Contending Rays are Defying Fate

Boston Red Sox v Tampa Bay Rays

By Darren Helley

The Tampa Bay Rays have proven so far in the regular season that I, as a writer, am human; no one on the Call To The Bullpen writing team had Tampa leading the AL East entering the month of July, yet alone be anything but dead last in the division. But instead of dragging their projected half-life carcass into the second half of the season, the Rays find themselves in a position to legitimately contend heading into the All-Star break.

Destined for doom, there were many factors that damned the Rays 2015 projection during the winter. Before the long line of player departures, cult figure and skipper Joe Madden left for Wrigley Field. That in itself damned the Rays. But if anyone thought that the Rays’ organisation was built beyond the outstanding contribution of Joe Madden; Andrew Friedman, President of Baseball Operations since 2005, left for the Los Angeles Dodgers. It’s worth noting that since 2008 the Rays made the postseason four times and recorded five seasons with over 90 wins. Friedman’s excellent management of prospects and the farm system running in parallel with Madden’s outstanding managerial ability down in St. Petersburg made the Rays a constant contending team in the competitive AL East. The pair had worked together for nine years, which was the longest partnership between a skipper and general manager in MLB.

Suddenly the essential fibres of the Rays’ system had been abruptly severed and torn out of the future of the franchise. This ignited a significant shift in the front office in the offseason after nearly a decade of stability. President Matt Silverman made the transition to President of Baseball Operations. Brian Auld, the Rays Senior VP of Baseball Operations, replaced Silverman as President. Significant changes trickled down from front office to player personnel in a significant restart for the franchise. You think of the array of offensive contributors that departed the Rays this offseason: Matt Joyce (Angels), Yunel Escobar (Nationals), Ben Zobrist (Oakland), Will Myers (Padres), Ryan Hanigan (Red Sox), Sean Rodriguez (Pirates). Half of their regular positional players on the 25-man roster last year vanished during the winter. Call the Rays a pitching ball-club, but you need offense just as much in order to win games.

But that hasn’t stopped the Rays becoming a pitching ball-club once again. For the first time since 2008, Tampa were without David Price in their starting rotation to kick-start the season. What a time for Chris Archer to step up his game and become the next true ace for the Rays. Supplying the Rays with a 2.31 ERA in 109 innings, Archer is proving to be by far the Rays most valuable player and an early CY Young award contender in the American League. But despite the injury setbacks to Matt Moore, Drew Smyly and Alex Cobb, the Rays have recorded a team ERA of 3.27, ranked 4th in the major leagues. Former minor leaguer Nate Karns (3.28) and the prosperous Jake Odorizzi (2.47) have been outstanding on the bump, with youngsters Erasmo Ramirez (4.23) and Alex Colome (4.50) proving their own at the back of the rotation. The bullpen has also contributed with the stellar efforts of fill-in Closer Brad Boxberger (20-22 SV), Kevin Jepson (2.73) and the returning Jake McGee (1.69). Not only are the Rays excelling on the mound once again, they are doing so whilst wounded and without some of their most crucial contributors.

Then the Rays found some offense. Not a lot of offense; 283 runs scored is not a wowing number (24th in MLB) and neither is the .246 team batting average, but so far it’s proven to be enough offense for their pitching staff to work with. And we’re not talking about Evan Longoria. 2B Logan Forsythe currently leads the clubhouse in OPS+ with an impressive 133, tied with DH Joey Butler. Both have bolted out of obscurity and insignificance to become two of their most valuable offensive players. Forsythe sports a .297 average with a strong slugging percentage of .452. Plate discipline has been the key ingredient for Logan Forsythe in 2015. He’s been able to shrink his strikeout percentage from 21.1% to 15.6% this year, as well as recording a career high 8% walk percentage. With an 8.0% extra base hit percentage and 78 hits in 76 games, Forsythe is hitting well in terms of quantity and quality. If it weren’t for Indians’ Jason Kipnis, Forsythe would be a shoe-in for the All-Star game.

