May 29, 2013
Painting the Black
The All-Hit, No-Pitch Rays
On Saturday afternoon the Rays entered the ninth inning with a 3-1 lead over the Yankees. Fernando Rodney—months removed from an historically great season, but scuffling early this year—recorded two quick outs, and appeared on his way to righting a capsizing ship. Instead Rodney jumped overboard. He allowed three hits and sprinkled in a balk on his way to blowing the save and forcing extra innings. The Yankees won the game after 11 innings and sent the Rays to their 16th loss of the season in which they held a lead, tied for the second most in the league, according to research by Baseball Prospectus' Ryan Lind.
The longer a team succeeds, the more their key characteristics define them. For the Rays that means synonymity with good pitching and defense. Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon have overseen five consecutive winning seasons—including three playoff berths—behind units capable of pitching and catching as well as any in the league. Yet this Rays team has followed Rodney's lead, wasting away strong offensive performances with shaky work on the mound and good-but-not-great defensive work. Now in the middle of an identity crisis, the Rays need to figure out if they can return to form, or survive by winning slugfests in the spirit of their AL East rivals.
Teams with the Most Losses in Games with a Lead. 2013
When a team blows leads left and right the first suspect is often a shaky bullpen. Sure enough the Rays have the second-worst bullpen ERA in the majors with the peripherals to support their poor performance. Seven of their 16 blown leads have come during the final three innings, with four of those occurring in the ninth. Rodney, as the embattled closer with a history of control problems, is the easy target. However, finding clean innings from Rodney is easier than finding worthwhile performances from his bullpen mates—in fact, only Joel Peralta and Jamey Wright have ERAs better than the league average. Even previously reliable options have struggled, including Kyle Farnsworth and Jake McGee. Take McGee's stats as a microcosm of the group's problems: He's allowed two more runs, one more home run, and just one fewer walk in 2013 than he did all of last season.
Compounding the Rays' bullpen woes is an underperforming rotation. Although the rotation is eating innings, and Matt Moore and Alex Cobb are pitching well, the quality of those innings are questionable. Last year's Cy Young winner David Price started nine times before heading to the disabled list. He recorded just five quality starts, however, which would be the worst rate of his career since his rookie season. Price's fill-in, top prospect Jake Odorizzi, failed to notch five innings against the Marlins and the league's worst offense in his second start. Jeremy Hellickson has not pitched like himself, and that's a problem, while Roberto Hernandez has pitched like himself, and that's a problem.
While there's plenty of blame to pass around, the Rays position players have performed surprisingly well. For the first time since 2009, the Rays' offense ranks higher (tied for the fourth in True Average) than its defense (fifth in park-adjusted defensive efficiency). Unheralded offseason additions James Loney and Kelly Johnson, and low-cost returnee Luke Scott, have rebounded from poor 2012 seasons. In spite of the modest defensive ranking, the Rays must feel as though their defense could improve as the season progresses. Consider that Tampa Bay added good glovemen in Loney and Yunel Escobar to an already good defensive club—one that Maddon loves to shift with—and it should not surprise anyone if the Rays end the season with the league's top defense for the third time in six seasons. In actuality the only thing anchoring the Rays' defensive numbers could be a pitching staff that's yielding too much quality contact.
Tampa Bay's Defense by Year, 2008-2013
If the Rays' staff continues to struggle they have the ability to improve internally. Between Odorizzi and Chris Archer, the Rays should have at least one useful starting pitcher to add to the rotation full-time as the year progresses. There are fewer sure things in the bullpen, yet starting prospects Alex Torres and Alex Colome—both of whom may be forced to the bullpen due to command woes—could slide into relief to stop the bleeding. Shy of those two, the closest thing the Rays have to an impact relief prospect is Josh Lueke, who struggled with Triple-A hitters last season but has the power arsenal that teams look for in late-inning relievers.
Should the Rays opt for an external solution don't expect them to make a headline-grabbing trade. Friedman's most recent deals for relievers saw him trade cash or too-old relief prospects to net the likes of Chad Bradford, Russ Springer, and Chad Qualls. The last time Friedman traded a player with big-league experience for a reliever in-season came back in 2007, when he swapped Seth McClung for Grant Balfour and Ty Wigginton for Dan Wheeler. The Rays value their depth above all else, so Friedman is likely to add low-cost solutions. To wit, one pitcher the Rays reportedly have interest in is free-agent southpaw Jordan Norberto, who has good stuff but continues to deal with a strained elbow.
For veteran Rays fans this season feels too much like the 2009 season. Back then, the Rays wasted franchise-best offensive production behind relatively shoddy pitching and defense. The bad news is the Rays have put themselves in a bit of a hole. The good news is they have the talent and the time to get back on track, and to hold true to their identity.
Special thanks to Ryan Lind for research assistance.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .