5/8-5/10 Series Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

(J. Meric/Getty Images)

It’s been a month since the last time these two clubs met, when the Rays swept the Yankees in the season-opening three-game series at Tropicana Field. Now they’re back at Yankee Stadium, and the last time they played here was when the Yankees clinched the AL East title last September. That’s a better memory, let’s hang onto that one this week.

What Have They Done Lately?

Tampa has lost their last two games to the Athletics, but before that they’d won six in a row and 12 of 13. They sit atop the division with a 19-10 record but are tied with the Yankees in run differential at +12 apiece. The Rays may be 13-3 at home, but they’re just 6-7 on the road this year.

Offense

Day-to-day with a knee strain. (AP Photo/Mike Carlson)

After finishing last season with a nearly perfectly average 103 wRC+, the Rays are up to a 116 wRC+ this year and aren’t too far behind the Yankees in the offensive department (122 wRC+). At 4.59 runs per game, Tampa is one of the better hitting teams in the league, capable of both stealing bases (20) and hitting homers (37). The Rays always play the Yankees tough, either offensively or defensively.

Evan Longoria (171 wRC+) is currently on the shelf with a torn hamstring, but Matt Joyce (175 wRC+) is off to his customary hot start while Carlos Pena (146 wRC+), Luke Scott (127 wRC+), and Desmond Jennings (122 wRC+) provide plenty of support. B.J. Upton has produced a 156 wRC+ after starting the season on the DL and Ben Zobrist (108 wRC+) has yet to really get going. Sean Rodriguez (70 wRC+) is pretty much the only everyday player in Tampa’s lineup that is a below average.

The rest of the group is a hodgepodge of platoon players. Jeff Keppinger does his best work against lefties (224 wRC+) while Brandon Allen and Will Rhymes do their best work against righties even though they only have a handful of plate appearances this year. Catchers Jose Molina (68 wRC+) and Chris Gimenez (42 wRC+) don’t hit anyone and are there for defense. Same deal with Elliot Johnson (69 wRC+), who frankly has no business getting as much playing time as he has for a contender.

Pitching Matchups

Tuesday: RHP Ivan Nova vs. RHP Jamie Shields
The Yankees pushed six runs across in five innings against Shields on Opening Day, but he’s since gone on to allow just eight earned runs in five starts and 36.1 IP. The changeup master pitches backwards with low-80s curveball and three low-90s fastballs: four-seamer, two-seamer, and a cutter/slider. We’ve seen more than enough of Shields over the last few years, so know what he’s all about. He’s a tough assignment but can be hit when he doesn’t have a feel for the change.

Wednesday: RHP David Phelps vs. RHP Jeff Niemann
We didn’t see Niemann during that first series in Tampa, though the big right-hander has pitched pretty well in his first five starts (4.05 ERA and a 3.40 FIP). He’s a true five-pitch guy with a low-90s four-seamer, a low-90s two-seamer, a mid-80s slider, a low-80s changeup, and an upper-70s curveball. The slider and changeup do take a back seat to the other pitches. Niemann is missing more bats (8.44 K/9 and 22.1 K%) than ever before, but he has yet to complete even six innings in a start this season. Apparently they have a real quick hook with him because his performance heads south after 75 pitches. That’ll be something to watch.

(AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

Thursday: LHP CC Sabathia vs. LHP David Price
Another guy we’re very familiar with, Price has been magnificent over his last three starts: 23.1 IP, 14 H, 3 R, 1 ER, 3 BB, 24 K. Yeah, I’m feeling pretty good about my Cy Young pick so far. Price held the Yankees to two runs back in April, though they did put nine men on base in 6.1 IP. His repertoire hasn’t changed at all — mid-90s four-seamer, mid-90s two-seamer, high-80s slider, low-80s changeup, and high-80s changeup — but he’s started getting more ground balls in additional to all those strikeouts. Price was awesome in 2010, got better last year (although it doesn’t show in the ERA), and has improved even more this season. Not fair.

