[By way of introduction, the following post is by Chris Glover, a Rays fan born in England and currently freezing his tukas off in Toronto. Chris sent me an email asking if I'd be interested in some contributions. When I heard his story -- dude is a Rays and Bucs fan from England, how frickin' cool is that? -- I jumped on it. He came through in fine fashion sending in the following post while I was at a bachelor party in New York. Talk about clutch. I am in no condition to think critically at this moment. But seriously, I am going to write again. I swear. For now, welcome Chris to The Ray Area.]
Bottom of the division and three games out after just a couple of weeks of play. Holes throughout the line-up along with one of our stars on the DL suggests it’s going to be a long and likely unsatisfying season for the Rays. Excluding a couple of big games, the sputtering offense is averaging just over four runs per outing with three quarters of the infield registering a combined average of .208 while the main offensive contributor has been an outfielder not even expected to start.
The back end of the rotation has struggled in the majority of their starts with only one registering a sub-4.00 ERA after a couple of starts. The new look bullpen looks shaky at best and Maddon’s ability to get the most out of a rag-tag group of misfits may have met it’s match.
The Yankees are off to their usual ominous start while the Jays and Orioles look to have taken the next step and might be real challengers in the East this year. Sure, the Sox have struggled out of the gates but so long as they have talent like Youkilis, Ellsbury, Ortiz and Pedroia they will always be a threat.
All these problems seem to conspire against the Rays and t looks like they will once again take their place at the bottom of the AL East. Wait, you knew we were previewing the AL Championship 2008 season, right? [Mark's note -- when I first read this intro I thought Chris was playing an April Fool's joke on me. Tricky little bugger, eh? See what I did there? I went all British for a minute.]
It is ridiculous to rule out any team after 10 games but for a team like Tampa Bay it seems even more absurd given their recent history of success using unconventional means and their refusal to panic with their collective backs to the wall. In that historic ’08 season the Rays found themselves at 3-5 and 8-11 with their starting pitching erratic (including an injured Garza) and several players struggling to consistently get on base. One of the key themes Joe Maddon liked to point out is that he and his staff trust the process and if they are loyal to it, the results will come.
Just like that team didn’t panic after Andy Sonnanstine logged an 8.80 ERA after three starts, we shouldn’t panic about Jeff Niemann’s 8.31 mark this year. In fact, given his 18.8% home run/fly ball rate (compared with a career average of 10.3%) and an xFIP – which eliminates the effect of fielding errors and that unsustainably high home run rate on a player’s ERA – three whole runs below his ERA there’s reason to believe Niemann can bounce back to be a solid 4th / 5th starter very soon.
Shields has registered two of his better starts in the past 18 months already (in terms of Baseball’s Reference’s Win Probability Added) including his best since May 2009. Hellickson has enjoyed two good starts of different quality, fanning 10 against the Angels and holding the Red Sox to just two earned runs on five hits. If Wade Davis can build on his excellent start against the Twins (7 IP, 4 H, 2 BB, 1 ER) then Tampa’s starting rotation looks even better than expected at the start of the season and needs to be ranked right alongside the Phillies and Giants. It’s notable that those same Giants have managed just 4 runs more than the Rays but no one is ready to blow them up just yet.
Granted, the bats haven’t fully warmed up just yet but since Manny’s retirement Damon has sprung into life (.333/.357/1.024) and has hit safely in every game, Joyce has 9 hits over the past four games and, of course, there’s the legend of Sam Fuld. With Longoria on the mend and Upton enjoying one of his better starts to a season in recent memory (.262/.354/.807) you have to feel the runs will come around to help out the pitching and the Rays will be right back in the mix for a long season in the East.
Someone once said that those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it, so stay away from the panic button, put on our Sam Fuld capes, and enjoy what is already shaping up to be a fun summer to be a Rays fan.