Archive for Tampa Bay Rays
This season starts right where last season ended. The last time these two clubs met, the Rays swept the Yankees and leapfrogged the Red Sox on the final day of the season to secure a playoff berth. I’m sure you remember that. The Yankees had already clinched everything they could have possibly clinched, so we were all able to sit back and enjoy The Collapse without having to worry about its impact on our beloved Bombers.
That’s all in the past now, and it’s time to look forward to 2012. Both clubs added some new players this offseason — in Tampa’s case a familiar face — and figure to again contend for the AL East crown. Winning the division is much more important now with the new playoff system, so right off the bat this is an important series. Every intra-division game will mean that much more this summer.
With the exception of Raul Ibanez, the Yankees return the same offense that finished second in baseball with a 113 wRC+ in 2011. Any improvement will come in the form of Alex Rodriguez staying healthy, Mark Teixeira pounding the ball the other way as a left-handed hitter, and Nick Swisher avoiding another two-month long slump to open the season. I wouldn’t expect Curtis Granderson to hit 40+ homers again, but that’s only because back-to-back 40+ homer seasons are very rare. He should still whack 30 dingers or so.
The Rays made some more substantial changes to their lineup. Their DHs have posted an unfathomable 94 wRC+ over the last three seasons, easily the lowest among the AL clubs during that time. They tried to rectify that by bringing in Luke Scott, who is coming off shoulder surgery but posted a 140 wRC+ in 2010, his last healthy season. I wouldn’t expect a repeat performance at age 33, but it’s hard to imagine he’ll be anything but an upgrade at the DH spot if the shoulder is sound. Carlos Pena (119 wRC+ in 2011) replaced Casey Kotchman (125 wRC+) at first, meaning they’ll actually get some homers out of the position. A full year of Desmond Jennings (131 wRC+) will help as well.
The rest of the Rays offense is the same as it has been for the last few seasons. Evan Longoria (134 wRC+) and Ben Zobrist (131 wRC+) do the heavy lifting while Matt Joyce (129 wRC+) does most of his damage against righties. B.J. Upton (115 wRC+) is widely considered a disappointment, but he’s a productive player who is just entering his peak years and will again threaten 20-30. The shortstop and catcher positions are black holes. Tampa has some power and a lot of speed, and they managed to add some of the former this past winter without really sacrificing much of the latter.
Friday: LHP CC Sabathia vs. RHP Jamie Shields
Sabathia and Shields split a pair of head-to-head matchups last season, and both guys were brilliant. They each allowed two runs total across 17 and 15.2 innings, respectively. Sabathia is making his ninth career Opening Day start, including his fourth straight in pinstripes. This is Shields’ fourth Opening Day assignment in the last five years. The crafty right-hander likes to pitch backwards, specifically by using his curveball early in the count to batters on both sides of the plate. His put away pitch is that world-class changeup, which he’ll throw in any count. Shields is always a tough assignment, so let’s hope he’s still a little rusty from the offseason.
Saturday: RHP Hiroki Kuroda vs. LHP David Price
The Yankees haven’t been very kind to Mr. Price over the last few years. They roughed him up for six runs in four innings in last year’s season finale, and of course Derek Jeter took him keep for his 3,000th career hit back in July. Price is my Cy Young pick, however. His strikeout, walk, and ground ball rates all improved last year even though it didn’t show up in his ERA. I expect him to take another step forward this year and become that dominant, unquestioned ace. Price uses multiple mid-90s fastballs (four-seamer and two-seamer) and an array of offspeed stuff (changeup, curve, slider). Kuroda has never pitched against the Rays franchise in the regular season, though they did get a look at him in Spring Training a few weeks ago.
Sunday: RHP Phil Hughes vs. RHP Jeremy Hellickson
Both Hughes and Hellickson have something to prove this year. Hughes has to show that his dreadful 2011 season is a thing of the past and that he’s back to his 2010 form. Hellickson, despite winning the Rookie of the Year award, has to show that his ability to keep runs off the board despite underwhelming peripherals is a skill and not just dumb luck. A 1.49 run difference between ERA and FIP begs for a bigger sample. He could be the rare Matt Cain-esque exception, or he could be due for a huge regression. Hellickson is a changeup specialist like Shields, throwing the pitch nearly 33% of the time last season. He’ll mix in a curveball and two low-90s fastballs. The Yankees had mixed results against him in 2011, a few good games and a few bad ones.
Since this is the first series of the year, both teams have a pretty fresh bullpen. David Robertson is still rounding into form after missing close to three weeks with a bone bruise in his foot, so don’t be surprised if Joe Girardi takes it a little easy on him this first week. Boone Logan is dealing with some back spasms and might not be available right out of the chute. Everyone else is a-okay as far as we know.
The Rays could be without closer Kyle Farnsworth, who is battling an elbow strain that is likely to send him to the DL. They have until game time to make a decision. Righty Joel Peralta and lefty J.P. Howell figure to serve as platoon closers in Farnsworth’s stead. Former Tigers closer Fernando Rodney could also see some ninth inning work. Ground ball specialist Burke Badenhop and hard-throwing lefty Jake McGee fill the middle innings while displaced starter Wade Davis will handle long-man duties. Of course, we have to mention that Tampa’s pitching staff plays up because their defense is so good. Jennings and Upton are fantastic in the outfield while Longoria, Zobrist, and Pena are no worse than rock solid on the infield.
For all the latest info on the Rays, we recommend checking out DRays Bay.
The Tampa Bay Rays have made life quite difficult in the AL East. Previously a two-team powerhouse, the East saw Tampa Bay’s rise to prominence in 2008. That year the Yankees boasted the fourth-best record in the American League, but missed the playoffs thanks to Tampa’s presence atop the standings (among other factors). The Rays sunk a bit in the 2009 season, but in 2010 they came back to win the AL East, and then made the playoffs as the Wild Card in 2011. They return in 2012 with a slightly heftier payroll. Will it be enough for a third straight playoff berth?
Tampa Bay’s chances — and, really, everyone’s chances — have increased thanks to the second Wild Card spot. But it’s not Tampa’s bid for a Wild Card spot that should have Yankees fans worried. They’ve built another strong team in 2012, one that will likely contend for the AL East crown. They’re the early-season sexy picks for the title, too; ESPN.com’s Buster Olney dubbed them baseball’s best team earlier this year. Let’s take a closer look at what makes them tick.
