The Tampa Bay Rays’ fall from grace


I just finished watching my Miami Marlins complete a four-game home-and-home series sweep over the Tampa Bay Rays. Yes, you read that correctly. The second-worst team in baseball last year, owners of a pathetic 62-100 record just won four straight over the perennial American League East contenders, a team that over the past six years has always been right in the thick of the playoff race and is often considered the best-managed organization in baseball. But this article is not about the Marlins. This is about the alarming downfall of those Rays, a team which, as I write this, owns the worst record in Major League Baseball at 23-38 and have now lost ten straight games.

Sure, you can cite the injury bug that has bitten the Rays rather violently. They lost starter Matt Moore to Tommy John surgery and Jeremy Hellickson has yet to pitch this season because of an ailing elbow. A few days ago they lost star right fielder Wil Myers to a stress fracture that will probably keep him out until at least late July.

Every team deals with multiple injuries over the course of a season, but it’s the regression of their healthy players that is the Rays’ biggest cause for concern. And the strangest thing is that their everyday lineup is largely identical to the one they fielded in 2013; the only difference is new catcher Ryan Hanigan, but he is on the DL anyway!

The Rays lineup ranks near the bottom or, at best, middle-of-the-road in most offensive categories. They are 11th in the AL in team batting average (.245), 10th in on-base percentage (.316), 14th in slugging (.368) and 13th in OPS (.684). They have also scored the second-fewest runs in the league (228), just five more than the Houston Astros. Ouch.

The most glaring problem is Tampa Bay’s most valuable asset within their lineup: third baseman Evan Longoria. His current .265/.326/.380 slash line is a far cry from the .269/.343./.498 he posted in 2013. His power is way down as he has just six home runs in 258 plate appearances. His OPS+ is precisely 100, which suggests that Longoria has been, well, average at best this year. The Rays need him to be his usual slugging self in the middle of that lineup. He has hit less than 20 homers just once in his career (2012), but as it currently stands Evan Longoria is on pace for an immensely disappointing season.

And if you include a healthy Ryan Hanigan, Rays catchers have been a collective black hole with the bat. Hanigan’s .635 OPS is miles ahead of backup Jose Molina and his .140/.196/.140 debacle. That’s good for a lovely .335 OPS, if you were wondering. But he is a Molina, so he’s really good at throwing runners out, or something. Right? I can only assume that’s why he still has a roster spot.

It doesn’t help either that Wil Myers was in the midst of a dreadful sophomore slump before being shelved. Last year’s AL Rookie of the Year stumbled to a .227/.313/.354 line before landing on the DL last week. Now, the Rays are forced to play speedy rookie Kevin Kiermaier in right field with Myers out. Still, having Wil Myers in the lineup automatically makes them a better team despite his struggles. It’s now going to be interesting to see if the Rays can turn things around or if runs will continue to be hard to come by with Kiermaier in the mix on a daily basis.

You also can’t win if you can’t pitch, right? Well, your 2014 Rays haven’t been themselves in that regard, either. Of course that’s to be expected when your number two and three starters are hurt (Moore and Hellickson) and the likes of Jake Odorizzi and Erik Bedard have to pick up the slack. Alex Cobb (3.28 FIP) and Chris Archer (2.99) have been solid as usual, but as a whole the pitching staff has left much to be desired.

They rank 11th in the AL with a 4.17 team ERA, eighth with a 1.33 WHIP and have given up the second-most earned runs (254). When compared to their 3.74 ERA and 1.23 WHIP from 2013, the regression is pretty staggering. Oh, and the team could actually hit back then, which is why they made the playoffs as a Wild Card.

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And Grant Balfour has been mostly for show in his return to Tampa, as his team has presented him with just 11 save opportunities.

Speaking of regressing, what is going on with David Price? Does he not know that he will probably be traded in the next eight weeks? You’d think that would give him incentive to, you know, pitch like David Price. But, alas, the Rays’ ace has not exactly been an ace this season. I mean, he hasn’t been bad, he just hasn’t been himself. He holds a 4-5 record along with a 4.03 ERA — again, not terrible considering he is facing AL lineups with power and the DH and that jazz, but Price has only had an ERA above 3.49 once in his career (4.42 in 2009, his first full year).

I’m just saying, David Price will be a sought-after commodity this July, so it would be nice to see him back in old form in the coming weeks to at least net the Rays a hefty return should they decide to trade him.

The Tampa Bay Rays haven’t finished with a losing record since 2007, the year before they dropped the “Devil” from their name. As it currently stands they are on pace for a 61-101 mark. This is Joe Maddon‘s ninth season as skipper of the Rays. Should they continue their torrid losing pace they would match the record the Devil Rays posted in 2006, Maddon’s first year, when they also finished 61-101.

Joe Maddon is a great guy, and it’s a bummer to see his team locked away in baseball’s cellar. The Tampa Bay Rays as we know them have never finished with a losing record — in fact they have won at least 90 games every year except 2009 when they won 84. But if things don’t turn around quickly they will likely be sellers at the trade deadline, which could mean saying goodbye to long-tenured fan favorites like Ben Zobrist and Matt Joyce. Hopefully Joe Maddon is safe, because losing him would be the ultimate tragedy for Rays fans.

This is not a team built to rebuild. The Rays are an annual reload-and-retool club that tweaks its roster so subtly that fans don’t often have to learn new names and adjust to seeing new faces. But 2014 has been a much different experience for Rays fans, and clearly something needs to be done.