7/2-7/4 Series Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

Oh boy. (J. Meric/Getty Images)

The Yankees have Rays have already played three different series this season, with Tampa taking the first three games but New York rebounding to win four of the last six. Believe it or not, the Yankees have not won a game at Tropicana Field since last July, a span of seven games.

What Have They Done Lately?

The Rays are reeling, having just lost three of four to the Tigers and six of their last seven overall. They’ve also won just nine of their last 26 home games, if you can believe that. Tampa is 41-38 overall with a -1 run differential, both the second worst in the AL East.

Offense

(AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

A slightly below average offensive team at 4.12 runs per game overall, the Rays have scored two or fewer runs six times in their last dozen games. I suppose that’s what happens when your two best hitters — Evan Longoria and Matt Joyce — are on the disabled list at the same time. The most productive hitter on their active roster right now is Ben Zobrist (129 wRC+), who joins Jeff Keppinger (124 wRC+ in 124 PA) and Elliot Johnson (109 wRC+ in 205 PA) as their only three above average contributors. Carlos Pena (101 wRC+) has been essentially league average.

Tampa hasn’t gotten a ton out of Desmond Jennings (95 wRC+) or B.J. Upton (86 wRC+), both of whom have visited the DL at different times this season. Luke Scott (83 wRC+) just came back from injury to take over DH duties from Hideki Matsui (40 wRC+), who will probably get the Ol’ Yeller treatment soon. Random infielders like Sean Rodriguez (63 wRC+), Will Rhymes (45 wRC+), and Brooks Conrad (39 wRC+) fill out the roster while catching duties fall on the shoulder of two Joses — Lobaton (80 wRC+) and Molina (70 wRC+). Overall, the Rays have hit just .220/.305/.365 at the Trop this year. Kinda hard to believe a team could hit so poorly in its home park.

Pitching Matchups

Monday: RHP Freddy Garcia vs. LHP Matt Moore
Moore made his first career start against the Yankees last season, striking out 11 in five scoreless innings. He’s been much more human this year, pitching to a 4.19 ERA (4.47 FIP) in 88 innings across 15 starts. The strikeout rate (9.20 K/9 and 23.6 K%) is fantastic, but the walk (4.30 BB/9 and 11.0 BB%), homer (1.33 HR/9), and ground ball (40.2%) numbers aren’t all that impressive. The 23-year-old southpaw throws some of the easiest mid-90s cheese you’ll ever see, and he backs up the fastball with a mid-80s changeup and a low-80s slider. Oddly enough, left-handed batters have tattooed Moore for a .398 wOBA this season with nearly as many walks (11) as strikeouts (12). It’s a small sample (83 batters faced) thing and unlikely to continue going forward, but it’s very weird.

(AP Photo/Mike Carlson)

Tuesday: RHP Ivan Nova vs. RHP Jamie Shields
The Yankees have already seen Shields three times this season, getting to him twice (5 IP, 6 R on Opening Day and 5 IP, 7 R in early-June) with another okay game (6 IP, 3 R in early-May) mixed in. He’s allowed four or more runs in four of his last six starts and in six of his last nine starts, contributed to his 4.04 ERA (3.70 FIP). Shields currently owns career bests in strikeout (8.51 K/9 and 21.5 K%) and ground ball (53.6%) rates but a career worst walk rate (2.75 BB/9 and 7.0 BB%). He’s also giving up a decent amount of homers (1.03 HR/9). Shields will pitch backwards with six pitches, setting up his three fastballs — low-90s two-seamer, four-seamer, and cutter — with three offspeed pitches — mid-80s changeup, low-80s curve, and upper-80s slider. You folks all know how good he can be by now, we’ve seen him enough through the years.

Wednesday: RHP David Phelps vs. LHP David Price
Like Shields, the Yankees have seen Price three times this season — 6.1 IP, 2 R in April, 7 IP, 5 R in May, and 5 IP, 1 R in June. His overall season performance is borderline Cy Young caliber, a 2.92 ERA (3.42 FIP) with strong strikeout (8.34 K/9 and 22.8 K%), walk (3.01 BB/9 and 8.2 BB%), and ground ball (54.2%) rates. Price has as added a low-90s cutter this year and uses it to freeze right-handed batters with called strikes outside. It looks like this and is basically unhittable. He’ll still use mid-90s two and four-seamers to go along with his low-80s changeup, upper-80s slider, and upper-70s curveball. Again, you folks know how good Price can be. He’s no stranger.