Once again, the Rays will go with a homegrown rotation in 2012. For the last 165 games they’ve used a homegrown starter, an MLB record. They will, however, finally use a starting pitcher over the age of 30 in 2012, the first time since 2007. To compensate, they’ll also employ one of the youngest and most highly touted pitchers in the league. In other words, the Rays will again boast a formidable pitching staff.
The rotation starts with James Shields, who will face CC Sabathia on Opening Day next Friday. He’s been a workhorse since his full-season debut in 2007, making at least 31 starts and pitching at least 203 innings in each year (and in all but one year he pitched at least 215 innings, including nearly 250 last year). Last season Shields held the Yankees in check, allowing just 10 runs in 38.2 innings, striking out 31 to just 10 walks.
While Shields has been impressive on his own against the Yankees in the last three years, throwing 81.2 innings in 12 starts to a 3.20 ERA, they have gotten the best of him; Shields is just 4-5 against the Yankees in that time. Then again, Shields has pitched a bit better against the Yankees in that span than he has overall. From 2009 through 2011 he sports a 3.96 ERA, which is league average.
After Shields, the Rays have lefty David Price as a strong No. 2 starter. He can even be considered the staff ace, despite Shields holding that spot nominally. Price’s 2009 debut was rough, but that can be expected of a 23-year-old in baseball’s toughest division. He came back in 2010 to produce one of the best seasons in the AL, even finishing second in the Cy Young voting. His ERA jumped in 2011, but all of his peripherals improved. Most notably, he trimmed nearly a walk per nine off his rate. If he can continue striking out nearly a batter per inning while refusing to walk too many batters, his results will follow.
The 2011 AL Rookie of the Year Award recipient fills the third spot in the Rays rotation. Jeremy Hellickson got off to a rolling start last year, throwing 189 innings to a 2.95 ERA. He’s not exactly a strikeout artist, and he didn’t demonstrate great control in 2011. In fact, his peripherals were fairly mediocre. But he does have a chance to take a step forward in 2012.
The big difference between the 2011 and 2012 Rays rotations is Matt Moore. One of the game’s most highly touted prospects, Moore will get his chance in the rotation. It’s hard to undersell his potential. He simply plowed through the minors, dipping below 12 K/9 just once — and even then it was 11.5 K/9. He’s going to give the Yankees fits for years to come. If everything goes well, he’ll join Price atop the rotation, leaving little room to miss Shields once the Rays inevitably trade him.
It might be easy for a Yankees fan to write-off a bullpen that features Kyle Farnsworth as closer, but he’s not the same Farnsworth that plagued the Bronx from 2006 through mid-2008. He has found some semblance of control, which has in no small way led to his prominence in the last few years. He’ll get the nod again as closer in 2012, but he has some reinforcements.
Joel Peralta is a name that probably doesn’t register on many Yankees fans radars.
Since debuting in 2005, at age 29, he’s pitched for five different teams. Yet he’s been quite effective in the last two seasons. In that span he has boasted a 2.55 ERA in 116.2 innings, striking out 8.5 per nine while walking just 2.1. One of his big assets has been the ability to suppress hits. He has allowed just 5.7 per nine in that span, which leads to an otherworldly 0.87 WHIP. His key is the splitter, which he uses to generate swings and misses as well as poor in-air contact.
The Rays have some depth behind those two late-inning guys as well. Jake McGee had a middling 2011, mostly due to his home runs allowed. If he can get them under control he’ll provide some power out of the pen. Wade Davis, who just lost the fifth starter competition to Jeff Niemann, could very well be one of those guys who flourishes in the pen after struggling in the rotation. There’s also Fernando Rodney, whom the Rays brought in on a flier, and J.P. Howell, who, given his injury history, is also essentially a flier.
Even with some riskier guys at the end of the pen, the Rays do have some depth to cover them. There’s Josh Leuke, whose fastball command, combined with quality breaking ball and splitter, could provide value out of the pen later in the year. Brandon Gomes, who pitched well in his 37 innings out of the pen last year, could provide reinforcements later as well. Combine those with a few other up-and comers, and the Rays do have some pen depth this year. That afford them the opportunity to take risks with guys like Howell and Rodney.
In 2011 the Rays actually finished with a below average AL offense, scoring just 4.36 runs per game. The Yankees actually scored one run per game more than the Rays, which is no small difference when spread over 162 contests. They have, however, added a few key pieces this off-season that could boost their offensive profile.
At first base the Rays were particularly abysmal. They hit a combined .288/.357/.388, placing them 13th out of 14 AL teams in OPS. To help remedy the issue they brought back Carlos Pena, who spent 2011 with the Cubs. In his four years with the Rays Pena consistently supplied power, even if he didn’t hit for a high average. The walk rate, combined with his 20-30 home run power will bring a big improvement to the Rays’ overall first base numbers.
The Rays weren’t quite as bad with the DH spot in 2011, though they did rank 10th out of 14. Even still, there was a pretty sizable gap between 10th and 9th, and the Rays DHs did combine for a .320 OBP. To remedy this they signed Luke Scott, who has certainly hit for power in the past. From 2008 through 2010 he hit .266/.348/.497 with the Orioles, a 123 OPS+. He did struggle through an injury plagued 2011 season, but if he rebounds to his former self he’ll provide another boost to the Rays offense.
Another improvement the Rays will realize comes from Desmond Jennings. In left field the Rays were above average last year, due in no small part to Jennings’s .259/.356/.449 line. Yet he appeared in only 63 games, after starting the season in the minors. A full season of him, even a little below the level he established in 2011, will be a big boost to the overall offense. Add in his ability to swipe a bag — he was 20 for 26 in those 63 games, after going 17 for 18 in AAA — and he becomes a legitimate offensive threat.
