the bullpen this way. Among others, Chris Archer and Nathan Eovaldi have missed time, and Brent Honeywell and Jose De Leon needed Tommy John surgery. We’ve seen the rotation decimated by injury, forcing manager Kevin Cash into finding creative ways to help the Rays win. Overall, Rays relievers have thrown 446.1 innings, 58 more than the second-ranked Marlins. In those innings, the Rays have allowed the 4th fewest runs in the AL.
While the bullpen has been excellent overall, the opener strategy has seen mixed results. Ryne Stanek has had the most success in the role. In 12 ‘starts’, Stanek has a 1.45 ERA, with 11.6 K/9 and a .407 OPS allowed. Ryan Yarborough (3.61 ERA, 89.2 IP), Austin Pruitt (4.18 ERA, 56 IP) and Matt Andriese (4.34 ERA, 56 IP) have been innings eaters. Diego Castillo and Jose Alvarado have been studs in the back end of the bullpen, posting 2.57 and 2.58 ERA’s respectively. And Sergio Romo has been excellent in the closer role since the departure of Alex Colome. In the role, Romo has posted a 3.35 ERA with 11 saves. This bullpen has been one of the best in MLB this year and they should continue to be for the remainder of the season.
Wilson Ramos has been one of my favorite players to watch this season. In 78 games, Ramos has a .297/.346/.488 triple slash with 14 homers. He has a career-high 131 wRC+ and has looked much like the 2016 version of himself. You know, the one that made his signing in Tampa so exciting. And he’s an All-Star! Ramos was slated to start the All-Star game this year before suffering a hamstring injury that might keep him out through the trade deadline. The injury is a huge blow to the Rays. First because Ramos was playing so well, but also because it could negate so much of his trade value. Ramos was one of the most likely players to be traded before the deadline. If this injury keeps him out for an extended period, the Rays aren’t going to get max-value for him.
Unlikely offensive contributors
Since his call-up in early June, Jake Bauers has been one of the best hitters on the Rays roster. He’s posted a 140 wRC+ with a 14.8% walk rate, showing excellent contact skills and the patience required to succeed in MLB. Matt Duffy has been excellent, posting a .317/.371/.413 triple slash and a 121 wRC+ while providing plus-defense at third base. CJ Cron has a career-best 19 homers in 89 games, and he’s on pace to hit 35 this year.
Plus, Daniel Robertson and Joey Wendle have been more than serviceable in the infield. They’ve been necessary with the absence of Adeiny Hechavarria and the struggles of Willy Adames. We certainly didn’t expect major contributions from several of these players, but their performance has kept the Rays interesting thus far. These players’ success has made the struggles of Kevin Kiermaier and Chris Archer a bit easier to bear.
Kevin Kiermaier and Chris Archer have struggled immensely
After suffering another injury, Kiermaier has been abysmal thus far. He’s hitting .179/.256/.279 with a career-worst 30.8% strikeout rate and a 48 wRC+. We’re left to wonder if Kiermaier is still having issues with the injured thumb, and to hope that he can return to form this season.
Chris Archer has struggled in his 15 starts, posting a 4.29 ERA and just 3 wins on the year. His strikeout rate is down, and his walk rate is up. While his BABIP is a bit high at .333, he’s allowed a career-worst 41.5% hard-contact rate, and we know that limiting hard contact and home-runs is skill-based. His slider hasn’t been effective enough this year as he’s allowed 6 homers off the pitch so far. Archer has been a subject of trade talks throughout the season, but the Rays aren’t likely to get optimal value by trading him now. Archer can be controlled through the 2021 season, so maybe the best plan is to wait to see if he can rebound. If that’s the route the Rays want to go, they should look to move him at some point in 2019.
Next: The Rays revealed their new ballpark proposal last week
The Rays failed to capitalize on their four-game set in Minnesota before the break, but head into the second half at 49-47
With what should be a fairly easy schedule for the next few weeks, maybe the Rays can string together some wins and give us some exciting baseball for the rest of the season. We’re assuming the front office will be busy in the next two weeks heading into the trade deadline. Surely the Rays have a few more surprises in store for us before the end of the season.