(J. Meric/Getty Images)

Bullpen Status
The Rays welcomed former Yankee Kyle Farnsworth back over the weekend, and he’s now setting up annoyingly good closer Fernando Rodney (1.97 FIP). It’s a big help with Joel Peralta (4.00 FIP) stinking up the joint (and getting suspended for having pine tar in his glove). Lefty setup man Jake McGee (2.15 FIP) pitched yesterday and in four of the last five days, so he might be on the shelf tonight. Ditto middle man Wade Davis (3.63 FIP), who has appeared in two straight. Rodney pitched yesterday as well. The rest of Joe Maddon’s bullpen features ground ball specialist Burke Badenhop (4.29 FIP) and soft-tossing left-hander J.P. Howell (4.92 FIP). Pretty much an Island of Misfit Relievers cast of characters.

Joe Girardi‘s bullpen is in pretty good shape after getting eight innings out of Phil Hughes on Sunday and seven out of Hiroki Kuroda on Saturday. Former Ray Rafael Soriano has pitched in two straight games, so he might be working at a reduced level of effectiveness tonight if he’s even available. Everyone else is good to go though; check out our Bullpen Workload page for the exact details. For everything you need to know on the Rays, the best place to go is DRays Bay.

Update: Yankees sign Luis Torrens, Yancarlos Baez, and Alex Palma

The 2012 international free agent signing period officially opened today, and the Yankees have already made two big splashes. Ben Balder reports that they’ve signed 16-year-old Venezuelan catcher Luis Torrens for $1.3M and 16-year-old Dominican shortstop Yancarlos Baez for $650k. The new Collective Bargaining Agreement limits all teams to $2.9M in total signings (there are harsh penalties for excess spending), so the Yankees only have $950k left to spend.

Torrens, a 6-foot-0 and 170 lb. converted infielder, was ranked as the second best international prospect on the market this summer by Baseball America. The right-handed bat is said to have an advanced approach and the ability to hit the ball to all fields, though he’s more likely to have doubles power than over-the-fence power down the line. Torrens is still raw behind the plate, unsurprising considering his age and the fact that he was an infielder not all that long ago. That’s him in the video above.

Baez is listed at 6-foot-2 and 165 lbs., though he was not among Baseball America’s top 20 international prospects. He’s said to have very good speed and is “an athletic switch-hitter with good bat speed who could have an average hit tool, with gap power now.” Here’s video. The Yankees have been connected to two other top-20 guys — OF Alex Palma (#4) and SS Wendell Rijo (#10) — though it remains to be seen how the new spending limits will impact their ability to sign them.

Update: Balder reports that the Yankees have signed Palma for $800k, so they’re down to $150k in spending room. The 16-year-old Venezuelan outfielder is listed at 6-foot-2 and 200 lbs., and is said to have “a clean swing with good bat speed and [the ability to] barrel up the ball” from the right side. Balder says opinions are mixed out his power potential, but everyone agrees it’s at least average. Palma is expected to play right field long-term with solid defensive skills. Here’s video.

The Soft Underbelly

Shave that facial hair, Chad. (AP)

The injuries to CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte have hurt the Yankees in more ways than one. Obviously the biggest loss is in the rotation, where both guys where providing the team with lots of high quality innings every five days. As we saw with Adam Warren, plucking a kid out of Triple-A and inserting him into the rotation is much more effective in theory than in practice. It’ll be impossible for David Phelps and Freddy Garcia to replace what Sabathia and Pettitte the team on the field, so the Yankees are just going to have to hope they can tread water for the time being.

The losses of CC and Andy go beyond the rotation, however. Garcia’s move to the rotation also weakens the bullpen despite what will surely be D.J. Mitchell’s best efforts. Cory Wade’s crash back the Earth and the still weird acquisition of Chad Qualls further weaken the middle relief corps. Both Clay Rapada and Cody Eppley have been effective matchup guys, but asking them to face batters of the opposite hand on a regular basis is a recipe for trouble. There’s no way around it, the team’s biggest weakness right now are those innings between the starter and the Boone Logan/David Robertson setup duo.

To make matters worse, Garcia is not stretched out — he’s probably scheduled for something like 60-70 pitches tonight — and Phelps is expected to throw only 80 pitches when he makes his return to the rotation on Wednesday. Not only is the middle relief a sore spot, but the Yankees will send two starters to the mound against the Rays this week who will be unable to pitch deep into the game. The Mitchells and Wades and Quallses will be ripe for exposure. That also puts some pressure on Ivan Nova to give the team some distance on Tuesday. After years of beating up on the middle relievers of other teams, the Yankees might get a taste of their own medicine against Tampa.

The good news is that this is just temporary. Sabathia figures to be back shortly after the All-Star break and both Garcia and Phelps will get stretched out before long. Middle relief is relatively easy to fix, at least in the sense those guys are easy to replace if they stink. The Yankees aren’t committed to any of them long-term, so if Qualls stinks they can cut him and try someone else. If Wade doesn’t right the ship they can send him on his way. Joe Girardi & Co. have been building and rebuilding bullpens on the fly for five years now, no reason they can’t do it again. For the next three days though, we’re all going to have to hold our breath whenever that bullpen door swings open prior to the seventh inning.