Last season Evan Longoria’s production dropped off a bit at an age where we expect improvement. He did suffer a foot injury, which cost him a number of games. Perhaps that’s part of the reason for his drop-off. One big reason, however, might be the ebbs and flows of a career. Fancy this: Longoria produced a career-low .239 BABIP in 2011. This isn’t to say that he was merely unlucky. It is to say that it’s considerably out of line with his .301 career BABIP, and the .336 and .313 marks he produced in 2010 and 2009. At the same time, his walk rate jumped, as did his power production. If he brings his average back up into the .280 neighborhood with those power and patience improvements, he could be an MVP contender.
In addition to Longoria and Pena in the middle of the lineup, the Rays also have Ben Zobrist. His numbers might not stand out, .269/.353/.469 in 2011, but that was good for a 132 OPS+. Combine that with his defensive versatility and you have a highly valuable player who can hit essentially anywhere in the lineup. B.J. Upton and Matt Joyce are also quality hitters to round out the outfield. The only real hole in the Rays’ offense, then, comes at shortstop, where Reid Brignac and Sean Rodriguez both provide little. Rodriguez is the better bet to provide near league average numbers, as he did in 2011, so it won’t be as though they have a gaping hole there.
One area where the Rays receive universal praise is their defense. Longoria, Zobrist, Pena, Upton, and Jennings are all well above average defensively, and the rest of the team, from the starters to the bench, fields well too. The Rays boasted the best defensive efficiency — number of balls in play turned into outs — of nay team in the majors last year, and by no small margin. In terms of Baseball Prospectus’s PADE, which adjusts defensive efficiency for park effects, the Rays demolished every team in 2011 (4.30, with the next closest being 1.98). That will make things quite easier on their already quality pitching staff.
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Once again, the Rays will complicate the AL East. They might not have the on-paper powerhouse lineups that both the Yankees and the Sox boast, but they do have a number of high-quality hitters throughout the lineup. One through seven, in fact, will comprise above-average hitters, with only the shortstop and Jose Molina dragging them down. They also have five high-quality starters that can rival any rotation in the division. It might take a few things breaking their way, but the Rays do have a legitimate shot at the AL East crown this year.
That was Tropicana Field last night, shortly after the Rays beat the Yankees by the score of 5-2. The majority of the 18-something-thousand fans in attendance stayed at their seats after Red Sox-Orioles game was put on the big board, just in time for the final two outs. The fans collectively groaned when Dustin Pedroia drove in a run, then booed when David Ortiz followed that with an infield single. Adrian Gonzalez flew out for the second out of the inning, and that drew a ton of cheers.
While all this was going on in the stands, the Yankees were in their clubhouse without a care in the world. You’d never know they had just lost a game to a division rival, they were too busy poking fun at the rookies for their early-90′s music costumes. Russell Martin told a story about how he asked the home plate ump if he had stretched before the game because he (or his strike zone) was a little tight. Joe Girardi vaguely explained his pitching plans for the next two days. Phil Hughes zipped up Austin Romine‘s Madonna outfit. They were a team with nothing to play for at the moment, and it showed.
Outside though, outside that clubhouse, it was a celebration. Jed Lowrie had swung over a Jim Johnson sinker for strike three, the 27th out in Boston’s latest failure to distance themselves from the Rays. Less than 24 hours earlier, Jacoby Ellsbury was being hailed as the no-doubt MVP for his game-winning, 14th inning homer off Scott Proctor in the Bronx, but now he was a goat. A goat because of this …
The ball was in glove, and then it wasn’t. The result was the first inside-the-park homerun by an Orioles player in Camden Yards history, a three-run number by Robert Andino that turned a 3-2 lead into a 6-2 lead. The Trop exploded when Lowrie went down swinging, a thunderous combination of cowbell, cheers, and whatever the hell that foghorn thing they play after homeruns and wins is … all combined with great acoustics (hooray for the dome!). The press box was literally shaking, and honestly, it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever experienced at a ballpark.
This collapse is just … it’s unthinkable. I mean, 2004 was just completely different. That was a short series where the proverbial “anything can happen” happened. This Red Sox collapse is a month-long stretch of ineptitude, a team beating itself with bad defense, really bad pitching, and just not enough offense to makeup for it. Boston has gone from nine games up with a 99.6% chance of making the postseason on September 3rd to tied in the loss column with a 63.3% chance of making the postseason just 24 days later. Take a second to wrap your head around that.
As Yankees fans, we’re conditioned to hate the Red Sox and laugh at their misfortune. It comes with the territory, so this collapse is right in our wheel house. No sympathy, nothing. But we don’t ever think about the other end of The Collapse (has to be capitalized at this point, right?), the team that did the catching up. I got to experience that firsthand last night, or rather I got to observe fans who experienced that firsthand last night. It wasn’t about the suffering of the Red Sox, it was about the excitement of the Rays. A young, exciting, and likable team that legitimately qualifies as an underdog doing things underdog teams do. It was a very different view of things as a Yankees fan, a view of a world where winning isn’t a birthright. Apparently that way of life can be fun too.
(Ellsbury .gif via @bubbaprog)
Here’s a question: if the Red Sox are performing poorly enough to miss the playoffs, should Yankee fans root for them to make it? Put another way, given that Boston has been 2007 Mets-level bad in September, are there enough flaws there that Yankees fans should root for Boston to beat out Tampa and Los Angeles and make for an easy target, should they squeak by through to the ALCS? Between the Rays and the Sox, who is the weakest link?
The Red Sox case
Boston has a myriad of problems. One problem is the lack of performance they’ve gotten from the corner outfielder slots. Carl Crawford’s first year of his big contract has been a disaster. J.D. Drew has missed time and his replacements haven’t exactly lit up the league. Drew may be back at some point, but it’s clear that the corner outfield spots for Boston currently represent a problem with no easy fix.
The Sox are also suffering through injuries, although not as many as last year. Youkilis has a back injury, a hip injury and a sports hernia. Despite the rain on Friday, Youkilis did some batting off a tee, and Francona indicated that he “still felt it”, which makes sense since the injury will ultimately require surgery. As a result, Boston Globe writer Pete Abraham reported that it’s looking increasingly unlikely that he’ll return at all this year, perhaps as a pinch-hitter at best. Obviously this is a significant blow to the Red Sox. Youkilis is one of their best hitters, and he’s also one of the most potent right-handed hitters in a lineup dominated by lefties. One of those lefties, Adrian Gonzalez, is also hurting. Gonzalez is dealing with a rotator cuff injury that causes him pain every time he swings the bat. It’s also sapped him of his opposite-field power. If you’re keeping track at home, two of the Sox four best hitters (the other two being Pedroia and Ellsbury) are dealing with serious injuries.
