The Ray-Do: Can I get a mulligan on Tampa Bay?

While streaming my awesome-binge-watch show of choice during some downtime yesterday afternoon (I’m now on to season 3 of The Wire after finishing Breaking Bad a couple of weeks ago), one particular internet pop-up caught my eye. This site wasn’t as sinister as it may at first sound – I only noticed it because it pictured Tony Parker hypothetically rising up for a dunk (I know, never going to happen right…). It was in fact, an advert for the Bovada Sportsbook.

Anyhow, this illicit prompt triggered a memory of a gambling-related post I wrote way back in Spring Training whilst March Madness was taking place, ‘Busted Bracket? Try some baseball betting!’, a piece in which I unfortunately expressed the following sentiment:

I love, love, LOVE me some Rays action this year… I’ll be taking them to win the whole darn thing. With David Price still leading a loaded pitching staff, Wil Myers’ mighty presence in the offense all year, and Joe Maddon’s usual defense/matchup innovation, at +1500 on sportsbook.com, Tampa Bay represent a terrific value to go all the way.

Sound logic at the time, but boy… just yikes. With the benefit of hindsight (well, about a third of a seasons worth of results anyway), it’s clear there are plenty of rough calls in that piece (hey Prince Fielder: HR Champ!), but that one truly sticks out. Rather than live up to the hype that infected not just I, but numerous other baseball prognosticators too, the Rays have been truly abysmal so far in 2014, and are showing little signs of turning things around (they’re currently on a 6-game losing streak). What has changed then, for the Rays to so suddenly fall off the wagon?

Jonah Keri did a great job of breaking the Ray’s slow start back on May 14th in a piece asking pretty much the same question, ‘Why Do the Preseason Darling Rays Suddenly Look Like the Devil Rays?’. At that point, they were 16-23, and only 4½ games out of first place in the AL East. In other words, there was still some hope, and Keri managed to find some silver linings (I will not plumb the pun depths for ‘Rays of hope’). Since then however, things have continued on in the wrong direction; the Rays are now 23-34, and 4 games back of fourth place, let alone the 10.5 games behind Toronto in first. Their chances of reaching the playoffs now sit at a paltry 5.3%.

The rash of pitching injuries that Keri cited, decimating the starting rotation, remain the inherent problem. Matt Moore is of course out for the year after undergoing tommy John surgery, while Jeremy Hellickson is still yet to make his debut after starting the season on the disabled list. Alex Cobb, after missing time with an oblique strain, is back at least, but his helpful return (I liked him as a good dark horse at 33/1 to win the AL Cy Young award), hasn’t been enough to offset the combination of bad luck and below-par performance currently afflicted David Price; the nominal ace of the Rays staff has a 4.27 ERA after 12 starts, but a 3.24 FIP.

Price hasn’t been alone in his struggles – young starters Chris Archer (4.00 ERA, 1.43 WHIP) and Jake Odorizzi (5.13 and 1.54 in the same categories) have been remained healthy, but have failed to live up to expectations. Combined with their relative ineffectiveness (Tampa as a whole has only 19 quality starts this year, last in the majors), throw in the lack of stamina of Erik Bedard and Cesar Ramos, the other two pitchers to have started for the Rays this year, and the bullpen has been taxed – hard. Grant Balfour and Joel Peralta, previously excellent high-leverage relievers, both sport horrendous numbers. Josh Lueke remains horrid, on and off the field. Only Jake McGee has really excelled in the usual Tampa Bay reliever fashion.

But the Rays haven’t been much better on offense either. After securing AL ROY honors last year, Wil Myers was expected to play Robin to Evan Longoria‘s Batman. Instead, Myers has experienced a brutal sophomore slump (not in his bat-flip game mind you), and was hitting only just .227 with a .666 OPS before he was placed on the DL with an ailing wrist over the weekend. Longoria meanwhile, with 5 home runs and a 98 OPS+ mark, has been anonymous as one of the Joker’s masked henchmen, and unable to buoy an offense anchored by the worst catching production in the majors thus far; for all of Jose Molina‘s and Ryan Hanigan‘s framing abilities, a combined .182/.254/.257 triple slash line with terrible base running should be unacceptable.

As Keri pointed out too, there’s not much help on the way; in addition to drafting terribly over the past few years, and graduating a lot of the prospects who did in fact make it (Price, Desmond Jennings, Moore, Myers kind of etc.), the Rays are tapped out financially. Team GM Andrew Friedman acknowledged as such after a winter in which management gave out multiyear deals to the aforementioned Balfour, Hanigan, and James Loney, and then made an expensive mistake on Heath Bell; at over $80 million, this years payroll is a franchise record, and unsustainable in the long-term.

With Toronto streaking away, Baltimore’s free-agency commitment to winning now, Boston turning it around, and New York looking capable of an above .500 season, contending for the AL East in 2014 is already looking out of the question for the Rays. Besot by injuries, bad luck, and bad form, the trades might soon be coming in order to address that depleted talent pool and over-extended budget, David Price being the obvious candidate to be moved. The rebuild could be well and truly on by October, when by my prediction, they should have been playing for a championship.

The Rays are now +3500 to win it all. And it’s no longer even a decent value play.

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