DH Joey Butler arrived a little later than others after starting in AAA Durham, but has made up for it by tearing the laces off the baseball since the start of May. A .482 slugging percentage leads all Rays as Butler has excelled in the DH role as the team’s muscle in the middle of the line-up. Thrown in amidst John Jaso hitting the DL indefinitely, Joey Butler has stepped up from his obscure tenures in Texas and in St. Louis and is beginning to look like a stellar hitter in the major leagues.

But if you want to talk about muscle, look no further than Steven Souza. Many would have known Souza for his game-saving, no-hitter-saving, spectacular grab in the season finale of the Nationals 2014 campaign that gave Jordan Zimmerman a no-hitter against the Miami Marlins. Arriving in Tampa, he was to serve as a defensive-based addition to the outfield. His .217 average would support that claim, as well as his bloated 99 strikeouts. But his 14 home runs is anything but expected. Steven Souza’s bat has exploded in terms of power since arriving in the Trop’ and has provided a much-needed spark towards their team total of 70 home runs, which is their strongest offensive stat amongst other teams (14th in MLB).

Neither of these three players were bought into the organization to be leading contributors on offense; this is a recurring theme as you scan through the Rays 25-man roster. Kevin Kiermaier and Brandon Guyer have both had surprisingly strong campaigns as contact hitters at the top of the line-up as regular OF Desmond Jennings sits on the 60-day DL. Guyer and David DeJesus have made quite the platoon in Left Field to go alongside Kiermaier and Souza’s solid bats. Even with Rene Rivera struggling behind the plate, Curt Casali is looking to be a refreshing, balanced hitting backstop since being called up in mid-June.

But arguably the biggest contributor to the Rays 2015 season is- as usual- coming from the dugout. In his first season as skipper, Kevin Cash has done an outstanding job in co-ordinating an injury-plagued, low-budget team into becoming a contender. Cash’s management of the rotation and handling of long-relievers Matt Andriese and Steve Gatz as fill-in starters has proven to be an essential strategy in maintaining a solid bullpen amidst an array of niggling injuries. Many thought Cash’s hiring in the winter was more of a gimmick for a rebuilding ball-club. A Tampa native, former Catcher and with only two years of coaching the bullpen under Terry Francona in Cleveland, Cash was not viewed as a strong selection as the replacement for the seemingly irreplaceable Joe Madden.

Cash has been more than just a fill-in while the Rays rebuild. Instead, he’s been brash and a gambler in his approach. Only three weeks into the season, in a 5-5 tie game against the Red Sox, Cash bought in his closer Brad Boxberger in the 7th inning. An odd yet bold move, Boxberger struck out the side and the Rays held on for a 7-5 win. June 17th, Cash was without a healthy starter to kick-start the Nationals game. He would call upon Steve Getz to start and pitch only two innings before prosperous rookie Matt Andriese came on and pitch four innings as the winning pitcher, with the bullpen closing the 5-0 shutout win. Heading into the All-Star break, Kevin Cash stands as a strong AL Manager of the Year candidate.

But now the focus shifts from what has happen to what is about to happen. With the All-Star break drawing ever closer, trades become the hot topic in every ball-club. The Rays have already made moves, bringing in Angels 1B Marc Krauss as a lefty bat in relief of injured James Loney. But the big question is, amongst a very competitive AL East, do the Rays sell high when the price is right? Or do they go big and buy in for a postseason push?