There’s also the wilderness that is their rotation. In addition to not paying his child support, Erik Bedard has – surprise! – injury and durability concerns. Meanwhile, John Lackey is just flat terrible. Weiland, Miller and Wakefield all represent last-resort options, the kind of guys you’d want to kick around for the 25th spot on the playoff roster but not pencil in for a Game 3 or Game 4 start. Aceves has been well above-average, but it appears to be too late to switch him to the rotation. Even the front of the rotation, Lester and Beckett, has lost a bit of its shine. For the second year in a row, Lester’s walks are a little higher than what you’d expect from someone with his talent, and his strikeouts have dipped. Beckett’s injury created a bit of uncertainty around him, and while he did rack up the strikeouts in his last outing against Baltimore, he lost his way late in the game and gave up the lead. New York has rotation questions too, but this doesn’t diminish the fact that Boston’s issues are severe and won’t be remedied until this offseason at the earliest.
The Sox are still a decent team. Pedroia, Ellsbury and Gonzalez are exceptional hitters. Papelbon is having a great year, and if Bard regains his form they could have one of the best late game combos in the playoffs. The nature of the playoffs is wild and unpredictable, and a suddenly hot offense backed by a strong Lester and Beckett and closed with Bard and Papelbon could carry the Sox to the World Series. At the same time, it’d be silly to deny that this team has major issues.
The Rays’ Case
The case for the Rays as the weakest link revolves around their average offense and their iffy bullpen. Calling their offense average is entirely just. Their team wRC+ is 100, which defines average. Their lineup is bolstered by the likes of Evan Longoria, Desmond Jennings and Ben Zobrist, but there are still weak spots in that lineup. Parenthetically, one has to wonder how much closer the Rays would be to Boston had Manny Ramirez given them 500 at-bats this season.
Their bullpen is also a point of weakness, described to me by R.J. Anderson as Tampa’s “dirty little secret”. It’s simply not as good as it has been in the past. While Farnsworth had been solid for the Rays thus far, he’s dealing with elbow soreness. Set-up man Joel Peralta has been respectable, but behind him are a slew of guys best utilized in platoon matchup scenarios. Plenty of them have serious control issues, meaning that Maddon’s ability to mix and match in the late innings is compromised a bit.
The Rays are strong in their pitching staff. As frontline tandems go, it’s hard to do better than David Price and James Shields. These two would be absolutely frightening in a short series. The Yankees wouldn’t face them until the ALCS, so they’d get a crack at Niemann and Hellickson too, but the fact remains that Price and Shields are two of the best pitchers in baseball. Finally, there’s the Matt Moore factor. He’s likely headed to the bullpen, and a reprise of David Price’s usage in the 2008 playoffs would make the Rays’ end of game crew very tough, especially if they get Kyle Farnsworth back at full strength. He’s certainly the X factor.
So which team is a more formidable opponent, and for which team should the Yankee fans be rooting to make the playoffs? It’s a matter of preference. Personally, even granting all of Boston’s issues and the fact that they’re an average at best team right now, I’d like them out as soon as possible. Doesn’t the prospect of three games in Boston in October in the ALCS, with the pennant on the line, make you want to reach for a bottle of Pepto? The Rays may be just as good as Boston right now, even better. But as Moshe Mandel said to me the other day, they may be just close enough that it’d be nice to see the Sox complete this collapse and miss the playoffs altogether. No Big Papi heroics and Sweet Caroline for me, thank you very much.
How important is this series? It’s obviously huge for the Rays, but it’s not life or death for the Yankees. They have seven games left against Tampa and a seven-game lead for the wildcard, but just two wins in those seven games punches their ticket to October. These are far from must wins, but it would be nice to have a playoff spot wrapped up before the Red Sox come to town on Friday.
What Have The Rays Done Lately?
I think you’re all well aware of what the Rays have done lately. They took three of four from the Red Sox in Fenway before having yesterday off, and they now sit just two games back of Boston for the wildcard (one in the loss column). Tampa has won ten of their last 14 games.
Rays On Offense
Overall, it’s an exactly league average offense with a .317 wOBA, a 100 wRC+, and a 104 OPS+. That said, they have several players coming into the series very got. Evan Longoria (.360 wOBA overall) has hit .310/.461/.603 this month, and B.J. Upton (.325 wOBA overall) is right behind him at .311/.408/.557 for September. Matt Joyce (.360 wOBA overall) has rebounded from prolonged slump to hit .270/.404/.459 in the season’s final month. He doesn’t play much against left-handers, though.
Those three have been really, really good during Tampa’s recent surge, but three others have been really, really bad. Ben Zobrist (.355 wOBA overall) has hit .196/.274/.286 this month, and the amazingly awesome Desmond Jennings (.395 wOBA overall) has crashed back to Earth with a .212/.297/.303 batting line over his last 16 games. Casey Kotchman (.351 wOBA overall) has been a touch better than Jennings in September (.217/.304/.317), but his struggles go back a little further (.215/.311/.292 in his last 38 games). The rest of the lineup is a bit of a mix-and-match.
Sean Rodriguez may or may not be limited in this series after getting hit by a pitch in the Sox series, but he’s lethal against left-handed pitchers (.271/.391/.465). Reid Brignac (.203 wOBA) and Elliot Johnson (.244 wOBA) are the two shortstop options, so yuck. Kelly Shoppach (.260 wOBA) is rumored to see more time behind the plate down the stretch, ahead of John Jaso (.291 wOBA) and Jose Lobaton (.122 wOBA in a small sample). Brandon Guyer (.272 wOBA in limited action) will likely see some outfield time against lefties, and then there’s spare parts like Dan Johnson (.162 wOBA mostly due to April), Justin Ruggiano (.287 wOBA in limited time), Sam Fuld (.302 wOBA), and Russ Canzler (one plate appearance, one walk). The Rays will absolutely steal bases, with Upton (30), Fuld (20), Jennings (18), Damon (18), and Zobrist (18) being the main threats.
