“Playing the Percentages” – A Tampa Bay Rays preview

Mr. Burns: “Wait! You! Strawberry! Good effort today. Take a lap and hit the showers. I’m putting in a right-handed batter to hit for you.

Daryl Strawberry: “What? You’re pinch-hitting for ME?

Mr. Burns: “Yes. You see, you’re a left-hander and so is the pitcher. If I send up a right-handed batter, it’s called playing the percentages. It’s what smart managers do to win ball games.

Strawberry: “But I’ve got nine home runs today!

Mr. Burns: “You should be very proud. Sit down. Simpson! You’re batting for Strawberry!

When I looked it up, I was surprised to see that last year was the Tampa Bay Rays’ first winning season since 2013. It seems like they’re always much more competitive than they should be, and I thought they had been doing substantially better. I suppose the two lessons here are 1) seeming competitive-like isn’t the same as actually competing and 2) rooting for the White Sox tends to make one look at other franchises through rose-colored glasses.

Regardless, last season’s 90-win performance was both unexpected and impressive. That Tampa Bay managed to pull it off despite mid-season trades of Chris Archer, Alex Colome, Wilson Ramos, Brad Miller, Nathan Eovaldi, Jonny Venters, Matt Andriese, and Adeiny Hechavarria made it all the more notable. There’s nothing fun about having to go up against the Yankees and Red Sox every year on a comparably tiny payroll, yet somehow the Rays find a way to give them a run for their money. They’re poised to do so again this year. One asset the Rays have is a horde of guys who are adept at getting on base. Here’s the 2018 OBPs of some Tampa Bay players that project to get a fair amount of playing time.

When you have seven guys that can get on base like that, you’re going to have plenty of scoring opportunities. Of the lineup regulars not mentioned, Kevin Kiermaier and Mike Zunino are significant assets defensively, Austin Meadows slugged .771 at Durham after coming over in the Chris Archer trade, and Brandon Lowe is a lefty slugger that swatted 28 homers across three levels (including the majors) last season. There’s great hope that all of Tampa’s frequently-used position players will be strong contributors in some fashion.

In particular, Pham is expected to be the key cog in the lineup. The 31-year-old posted an OPS of 1.070 after coming over from the Cardinals in a shrewd trade last season. Choi and Lowe should provide plenty of power behind him, and the Rays are batting Meadows leadoff in hopes he can spark the attack. It’s a well-constructed, dangerous offense.

On the pitching side of things, last year the Rays experimented extensively with the concept of an “opener”, a reliever that starts the game for an inning or two before turning the game over to another pitcher that handles the bulk of the middle innings. It looks like they’re going to continue that trend this season, as they’re only listing three starting pitchers. Lefty Ryan Yarbrough and righty Yonny Chirinos were called upon most often to soak up innings after the opener, with the thought that manager Kevin Cash can wreak havoc on opposing managers’ platoon designs, since they have to set their lineups before knowing who they’re going to face the bulk of the game. Neither the soft-tossing Yarbrough or the sinker-slinging Chirinos is particularly imposing, but Cash has gotten the best out of both by playing matchups.

In the realm of traditional starting pitchers, the Rays boast the reigning AL Cy Young award winner in lefty Blake Snell. Snell upped his curveball usage last season and was just as hard to score on as peak Pedro Martinez. Snell’s peripherals don’t quite hold up to Pedro’s, but he’s an ace in every sense of the word. The Rays made one of the best moves of the offseason in signing Charlie Morton away from Houston. Morton’s become a force since suddenly gaining extra velocity in 2016, and under the Astros’ tutelage, his spin rate spiked, making him a legitimate number-two starter when he’s able to stay on the field.

Also encouraging is Tyler Glasnow, of Jose Quintana trade rumor lore. Glasnow was returned to the rotation upon his arrival in Tampa Bay and was able to demonstrate better control than he had in Pittsburgh. He throws hard and leans heavily on his fastball, which is a legitimate swing-and-miss offering. He may yet deliver on the potential everyone saw in him when he was a top-10 prospect in baseball. The Rays also have top prospect Brent Honeywell on the mend from Tommy John surgery and could see him pitching as soon as May.

***

The Rays have depth, top-end talent, and ingenuity that should keep them in the mix against the AL East juggernauts for much of this season. Even if they can’t stun the world and take the AL East, a Wild Card berth isn’t so hard to envision, and whether it’s the use of openers or aggressive platooning, you know the Rays will keep playing the percentages to get there, no matter how unconventional the method. The next $80 million payroll that Tampa Bay runs out there will be their first, and whatever your thoughts on their penny-pinching ways, one can’t deny how impressive their management has been in their ability to do more with less.

Probable Starting Pitchers

  • Monday, April 8: Carlos Rodon vs. TBD (the Rays make it tough on me, too)
  • Tuesday, April 9: Ervin Santana vs. Blake Snell
  • Wednesday, April 10: Reynaldo Lopez vs. Charlie Morton

Probable Lineup

  1. Austin Meadows – RF
  2. Tommy Pham – LF
  3. Ji-Man Choi – 1B
  4. Brandon Lowe – 2B
  5. Yandy Diaz – 3B
  6. Avisail Garcia – DH
  7. Kevin Kiermaier – CF
  8. Willy Adames – SS
  9. Mike Zunino – C

Pitching

  • SP1: Blake Snell – LHP
  • SP2: Charlie Morton – RHP
  • SP3: Tyler Glasnow – RHP
  • “SP4”: Ryan Yarbrough – LHP
  • “SP5”: Yonny Chirinos – RHP
  • CL: Jose Alvarado – LHP
  • RP1: Chaz Roe – RHP
  • RP2: Jalen Beeks – LHP
  • RP3: Diego Castillo – RHP
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Patrick Nolan
Patrick Nolan
Articles: 91
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As Cirensica

Loving the Simpson’s references. This one is fantastic.

lil jimmy

Baseball on the cheap for over 20 years. Your Tampa Bay Rays

karkovice squad

Cheap but innovative is better than just cheap.

Ted Mulvey

My favorite Simpsons episode.

karkovice squad

They’ve also leaned in hard on trying to build a roster of multipositional Zobrists.

ParisSox

I saw The Zobrists when they opened for Arcade Fire