Even if it’s their biggest strength, starting pitching might be the first place to go in regards to the Rays being legitimate buyers. Right now, a left-handed starter is essential, emphasized by Drew Smyly and Matt Moore being on a slow recovery schedule back to the majors. They will need a lefty for at least the remainder of the season, so look no further than Jon Niese of the New York Mets. With Mets prospect Steven Matz making a historic debut this past weekend to make his statement in the rotation, Niese is now expendable at just the right time. The Mets need a top prospect behind the plate, so trading current #10 Rays prospect C Nick Ciuffo would seem like a good deal for both sides. To make a bold statement in upgrading the rotation further, finding that second-tier trade chip such as Rangers SP Yovanni Gallardo would go a long way to maintaining a top-performing rotation as the second half of the season lingers. Rays international prospect Hak Ju Lee is the kind of speedy infielder that the Rangers would love to have on the cusp of their big league club. Also look out for David DeJesus as a possible trade piece with the Rangers in this projected deal given his solid stats as a platoon OF.

Catcher, Shortstop and a left-handed bat are the Rays biggest offensive needs as possible buyers. Rene Rivera has really struggled since arriving in the Trop’ from San Diego. If the Rays feel as if they need a third Catcher alongside Curt Casali, a legitimate target may come from the Mile High city. The Colorado Rockies will almost certainly be sellers and currently sport some stellar backstops. While starter Nick Hundley might be a high-priced target, backup Michael McKenry holds a .233 AVG and sports a .465 slugging percentage in 86 at-bats. McKenry can be sold off at a low price given the Rockies have prospect Tom Murphy playing very well in AA New Britain. Tampa currently have a solid line of top prospects in the farm system, led by C Justin O’Conner and SS Daniel Robertson. It’s worth noting that both prospects are on the cusp of big league call ups and can serve as the answer to some of Tampa’s biggest needs on offense and I personally see the Rays slowly unbuckle in terms of offensive production. Remember, the Rays do have the 5th most strikeouts in the majors with 621. Getting on base as well as getting wood on the ball have been lingering weaknesses across the entire Rays line-up; look for it to bite into their production.

So what if the Rays sell? A lot of the pieces that have put together their season so far have been out of nowhere and pleasant surprises. You only need to question how long these cast-offs can contribute and the lingering paranoia is not far away. Just as well as their chances of making a postseason surge, the Rays can really cash in and land some top prospects for the future to compliment the soaring value of 16-year old Dominican SS Adrian Rondon and lefty-batting 1B Jake Bauers. The Rays have sporadic depth behind OF Brandon Guyer and SS Asdrubal Cabrera, enough of which to make them possible trade chips with both playing solid as of late.

I’ve always had the idea of the Rays doing the once unthinkable and selling off their star 3B Evan Longoria, especially now that he is no longer the Rays most valuable offensive contributor. He will more than likely be traded by Tampa before his contract ends in 2023, but who would do the emphatic maneuver and attempt to land the former All-Star? Hello Hollywood. While Justin Turner is playing very well at third-base for the Dodgers, Longoria still stands as one of the most well-rounded third baseman in the majors. He would be dealt for a sky-high price, most likely for a notable top prospect. You make the pick: SS Corey Seager or LHP Julio Urias? Both are phenoms in the making, but the 18-year old Mexican Urias has been lights-out so far in his professional career, reducing his opposition to a mere .194 batting average in both Single-A and in Double-A since 2014. 30-year old SP David Huff can also be added in this trade if the Rays want that short-term left-handed starter amidst their injury woes. There is also the scenario of the Rays playing both buyer and seller in this deal if they were to add more pieces in order to purchase in-form left-handed starter Brett Anderson as part of what would be a blockbuster, franchise-changing trade for the ages.

There are just as much going for the Rays to buy as there is to sell, despite standing at the head of their division and on the brink of being recognized as serious contenders. But how long can they rely on their unexpected contributions? Are some of their standout offensive players for the long-term? Can they afford to ship off some of their brighter prospects and upgrade their rotation and give Kevin Cash the essential pieces moving forward? Is the Evan Longoria trade for real? It will be an interesting summer in the Trop’; watch out for the Rays come the trade deadline.

You can find Darren on twitter @DarrenHelley and join in the discussion @CTBPod or on our Facebook page.