Rays On The Mound
Tuesday, RHP Wade Davis (vs. Ivan Nova): One of many great pitching prospects to come out of Tampa’s system in recent years, Davis has yet to have the kind of success some of his peers have enjoyed. His 4.41 ERA is right in line with his 4.66 FIP, a 119 FIP- that essentially matches last year’s 118 FIP-. A fly ball guy (36.3% grounders) without much strikeout ability (5.10K/9), Davis works with a pair of low-90′s fastballs (two and four-seamer), a high-70′s curveball, a mid-80′s slider, and a mid-80′s changeup. The Yankees have not faced him yet this year, but they saw him four times last year (3.43 ERA).
Wednesday, RHP Jeremy Hellickson (vs. CC Sabathia/Phil Hughes): One of many great pitching prospects to come out of Tampa’s system in recent years, Hellickson is coming off that grueling 117-pitch outing in Fenway. His peripherals (4.28 FIP) are not nearly as good as his ERA (2.91), and he’s another fly ball guy (34.0% grounders) that struggles to miss bats (5.78 K/9). Two fastballs (low-90′s two and four-seamers) and a knockout changeup are his primary weapons, but we’ll also see a mid-70′s curve on occasion. Hellickson can be sneaky good, he is just a kid in his first full year as a starter in the AL East, after all. The Yankees have seen him twice this year, once good (2 R in 7 IP) and once bad (4 R in 4.1 IP).
Wednesday, RHP Jamie Shields (vs. Sabathia/Hughes): One of many great pitching prospects to come out of Tampa’s system in recent years,
Big Complete Game James has been one of the best pitchers in baseball this season. His peripherals (3.35 FIP) match the ERA (2.78), with lots of strikeouts (8.25 K/9), lots of grounders (46.2%), and few walks (2.31 BB/9). Shields is the master at pitching backwards, setting up his low-90′s two and four-seamers with that world class changeup and a high-70′s curveball. He’ll also throw a mid-80′s slider and a high-80′s cutter. In three starts against the Yankees this year, Shields has held them to six runs (four earned) in 22.2 IP, and four of those runs came in one start.
Thursday, RHP Jeff Niemann (vs. Bartolo Colon): One of many great pitching prospects to come out of Tampa’s system in recent years (notice a pattern here?), Niemann has pitched very well since returning from the disabled list in late-June. He’s posted a 3.41 ERA (~3.80 FIP) with 7.69 K/9 and 2.45 BB/9 in 103 IP. His pitching approach is pretty straight forward, featuring two fastballs in the low-90′s (two and four-seamer) and a high-80′s curve, but he’ll occasionally mix in three other pitches: mid-80′s slider, mid-80′s changeup, and a low-80′s split. The Yankees have seen Niemann just once this year, when he held them to one run in 7.1 IP in his fourth start off the DL.
Bullpen: The Rays have a bunch of call-ups on their roster, but they’re still a man short in the bullpen. Kyle Farnsworth is having a very good year (3.27 FIP), but he’s battling an elbow issue and might not be available for part or all of the series. Joel Peralta (3.43 FIP) has stepped in at closer in the meantime. J.P. Howell (holding lefties to a .217/.277/.283 batting line), Juan Cruz (3.95 FIP), and Jake McGee (5.14 FIP) handle the majority of the middle innings.
For the most part, the rest of the bullpen is made up of low-leverage call-up types, guys like Brandon Gomes (4.09 FIP), Dane De La Rosa (2 IP so far), Cesar Ramos (4.70 FIP), Andy Sonnanstine (4.48 FIP), and Alex Torres (2 IP so far). The secret weapon is Matt Moore, the best pitching prospect in baseball. The hard-throwing lefty has made two appearances totaling 4.1 IP so far, and they aren’t shy about throwing him into big spots against both lefties and righties. We’ll see him at some point this series, and there’s even been some rumblings that he could get a start in the doubleheader.
Recommended Rays Reading: DRays Bay.
Following a frustrating four-game losing streak (frustrating because they didn’t hit, the one thing they do better than anything else), the Yankees appear to have righted the ship and have won two in a row, the second against the great Felix Hernandez. Aside from various injuries, everything seems to be going pretty well in Yankeeland, but the same can’t be said for their biggest rivals.
The Red Sox, in case you haven’t heard, have lost five games in a row. While that was happening, the Rays won five in a row, so their deficit in the wildcard race dropped from eight games to three in less than a week. Suddenly the upcoming four-game series between these two clubs at Fenway Park this weekend has a whole lotta meaning, even though it was little more than an afterthought a week ago. The Sox have 16 games left, Tampa just 15. There is little in baseball more exciting than a late season comeback, as long as you aren’t the team being comeback’d on.
Boston’s problems are almost entirely pitching related. Their opponents have scored six or more runs eight times in their last ten games, and five or more runs ten times in their last 13 games. Their starting rotation at the moment is Jon Lester, John Lackey, Andrew Miller, Tim Wakefield, and Kyle Weiland, which is pretty awful outside of Lester. Legitimately Triple-A caliber. Josh Beckett will apparently be back from his ankle sprain sometime this week, so that will definitely help. Clay Buchholz may or may not return this season, but if he does, it sounds like he’ll do so as a reliever. Who really knows what’s up with Erik Bedard? Not I. As Yankees fans, you can’t not enjoy watching this unfold. Oh, and the irony. I thought the Yankees were the team with the pitching problems?
Cool Standings says the Rays have just a 13.2% chance to make the postseason, but that’s up from 0.6% just six days ago. The Red Sox went from a 99.4% chance to make to the postseason to 86.7% during that time. They’re still in good shape, but there are definite reasons for the Fenway faithful to be concerned. This is more than a slump, there are very real issues. The Yankees, meanwhile, now have an 88.0% chance to win the AL East and a 99.4% chance to make the postseason. The only thing we have worry about is health and the number two starter in the ALDS. The Yankees aren’t perfect, but they’re the best team in the AL, hands down.