Fan Confidence Poll: July 2nd, 2012

Record Last Week: 5-2 (36 RS, 29 RA)
Season Record: 48-30 (373 RS, 312 RA, 46-32 pythag. record), 6.0 games up in AL East
Opponents This Week: @ Rays (three games, Mon. to Weds.), Thurs. OFF, @ Red Sox (four games, Fri. to Sun., two on Sat.)

Top stories from last week:

Please take a second to answer the poll below and give us an idea of how confident you are in the team. You can view the interactive Fan Confidence Graph anytime via the nav bar above, or by clicking here. Thanks in advance for voting.

Given the team's current roster construction, farm system, management, etc., how confident are you in the Yankees' overall future?
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Yanks earn split with ChiSox behind Hughes


Source: FanGraphs

On a steamy Sunday afternoon in which the Yankees celebrated their history, the current team went back to what the Bombers do best to beat the White Sox: they pitched well and they hit the ball out of the park. The win clinched a split of the four-game series with Chicago and gave New York a very solid 5-2 homestand. Let’s recap…

  • Rebound: The ChiSox struck for two quick runs in the first — replays showed that Alejandro De Aza did not touch the plate on the first run, however — and a few years (months?) ago this would have been an ugly four-inning, six-run type of outing for Phil Hughes. Something like that. Instead, he settled down and allowed just four baserunners (zero runs) is the next seven innings to turn in a high-quality start. Phil struck out eight, walked one, and completed eight innings for the second straight start and third time in six starts. Over his last ten outings, Hughes has pitched to a 3.27 ERA with a 4.21 K/BB and only once in his 16 starts has he walked more than two hitters. That’s pretty darn good. Go Philbert.
  • Two Times: The Yankees used a nice and simple formula to get back in the game. Raul Ibanez singled to lead off the second and one batter later Eric Chavez homered into the second deck to tie the game at two. In the next inning, Robinson Cano followed up a Mark Teixeira walk with a two-run shot that fell just short of the right field bleachers. Pretty simple; see ball, hit ball a mile. Robbie’s hit nine homers in his last 14 games, by the way.
  • Leftovers: Derek Jeter went 1-for-5 and for the first time since the first series of the season, he’s sporting a sub-.300 average (.299) … everyone in the starting lineup reached base at least once, though Russell Martin needed some help from a Kevin Youkilis error … Chavez is up to six homers on the year with a .348 wOBA, and I don’t think you could ask for more from a bench player … the Yankees went 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position and they squandered a bases loaded, no outs situation in the first when Cano bounced into a 1-2-3 double play … Ibanez stole a base (!) and had his tooth chipped by the bench when he tried to avoid a foul ball (he’ll be fine) … Rafael Soriano walked a batter in an otherwise flawless ninth inning, his 18th save in 19 chances.

MLB.com has the box score and video highlights, FanGraphs the advanced stats, and ESPN the updated standings. The Yankees won for the 26th time in their last 35 games and with the Orioles losing to the Indians, they’re now six full games up in the AL East. That’s pretty cool. The Bombers are off to Tampa for a three-game set against the reeling Rays starting Monday night. It’ll be Matt Moore and Freddy Garcia in the opener.

Austin & Sanchez continue to slump, Charleston wins anyway

Triple-A Empire State (5–3 loss to Rochester)
CF Chris Dickerson, DH Jack Cust & SS Doug Bernier: all 0-3 — Dickerson drove in a run and struck out … Cust walked and struck out three times in the most Jack Cust day ever
2B Corban Joseph: 1-4, 1 R, 1 2B, 1 K, 1 E (fielding)
LF Ronnie Mustelier: 1-4, 1 R, 1 HR, 2 RBI — that’s 15 homers in 500 plate appearances since signing last year
1B Russell Branyan & C Frankie Cervelli: both 1-3, 1 BB — Branyan struck out twice … Cervelli allowed a passed ball
3B Brandon Laird: 0-4, 1 K
RF Cole Garner: 1-3, 1 R, 1 2B, 1 K
RHP Chris Schwinden: 4 IP, 8 H, 4 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 2 K, 1 WP, 6/3 GB/FB — 54 of 85 pitches were strikes (63.5%) … not the best organizational debut
RHP Chase Whitley: 3 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 4 K, 2/2 GB/FB — 30 of 47 pitches were strikes (63.8%)
LHP Juan Cedeno: 1 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 0 K, 1/0 GB/FB — six of seven pitches were strikes

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