Tampa Bay Rays
The Rays are weird.
After beginning the season 4-13, they somehow find themselves hovering around .500 and making their presence felt in the Wild Card hunt. Yes, yes, it's barely June and talking about the Wild Card seems a bit premature, but the Rays have the misfortune to be in the American League East, where the Red Sox and Yankees seem poised to duke it out for supremacy all the way to October, so the Wild Card is the only race Rays fans can look to and maintain any optimism.
How they recovered from their dismal beginnings is where the weird comes into play; they don't use a set lineup, they don't have a standard starting rotation, and they've already started dealing away their trade chips. They're unpredictable.
The Rays made headlines in recent weeks by utilizing an "opener"—a short reliever used at the beginning of the game rather then the end—in an attempt to address their starting pitching woes. Whether they'll still be going that route on occasion after another go-round or two is anyone's guess, but Sergio Romo has made four starts thus far (of one inning, one-and-a-third innings, two-thirds of an inning, and one-third of an inning) before giving way to long relievers. Tampa Bay has won just two of those games, one of which saw Romo give up three runs, so it's hard to say the experiment is working. But props for trying something to jumpstart a staff that, outside of Blake Snell, has struggled. Snell has usurped the role of staff ace from Chris Archer, who still holds his own, but after that no one knows what to expect. Injuries have made the other three rotation spots into mystery selections; counting Romo, the Rays have already used eleven starting pitchers this year. Nathan Eovaldi recently returned from the DL and solidifies the number three position, at least.
Injuries have made the lineup a bit of a patchwork as well, but the bats have come through more often than not of late. The Rays are second in the league in batting average and on-base percentage, thanks largely to third baseman Matt Duffy and catcher Wilson Ramos, and it apparently has come from a kind of tenacious get-up-when-knocked-down mindset. According to Tampa Bay GM Erik Neander, the Rays players "have dealt with a season's worth of adversity already, have been as professional as can be, and it has only made them stronger."
Players to Watch
Carlos Gomez: A former All-Star with the Brewers, Gomez has been in decline for several years. Now with his sixth team, he recently made news by accusing MLB of specifically targeting Latino players for drug testing. MLB and the players' union maintain that testing is 100% random, but it is true that a disproportionate number of players who fail the tests are, like Gomez, from the Dominican Republic (Gomez himself has never failed a drug test).
Blake Snell: He may look like he's 12, but this Shoreline native is in fact 25, drafted by the Rays out of Shorewood High School in 2011. Having progressed through Tampa Bay's minor-league system and to the big leagues in steady fashion, Snell now finds himself the de facto ace of the staff with a 7-3 record and a sparkling 2.56 ERA. Local boy makes good, indeed!
Mallex Smith: The speedy center fielder is one of Tampa Bay's best players, currently vying with Wilson Ramos for the team lead in on-base percentage now that Denard Span is with the Mariners. Smith himself was a Mariner for a few minutes in 2017, having been acquired in a trade with the Braves before being immediately spun into a deal with the Rays for pitcher Drew Smyly.
Kevin Cash: The youngest manager in the Major Leagues at 40, Cash is in his fourth year as skipper of the Rays, his hometown team. An ex-catcher (surprise), Cash is developing a reputation as an out-of-the-box strategist, at least as far as pitching goes; in addition to the experiment with "starting" Sergio Romo in the role of one-inning-or-so "opener," the Rays have done all-bullpen games when one of his top three starters was unavailable rather than try and fill the starting role. It's an interesting way to go when you don't have confidence in your starting five, and could be worth doing as a season-long experiment—having a three- or four-man rotation with the games in between broken down into one-, two-, and three-inning stints would allow a team to carry a standard bench complement as well as an extended bullpen. Of course, it all goes south if your three starters can't go deep into their games almost every time.
Fun fact: Cash is the only big-league manager to play in both the Little League World Series (Florida Northside Little League, 1989) and the College World Series (Florida State Seminoles, 1998-99).
Jesús Sucre: Now that Brad Miller has been DFA'd, Sucre is one of only two ex-M's on the Rays (along with Vidal Nuño), which is remarkable when you consider how many deals have been made between the two clubs. There are a few former Mariner farmhands in the Tampa Bay system, but just those two that were actual big-league Mariners.
Sucre has made a career out of being a strong-glove/weak-bat backup receiver. Discounting 2016's brief nine-game stint in the Majors, Sucre had his best season last year with the Rays, batting a career-high .256 in 62 games. While that won't impress many, he is solid behind the plate, in more ways than one; the stocky 200-lb. Venezuelan owns a 31% caught-stealing mark (MLB average is 28%) and has caught a no-hitter (Hisashi Iwakuma's, August 12, 2015 at Safeco Field). He's also taken the mound in blowout games on three occasions, twice for Seattle and once for Tampa Bay.
The Mariners traded Sucre to Tampa Bay for the ever-popular Player to be Named Later (but ended up taking cash) prior to the 2017 season.
|Tampa Bay Rays||(2008 - present)|