As a Yankees fan, I’m obligated to loathe the Red Sox. It’s very, very easy to root for the Rays at the moment, because we all want to see a Boston collapse. And frankly, Tampa is a pretty fun team to watch. That said, if the Rays are going to pull off this comeback, the Yankees will be involved. They have seven games left with Tampa, including the final three of the season. These aren’t isolated races, the Rays’ pursuit of the Red Sox will impact the Yankees and their ability to keep Boston at bay in the East. Obviously priority number one for New York is getting into the playoffs, they can’t worry about who is trying to catch who. If they rest players down the stretch, it will be to improve their chances in October, not help the Rays.
In all likelihood, the Red Sox will hold off Tampa and make the postseason. They do have seven games left with the Orioles, after all. Tampa had a huge mountain to climb just to get where they are now, and they still have a long way to go. It’s going to be fun to watch over the next two weeks, and come on, what Yankees fan isn’t enjoying this right now?
The makeup game between the Yankees and Rays for their August 14th rain out has been scheduled as part of a doubleheader for September 21st, the Yanks announced this morning. The two teams will be playing another makeup game on the 22nd (because of this mess), so instead of playing one game in a 48-hour span as the schedule originally called for, they’ll play three. The rest of the regular season is brutal: The Yankees will make a west coast trip tonight and play 15 games in the final 14 days of the season. Good thing they have such a huge lead on a playoff spot.
A second half series between these two clubs is supposed to be important, it’s supposed to have major ramification on both the AL East and wildcard races. Instead, this one is just another series because Tampa has fallen out of it. This will be the third time the Yankees and Rays will play each other in a little less than a month, and right now New York leads the season series 5-4.
What Have The Rays Done Lately?
Tampa just swept a four game series against the Royals at home, and they’re 7-2 in their last nine games. Despite that, they’re just 12-13 since the All-Star break, and have fallen 9.5 games back in the AL East and 8.5 back of the wildcard. The Yankees need to win games for the sake of winning games, but there’s not much significance in specifically beating the Rays right now.
Rays On Offense
With a .315 wOBA and a .153 ISO, the Rays have close to a perfectly average offense this season. The three centerpieces of their attack are Ben Zobrist (.279/.371/.498), Evan Longoria (.231/.329/.450), and (surprisingly enough) Casey Kotchman (.337/.398/.471), but they recently made a significant addition to the lineup: leadoff man Desmond Jennings. The hot shot prospect was called up about three weeks ago and has hit .333/.422/.597 with eight steals in 11 attempts in 19 games. He’s not really a .442 wOBA hitter, but he is quite good and a lot better than the dreck they were running out there in left field earlier this season.
As for the supporting cast, you have Johnny Damon (.262/.317/.387), B.J. Upton (.227/.309/.394), and Matt Joyce (.283/.345/.501, and he’s come back to life a bit of late). Robinson Chirinos (.250/.321/.354 in limited time) does the majority of the catching these days, though Kelly Shoppach will start against southpaws (.230/.337/.345 vs. LHP). Sean Rodriguez is a lefty masher (.274/.384/.505) and has been getting some regular playing time at shortstop (even against righties) because Reid Brignac (.193/.234/.219) and Elliot Johnson (.179/.242/.314) are terrible. Too bad Rodriguez isn’t much of a hitter against non-lefties (.175/.250/.263 vs. RHP). And then there’s Sam Fuld with his legendary .244/.309/.371 batting line, though I should note that he’s hitting .275/.362/.451 over the last month or so.
Rays On The Mound
Friday, LHP David Price (vs. CC Sabathia): The Yankees have seen Price three times this year, and he’s thrown one great game (7.1 IP, 2 R), one decent at best game (5 IP, 4 R), and one poor game (5 IP, 5 R). That’s actually in reverse chronological order, so he’s improved against New York each time out. Everyone knows Price’s shtick by now, he lives off his mid-90′s heat and will also throw a curveball, changeup, and occasional slider. His strikeout (8.68 K/9) and walk (2.14 BB/9) numbers are better than last season, but his homer rate (1.01 HR/9) is considerably worse. Price hasn’t been pitching all that well of late, with a 5.14 ERA in seven starts.
Saturday, RHP Jeremy Hellickson (vs. Phil Hughes): It took longer than expected, but the Yankees finally got their first crack at Hellickson the last time these clubs played, and he held them to two runs in seven innings. Remember he was supposed to start in the Bronx right before the All-Star break, but the game got rained out and Tampa skipped him. Hellickson is more of a command guy that a pure stuff guy, throwing his two and four-seamers right at 90 mph. His low-80′s changeup is his out pitch, and he’ll also mix in the occasional curveball. With strikeout (5.95 K/9) and ground ball (33.2%) rates that are less than stellar, Hellickson seems like a guy Yankee Stadium could eat alive. Tomorrow will be his first ever start there.
Sunday, RHP Jamie Shields (vs. Freddy Garcia): Another guy the Yankees have seen three times this year, Shields has shut New York down the last two times he faced them (8 IP, 1 R and 7.2 IP, 1 R), though his first start against them was merely pretty good (7 IP, 4 R). He’ll live off that world class changeup, setting it up with a low-90′s heater, a cutter, and a curveball that he continues to use more than ever. Shields has allowed no more than one run in four of his last six starts (two complete games), but in the other two he’s allowed six and ten runs. I’d count on the good version showing up this weekend.
Bullpen: Despite the continued success of Kyle freaking Farnsworth (2.56 FIP), Tampa actually has a bottom nine bullpen in MLB in terms of ERA (3.88), FIP (4.19), and xFIP (4.48). Joel Peralta (3.79 FIP) and Juan Cruz (3.57 FIP) have been fine in setup work, and Brandon Gomes (3.44 FIP) is starting to play a more prominent role. After those four you have three lefties are varying effectiveness. J.P. Howell has been terrible this season (5.60 FIP), which isn’t all that surprising since the guy missed a year and a half with major shoulder surgery. He does have value against same-side batters though (.217/.280/.283 vs. LHB). Cesar Ramos (4.98 FIP with no platoon split) has been sketchy, and hard-throwing Jake McGee’s dominant stretch after being recalled last month has came to an end about two weeks ago. He’s got a 6.01 FIP on the season.