Bullpen Status
Both teams had Monday off, so the bullpens are nice and fresh. Tampa closer Fernando Rodney apparently throws strikes now (1.86 FIP), which is pretty annoying. He’d been a walk machine for years. Setup men Joel Peralta (3.51 FIP) and J.P. Howell (2.59 FIP) have been effective, as has second lefty reliever Jake McGee (1.57 FIP). Ground ball guy Burke Badenhop (5.45 FIP but 54.2% grounders) has taken it on the chin a few times in middle relief. Long man Wade Davis (2.88 FIP) has done well in his new role and the left-handed Cesar Ramos (just one inning this year) was just called up for extra depth. He’s more of a multi-inning guy than a specialist.

Overall, the Rays’ bullpen has pitched to a 4.45 ERA and a 3.75 FIP, middle of the road numbers in the league. They had some games earlier in the season, particularly against the Red Sox, where the bullpen got really wrecked and skewed the numbers. It’s a solid relief corps, particularly since Shields and Price will soak up some innings in two of the three games. For the latest and greatest on Tampa, check out DRays Bay.

“Complications” delay setting of Rivera’s surgery date

Update (10:38 a.m.): ESPN’s Buster Olney has a source who says that these complications “will have no bearing on Mariano Rivera‘s ability to come back from his ACL injury.” And exhale.

9:24 a.m.: This does not sound good. Yesterday Mariano Rivera met with a pair of doctors to determine the course of action for surgery to repair his torn ACL. Unfortunately, they were not able to do so. “We ran into complications,” Rivera’s agent, Fernando Cuza, told the NY Post. “I am referring to Dr. Ahmad and Brian Cashman for further information.” For what it’s worth, ESPN NY’s Andrew Marchand spoke with a “high-ranking team official” who said the complications are not serious. We’ll keep you updated when further information becomes available.

Opportunity in the bullpen

(Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

We say the same thing every year, that the bullpen at the start of the season will not be the same as the bullpen at the end of the season. Players pitch their way on/off the club, trades happen, injuries occur, all sorts of stuff changes the bullpen dynamic during the course of 162 games. The one constant over the years has been Mariano Rivera, but unfortunately his torn right ACL means his name will be one of those we see in April but not October.

Thankfully, the Yankees are in capable hands with David Robertson and Rafael Soriano in the late innings. Whoever takes Rivera’s roster spot won’t take his role as closer, they’ll instead work middle relief while Cory Wade, Soriano, and Robertson each move up a notch on the totem pole, so to speak. Side-arming righty Cody Eppley currently occupies Mo’s spot on the roster, but he’s far from the team’s only option. As we’ve seen over the last few seasons, the Yankees will cycle through internal options before finding the right mix or going out and making a trade.

Eppley and D.J. Mitchell have already come up from the minors to aid the relief corps this year, but now let’s run down the list of players we could also see in the coming weeks….

Splitter grip. (Debby Wong/US PRESSWIRE)

RHP Kevin Whelan
The last remaining piece of the Gary Sheffield trade, Whelan made his big league debut last season and walked five in 1.2 IP. The 28-year-old was substantially better in Triple-A (3.24 FIP in 52.1 IP) and has continued that success this year. Whelan can miss bats with a low-90s fastball and a mid-80s splitter, but he’s really struggled with his control aside from last season. Middle relief is a good place to stash a guy who can run into trouble with walks.

RHP Chase Whitley
The Yankees bumped Whitley up to Triple-A after a brief return to Double-A to start the season, and he’s pitched extremely well to start the season: 2.43 FIP in 15.2 IP. Using three pitches in relief — 89-91 mph fastball, low-80s slider, changeup — Whitley isn’t a huge strikeout guy and will rely on his defense more than most Yankees relievers. I ranked him as the club’s 30th best prospect before the season because of his likelihood of contributing to the big league team, not necessarily his upside.

