2018 Rays in Review: Part 1 – Humbling Beginnings
By Patrick Davenport
2018 was a roller-coaster season for the Tampa Bay Rays, there were roaring highs, and bitter lows. In this new series, we will recap the past season piece by piece and examine players and decisions with the benefit of hindsight, and use this season as a key reference for 2019.
Boy oh boy, where to begin when trying to review the most interesting season in Tampa Bay Rays’ history? This season was filled with incredible victories, crushing defeats, unlikely heroes and a brand new way of utilizing pitchers, but before we get to any of that, it would seem that the best place to start is in December 2017, where an offseason trade drastically altered the Rays’ whole trajectory as an organisation, and set the precedent for what would be a surprising and unorthodox 2018.
On December 20th last year, franchise player Evan Longoria was traded to the San Francisco Giants in return for outfielder Denard Span and a prospect package headlined by infielder Christian Arroyo. The move came as a shock to many Rays fans and caused many to believe that the franchise is having a fire sale, as it had already been rumoured that Rays owner Stu Sternberg had plans to cut payroll going into the coming season.
This move frustrated many Rays fans as it indicated that the team’s front office was giving up season before it had even begun, and it seemed odd to start rebuilding when they were only a game under .500 in 2017, and they had a promising core of players to build on.
However, it was clear that Bloom, Neander and co. didn’t have as much faith in many of these players as the fans did, as they went on to trade Corey Dickerson, Steven Souza Jr and Jake Odorizzi for prospects. The team was left in a very bare state, and the signings of Carlos Gomez and Sergio Romo certainly didn’t seem to light the world on fire either. Going into spring training, fans and experts alike predicted that the team was destined to ‘tank’.
Things didn’t improve over spring training either, as top pitching prospects Brent Honeywell and Jose De Leon both fell to Tommy John surgery, putting them out of action until 2019. Not only that, but Nathan Eovaldi, who expected to make his return to major league pitching, was also injured in spring, delaying his comeback by a couple of months too.
By the time opening day rolled around, the Rays were already beaten and bruised, both physically and mentally, and to make matters worse, they had to begin their season by facing one of the most dangerous looking teams in the sport: The Boston Red Sox.
At first, the Rays seemed completely outclassed, they managed to get one hit and score zero runs against Chris Sale. On top of that, they were playing sloppily on defense and allowed an inside-the-park home run to Eduardo Nunez and were down 4-0 going into the eighth inning. But then, something changed. Tampa uncorked on Joe Kelly and Carson Smith, rallying for six runs in the eighth, capped off by a three-run triple by Denard Span, and allowing them to score a resilient win to start the season.
Unfortunately, the fun of opening day would fade very quickly. After starting the season 1-0, the Rays would go on to lose eight straight, and would finish 3-12 in their first 15 games.
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What was there to blame for this disastrous start? Well, no one person could be blamed, the starting pitchers were getting shelled and the offense was consistently coming up short with runners in scoring position. It is also worth noting there were a number rookie players in the lineup, which led to a lot of costly mistakes on the bases, taking away scoring opportunities. Last but not least, the defense was also a no-show throughout the first portion of the season.
Many analysts looked on smugly, as it seemed that their pre-season predictions were coming along perfectly, but were the Rays as bad as their record suggested?
It’s easy to look back on this question now and easily see that they were far better than their win total, but the writing was on the wall at the time too.
Seven of their twelve losses were only by a run, indicating that the team was often one good pitch or timely hit away from having games go their way, at least they weren’t getting slaughtered. There were bright spots too, Wilson Ramos and CJ Cron were destroying baseballs, Daniel Robertson was shaping up to be a very valuable member of the team, and Denard Span had almost as many RBIs as he did hits, proving to be a valuable centerpiece to their everyday lineup.
The team would overcome these growing pains by the end of the first month, and would go on a 9-1 stretch in April’s final ten games and finished with a more respectable record of 13-14 to close out the month. The offence was on fire during this stretch, averaging 6.9 runs a game and outscoring their opponent 69-36. Cron, Ramos, Robertson and Span were all on fire during the hot streak, and pitchers Blake Snell and Jose Alvarado also managed to come into their own, setting the stage for what would be dominant seasons on the mound.
On the brink of playing .500 baseball, the Rays were starting to feel like a team that could avoid the cellar. They were playing inspired and exciting baseball, regardless of the result. The Rays looked like a team that, at the very least could avoid a 5th place finish in the division. A shaky and fragile morale was slowly starting to piece itself back together and this young team was starting to find its place, but could it last?
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In the next instalment of Rays in Review, we shall look at the Alex Colome trade, the debut of Willy Adames and the introduction of ‘The Opener’. So stay tuned to Rays Colored Glasses.