The Yankees and Rays played each other a little over a week ago, when the Bombers took two of three at home. That was supposed to be a four game series, but Mother Nature got in the way. This one will be a four-gamer, the dome will make sure of it.
What Have The Rays Done Lately?
Played a lot of innings, that’s what. The Rays and Red Sox played 16 innings last night, with Tampa coming out on the wrong end of a 1-0 score. Those two teams split the first two games of their series, and the Rays have lost four of their last five series. They’re 3-6 since the end of interleague play, and three of those losses were shutouts. They’re six games back of the Yankees in the loss column for the wildcard.
Rays On Offense
Same set of guys we saw last weekend. The meat of the order is Johnny Damon (.275/.322/.420), Ben Zobrist (.266/.359/.474), Evan Longoria (.233/.317/.441), Casey Kotchman (.333/.393/.465), and B.J. Upton (.240/.422/.418), the guys that play every single day. Matt Joyce fouled a ball of his knee on Saturday that forced him from that game and kept him on the bench yesterday (other than a pinch-hitting appearance, when he fouled a ball off his toe), and his availability for this series is unclear. I’m sure we’ll see him at some point, either off the bench or starting. Either way, his excellent season line (.293/.353/.522) masks a .183/.236/.351 slump since the calender flipped to June.
Then you have everyone else. Sean Rodriguez crushes lefties (.306/.405/.556) but can’t touch righties (.169/.234/.297). Reid Brignac (.193/.236/.221) has kinda sorta taken the shortstop job back from Elliot Johnson (.209/.276/.357) with a recent hot streak (two multi-hit games in his last four contests). John Jaso (.255/.347/.371 vs. RHP) and Kelly Shoppach (.239/.363/.388 vs. LHP) typically platoon behind the dish. Tampa recently recalled third catcher Jose Lobaton, but he hurt his knee last night and could end up on the disabled list. Sam Fuld (.238/.296/.351) will make an appearance now and then, as will Justin Ruggiano (.259/.279/.439). The Rays have a pretty drastic home/road split, but not in the traditional way. As a team, they’ve hit .227/.296/.374 at Tropicana Field, but .258/.325/.416 away from home. It’s weird, the Trop has turned into a pretty extreme pitcher’s park over the last few years, suppressing offense to about 80% of the league average since the start of last season according to ESPN’s park factors. Don’t ask me to explain.
Rays On The Mound
Monday, RHP Alex Cobb (vs. A.J. Burnett): Uh oh, a rookie they’ve never seen before. At least this one isn’t a soft-tossing lefty. Cobb has made five spot starts for Tampa this season, all with generally good results. He gave up four runs in four innings in his debut, but he’s allowed no more than three runs in the other four games while failing to complete six innings only once. Cobb has struck out 19 and walked 12 in 29 IP, getting exactly 50% ground balls. He makes his living with a low-90′s two-seamer and a mid-80′s changeup that he’ll throw a pretty much any time. A high-70′s curveball is his third pitch, a mid-80′s slider his seldom used fourth offering. Cobb does have a pretty significant platoon split in both the majors and minors, which is odd given the changeup.
Tuesday, RHP Jeremy Hellickson (vs. Bartolo Colon): The Yankees were supposed to get Hellickson last week, but he was scheduled to start the game that was rained out, so Tampa skipped him. This start will be his first since July 3rd, so 16 days off. Maybe there will be some rust. Hellickson is another fastball-changeup-curveball guy, but his stuff and command is a full grade better than Cobb’s, if not more. His underlying performance this year isn’t great (5.90 K/9, 3.39 BB/9, 33.1% grounders), but he’s coming off a nice run of seven quality starts in his last eight outings. The Yankees haven’t seen him other than a handful of short relief appearances last season.
Wednesday, LHP David Price (vs. Freddy Garcia): Finally, someone we’re familiar with. The Yankees put ten men on base and scored four runs against Price last week (5 IP), and also scored five runs in five innings off him earlier this season. He lives off his mid-90′s two and four-seamers, throwing them a combined 70.7% of the time this season. A mid-80′s changeup and a high-70′s curve are his favorite two secondary pitches, and the high-80′s slider he used to dominate the SEC is basically a show-me offering these days. The Yankees have had some success against Price this year, but come on. You know how good he can be.
Thursday, RHP Jamie Shields (vs. CC Sabathia): The Yankees didn’t have any success against Shields last week; he limited them to four hits and one unearned run in eight innings. It took an otherworldly effort from Sabathia for them to win. Shields throws three low-90′s fastballs (four-seamer, two-seamer, cutter) but doesn’t use them that often. Just 40.1% of his pitches are fastballs. His hellacious low-80′s changeup is his go-to pitch, and he’s using his high-70′s curve more often this year (21.4%) than ever before. A mid-80′s slider will make an appearances every once in a while. Shields has been both very good and very bad against the Yankees in recent years, and they’ve seen enough of him to know what’s up.
Bullpen: The Rays played deep into the night yesterday, so their bullpen is pretty taxed on the moment. Both Juan Cruz (3.70 FIP) and Jake McGee ( 4.84 FIP in limited action) have pitched in each of the last three days. Cesar Ramos (4.66 FIP), Adam Russell (5.08 FIP), and Brandon Gomes (4.01 FIP in limited action) have each pitched in the last two days. The trio of Kyle Farnsworth (2.86 FIP), J.P. Howell (5.97 FIP), and Joel Peralta (3.85 FIP) each pitched yesterday as well as Friday. Tampa has to send someone down to call-up Cobb in time for tonight’s game, and it’ll almost certainly be Gomes after the threw three innings and 48 pitches last night. They’re definitely stretched a little thin at the moment, but most days they’re set in the eighth and ninth innings while being a little hit-or-miss elsewhere.
Recommended Rays Reading: DRays Bay
It’s July 7th, but somehow the Yankees and Rays have only played two games so far. That was back in mid-May, when the Yankees were in the middle of that ugly six-game losing streak. They dropped the first game but rebounded behind Ivan Nova to win the second, and that’s it. These two teams are going to see a lot of each other in the second half, I guess.
What Have The Rays Done Lately?