LHP Juan Cedeno
The darkhorse, Cedeno signed out of an independent league this offseason and impressed both in Spring Training and while with Triple-A (1.62 FIP in 12.2 IP). The 28-year-old southpaw profiles as more of a specialist than a full-inning reliever, throwing a low-90s fastball with a low-80s slider. Once ranked as the ninth best prospect in the Red Sox’s system (2003), Cedeno has spent time in Korea and missed all of 2010 with some kind of injury. The Yankees already have two left-handed relievers and a third doesn’t make much sense, but Cedeno should be on the big league radar.

RHP Jason Bulger & RHP Adam Miller
Two of the more veteran options on the Triple-A staff, neither Bulger nor Miller figure to get serious consideration for a bullpen job anytime soon. Bulger hasn’t pitched well (5.25 FIP in 13.2 IP) either this year or at all since 2009, and Miller has only appeared in three games after starting the season on the DL. Miller is a former top prospect and could pitch his way onto the radar last this summer, but I can’t imagine either of these guys will get a look anytime soon.

(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

RHP Adam Warren & RHP D.J. Mitchell
Unlike the other five guys in this post, Warren and Mitchell are legitimate long relief candidates. We’ve already seen Mitchell in that role and he’s likely to come back up if another multi-inning guy is needed, especially since Warren hasn’t pitched all that well this year (5.46 FIP in 25.2 IP). I do think both guys — and we should lump David Phelps into this group as well — could be effective in short, one-inning bursts, which could be more plausible since Freddy Garcia is currently the long reliever and Andy Pettitte is due back at some point soon. With three guys like that, odds are one of them will prove useful in a middle relief role right away.

* * *

Mitchell is the only player in this post currently on the 40-man roster, though the Yankees still have a number of 60-day DL candidates: Cesar Cabral, Brad Meyers, Austin Romine, and of course, Mo. The 40-man thing isn’t really a problem. Whelan, Whitley, Warren, and Mitchell give the team a couple of decent short-term relief options, plus there’s always the waiver wire and trade market. The important thing is that the Yankees already have these guys in-house and don’t have to scramble to fill out their pitching staff like they did in the mid-aughts.

River Dogs walk-off with win

I don’t know what the problem is, but LHP Nik Turley is currently on the 7-day DL. He finished last year on the shelf because he broke his hand reaching for a comebacker, but I doubt it’s related to that. Maybe it’s just a blister or something, he hasn’t pitched poorly or anything.

Update: Via Josh Norris, it’s exactly that. Turley is on the DL with a blister. Nice guess on my part.

Meanwhile, RHP Armando Galarraga is currently working out with the Yankees in Tampa and they may sign him soon. I think this is an indication that Ramon Ortiz or Nelson Figueroa is getting fed up with the Triple-A travel situation more than anything. We might see these Quad-A veteran guys shuffle in and out all season.

And finally, Ronnie Mustelier and Jose Ramirez were named the Double-A Eastern League Offensive Player of the Week and the High-A Florida State League Pitcher of the Week, respectively.

High-A Tampa (10-5 loss to Bradenton)
CF Eduardo Sosa & LF Ramon Flores: both 1-5, 1 K — Sosa tripled and drove in a run … Flores scored a run
C J.R. Murphy, RF Neil Medchill, 1B Kyle Roller & 2B Kelvin Castro: all 1-4, 1 K — Murphy drew a walk, drove in a run, and allowed a passed ball … Medchill tripled and plated a run
3B Rob Segedin: 3-4, 1 R, 1 2B — ten hits in his last 29 at-bats (.345)
DH Kyle Higashioka: 1-4, 1 R, 1 HR, 2 RBI, 1 K
SS Garrison Lassiter: 2-4, 2 R, 1 2B, 1 K, 1 SB, 1 E (missed catch, fielding) — first game on shortstop in five years, and it showed
RHP Sean Black: 2.2 IP, 8 H, 6 R, 5 ER, 1 BB, 2 K, 2/3 GB/FB — has allowed 196 runs in 297.1 IP since turning pro (5.93 runs per nine innings)
RHP Dawerd Cruz: 2.1 IP, 6 H, 3 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 1 K, 5/1 GB/FB
LHP Alex Smith: 3 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 1 K, 1 WP, 6/2 GB/FB — indy ball guy they signed this winter
LHP Matt Bashore: 1 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 1 K, 2/0 GB/FB– I guess they called up an entirely new bullpen following yesterday’s 18 inning affair