Tampa has won just four of their last nine games, and they needed an Alex Burnett (who?) meltdown to avoid being swept by the Twins yesterday. They’ve been playing just a touch better than .500 ball for about a month now, but they do have the third best record (48-39) and fourth best run differential (+35) in the American League.
Rays On Offense
Luckily for the Yankees, two of the Rays’ most important offensive players are battling injuries. Johnny Damon is expected to miss a few days with a left hand contusion after Francisco Liriano hit him with not one, but two pitches yesterday, and his .279/.327/.426 batting line will likely be replaced by Sam Fuld (.243/.304/.357) and/or Justin Ruggiano (.284/.308/.486 in limited action). Evan Longoria is playing with a nerve issue in his left foot, which is part of the reason why his season line sits at a pedestrian .243/.329/.471. No one likes to see anyone get hurt, but the fact of the matter is that those injuries have a tangible impact on the game.
Tampa’s offense has generally been reliant on two guys this season. Ben Zobrist is hitting .265/.349/.461 with the fourth most extra base hits (41) in the American League. We could see him play second or right or both in this series. Matt Joyce has a nifty .291/.352/.510 batting line, but that’s propped up by an early season hot streak and he’s hit just .160/.219/.298 since June 1st. A nagging shoulder issue has contributed to that somewhat. Casey Kotchman has been the mother of all surprises, sporting a .343/.401/.464 batting line while playing against both righties and lefties. B.J. Upton is the only other constant in the lineup, and he’s at .231/.318/.405.
The other lineup spots are one big revolving door. Sean Rodriguez (.323/.413/.585 vs. LHP) will platoon against southpaws, usually at second base with Zobrist shifting to the outfield. Elliot Johnson (.250/.388/.300 vs. LHP) will get some time at short as the offensively incompetent Reid Brignac (.187/.233/.217 overall) sees more and more time on the bench. John Jaso (.234/.288/.361 vs. RHP) and Kelly Shoppach (.222/.329/.333 vs. LHP) platoon behind the plate. As usual, Tampa will augment their offense with stolen bases, and the main culprits are Upton (20), Fuld (16), and Zobrist (eight). Damon (seven) will also run if he’s healthy enough to play.
Rays On The Mound
Thursday, RHP Jeff Niemann (vs. Bartolo Colon): The big (6-foot-9) right-hander just returned from the disabled list, missing just about all of May and most of June with a back issue. He’s been good (six shutout innings), bad (five runs in three innings), and good again (one run in six innings) in his three starts back, though all those games came against National League teams. Niemann’s fastballs (two and four-seamer) both sit in the low-90′s, mostly 91, and he backs them up with a curveball, a slider, and a little splitter-changeup hybrid thing that he’ll break out from time to time. The Yankees are familiar enough with Niemann and he’s a good matchup for them because he’s a big-time fly ball guy (39.9% grounders) and doesn’t miss many bats (5.63 K/9).
Friday, RHP Jeremy Hellickson (vs. Freddy Garcia): The rookie sensation has been more rookie than sensation so far. His shiny 3.21 ERA is backed up by underwhelming peripherals: 5.90 K/9, 3.39 BB/9, 33.1% grounders, a 4.29 FIP, and a 4.45 xFIP. Hellboy will sit right around 90 mph with a two and four-seamer, and his go-to secondary pitch is a low-80′s changeup that fades down and away from left-handers. He’ll also mix in a curveball. Hellickson has given up seven homers total in his last five starts, during which he’s pitching to a 4.50 ERA. The Yankees have seen him before but not really: just 3.2 IP across a pair of relief appearances last season. That might be a problem.
Saturday, LHP David Price (vs. A.J. Burnett): Because he wasn’t good enough last year, Price has gone ahead and knocked close to two full walks off his walk rate while increasing his strikeout rate this year. He’s the opposite of Hellickson in that his ERA (3.56) doesn’t do his underlying performance justice: 8.85 K/9, 1.67 BB/9, 42.7% grounders, a 2.73 FIP, and a 2.86 xFIP. Price lives of his fastball, legitimately sitting in the mid-90′s, and he’ll throw it straight, with some sink, or with some cut in on righties. A low-80′s changeup has become his top secondary weapon, but he’ll also show a curveball and a wipe-out slider. The Yankees have faced him once already this year (five runs in five innings) and have seen him several times over the last few years, but Price is one of those guys where it might not matter. It’s frontline stuff and if he’s on, he can beat anyone.
Sunday, RHP Jamie Shields (vs. CC Sabathia): Shields is in the middle of his best season ever, backing up his 2.47 ERA with a 3.07 FIP and 2.87 xFIP. He leads the league with six complete games, and he’s managed to get a handle on last year’s homerun trouble by upping his ground ball rate (45.3%). The improvement has to do with his curveball, which he’s throwing more than ever (21.1%) and in any count. Shields’ four and two-seamer still sits in the low-90′s, and of course he has that great changeup. The Yankees have seen plenty of Shields over the years and have already beaten him once this year (four runs in seven innings), but he’s certainly a tough assignment.
Bullpen: As unit, the Rays are middle of the pack in bullpen ERA (3.65) but bottom ten in FIP (4.10) and next-to-last in xFIP (4.30). Kyle Farnsworth has been very good in the ninth inning (2.08 ERA and 2.81 FIP) but he doesn’t strike out nearly as many batters as he once did (5.97 K/9). Joel Peralta has been solid as the setup man (3.63 ERA, 3.51 FIP) and J.P. Howell (8.56 ERA and 5.59 FIP in limited action) is working his way back into things after missing more than a year with shoulder surgery. Juan Cruz has been surprisingly solid in the middle innings (3.13 ERA and 3.40 FIP).
The rest of the bullpen isn’t anything to write home about. Lefty Cesar Ramos has a 4.05 ERA (4.94 FIP) and a reverse split, and big Adam Russell (6-foot-8, 255 lbs.) has just 12 strikeouts against 18 walks in 31 IP. He lives off his 53.8% ground ball rate. Long man Andy Sonnanstine (3.31 ERA, 4.42 FIP) never really pitches. He’s thrown just 16.1 IP this year and has appeared in only four games (one spot start) since June 1st. Tampa is okay in the late innings, but the middle innings could get interesting if the Yankees knock their starters out early enough.