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Monday Night Open Thread

By now you’ve heard about it, but did you actually see it? Former Yankees draft pick (50th round in 2004) and current Orioles 1B/DH Chris Davis threw two scoreless innings against the Red Sox in Fenway Park to earn the win yesterday. The best part of the whole thing was his splitter — he said it was a split during the post-game, not a changeup — which he used to strikeout Jarrod Saltalamacchia (0:10 mark of the video) and Adrian Gonzalez (1:08). Baseball America’s draft report from 2006 says he pitched with “a 90-92 mph fastball and a decent breaking ball” in junior college. I gotta think he’s messed around with that split while throwing on the side; hard to believe he was able to break it out that effectively after not toeing the rubber in a half-decade.

Anyway, here is tonight’s open thread since the Yankees are off. The Mets are playing the Phillies (Niese vs. Halladay, 7pm ET on SNY/ESPN) and the Rangers have a playoff game (best-of-seven series tied at two, 7:30pm ET on NBC Sports Network), plus there’s a bunch of non-local NHL and NBA playoff action going on as well. You folks know what to do, so have at it.

The Future of Right Field

(Brian Bissell/Future Star Photos)

Earlier today I wrote about the importance of having Nick Swisher in the lineup, and that got me thinking about the future of right field in general. Obviously Swisher will become a free agent after the season and with the 2014 payroll plan looming, he might not fit into the team’s plans going forward. He’s going to make it very hard for the team to let him walk given his early-season performance, but parting ways with a soon-to-be 32-year-old corner outfielder isn’t the craziest thing in the world.

The problem is that the Yankees don’t have an obvious in-house candidate to step into the outfield. Zoilo Almonte had an outside chance at being that guy, but that looks unlikely at this point. Melky Mesa is another Greg Golson/up-and-down type, ditto Colin Curtis to a certain extent. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Yankees moved prospects Rob Segedin and Tyler Austin (pictured) to right field on a full-time basis this season, but those two are still in Single-A and are years away from the bigs. Hopefully they become factors down the line, but they certainly won’t help next year or even the year after that.

If the Yankees do let Swisher walk, the best way to replace him probably involved a platoon of some sort until Segedin and/or Austin pan out, if they do at all. Andruw Jones seems like a logical candidate for the right half of that platoon assuming he doesn’t completely fall off a cliff this summer, but finding a lefty to go with him will be easier said than done. I’m partial to Kelly Johnson, who played the corner outfield earlier in his career and has everything the Yankees look for offensively: left-handed power, the willingness to take a walk, and the ability to steal double-digit bases. Would he take a one or even two-year deal to change positions for the Yankees at age 30? I highly doubt it. Heck, he might require a bigger contract than Swisher, but I digress.

The 2014 payroll plan is really going to throw a wrench into the team’s roster plans going forward, but frankly I think there’s a pretty good case to be made for keeping Swisher at say, something a little north Michael Cuddyer money (three years, $31M) and skimping elsewhere (coughsecondbasecough). He already has the “old player skills” that tend to age well and has been very durable throughout his career, which sounds kinda funny after he just sat out a week with a hamstring issue. There’s value in reliability, and it’s hard to find a more reliable and consistent Yankee over the last three years than Swisher. The best bridge from Swisher to the theoretical Segedin/Austin era just might be Swisher himself.