By Marc Normandin
The Rays are in last place in the American League East. They dropped three straight to the Red Sox, then lost the first of a three-game set with the Orioles before finally winning on Wednesday. There isn't much going right with any aspect of the club at the moment, and in a division that's going to be as tightly packed as the AL East, a rough start like this could end up costing them months from now.
To paraphrase a wise, talking tree voiced by Indiana Jones' sidekick, however, let's not be hasty. It's mid-April, and all last place means is that you can count the games the Rays are out of a playoff spot with Mordecai Brown's right hand. Unless the reality of the situation is that their lineup is orders of magnitudes worse than that of the Houston Astros -- and no one thought that was the case just three weeks ago -- things will change, likely soon enough to make everyone forget about this unfortunate 2013 origin story.
Let's start with that lineup. Heading into Wednesday's action, Evan Longoria was hitting .302/.404/.442, good for a 140 OPS+, or about 40 percent better than your average hitter. The perpetually underrated Ben Zobrist is sporting a similar line with a 143 OPS+. Kelly Johnson and Desmond Jennings have both been a bit better than average, but after that, the entire lineup has been a mess. Matthew Joyce has been even more ineffective than Longoria and Zobrist have been effective. Unsurprisingly, James Loney has not been hitting at all. Then there is Yunel Escobar, who has four hits in his first 45 at-bats, and just four walks propping that up. Sam Fuld, who has somehow hit even worse than that, has played in 13 of the Rays' 14 games.
Yeah, it's easy to make fun of Loney, and Sam Fuld probably shouldn't have 27 plate appearances through mid-April, either. The key is that this isn't the lineup the Rays are going to have all year, in multiple meanings of that thought. Joyce, who has struggled, hit .256/.347/.460 from 2010 through 2012, and did so with half of his games coming in one of the game's least-friendly parks for hitters. It might surprise you to find out that Joyce's 125 OPS+ in that stretch ranks 35th in the majors (minimum 1,200 plate appearances), right behind Carlos Santana and Andre Ethier, and ahead of Carlos Quentin, Alex Gordon, Nick Swisher, Kevin Youkilis and others many fans would list off as better hitters than Joyce. Toiling away in a pitcher's park will cause that kind of anonymity. In short, he's just 28 years old, and won't be terrible forever.
The same goes for Escobar. He has his problems in terms of attitude, and you can't just wave those away. Just in terms of performance, though, he's hit more than enough for the light-hitting position of shortstop, and his glove makes up for whatever his bat doesn't provide. He might not light up the scoreboard like Joyce at the plate, but he'll be more than adequate at the position -- that's not something the Rays have been able to say since the days that Jason Bartlett was useful, so adequacy is no small thing.
Shelley Duncan has been awful as the designated hitter, and like the other two, has been better in his recent career than this. However, even if he doesn't rebound, the Rays will eventually get Luke Scott back from the disabled list. Despite back issues and an abdomen strain, Scott was able to post a perfectly average OPS+ in 2012 with the Rays -- more of that would go a long way towards improving their current record, and if a healthy Scott looks more like the Orioles version, so much the better for Tampa Bay.
Then there's the wild card hanging out in Triple-A Durham at the moment: Wil Myers. The outfielder, acquired in the James Shields' deal this offseason with the Royals, is one of the game's top offensive prospects, and the Rays are hiding him away in the minors until his service time situation is to their liking. He should be up before too much of 2013 has passed, though, and will likely boost the offense even if he doesn't explode out of the gate. He's hit .305/.383/.541 in 110 games at Triple-A (granted, most of that came in the offense-heavy Pacific Coast League). When he's set up to take at-bats away from the anemic bat of Fuld, you can deal with something below that level from a rookie. In reality, his bat will be replacing that of the departed B.J. Upton's. While Upton was good, he was rarely great at the plate for the Rays, and owned a 108 OPS+ in his last year in Tampa Bay. Jennings should be able to replicate that with his bat and fill-in for Upton with his glove, so if Myers can come up and be similarly above-average offensively, there is nothing lost here from that moment forward.
There is no obvious solution for fixing Loney or first base, but if he can just move back to his regular brand of disappointing at the plate, and continue to field a pretty first base, then the Rays should get just enough out of the position. At least, they'll be better off than they are now, with these small-sample issues, and might even come out ahead of 2012, when Carlos Pena hit all of .190/.330/.354, and without the defense that he used to flash at first, too.
Just to show how off the whole lineup is, as a team, the Rays have just a .242 batting average on balls in play, or, 42 points lower than last year's average-ish squad. That sort of thing will even out over time -- once, say, the liners Jennings is hitting manage to avoid a glove -- and when it does, the Rays' lineup still might not look outright impressive, but it will start to score some runs.
That's where the pitching comes in. No, it hasn't been great to start, and there's a very good chance their rotation will be worse than what they're used to, given Shields isn't around and they're already down a Jeff Niemann. That being said, last year's Cy Young winner David Price isn't going to be toting around an ERA of nearly 6.00 all season long, Jeremy Hellickson should similarly improve, and if Roberto Hernandez -- the former Fausto Carmona -- doesn't work out, they still have Chris Archer to turn to in the minors. Archer is something of a forgotten man at this point since the Rays are slow to push their pitchers to the majors until they need them or have opened a spot for them on occasion, but he's all of 24 years old, has around 30 innings of big-league experience, and was Baseball America's No. 36 prospect heading into 2013. He's struck out nearly 10 batters per nine at Triple-A in 156 innings, and the next time he's up, it's likely for good.
So, no Shields, but you still have a rotation with an upside of a Cy Young winner; a 26-year-old Hellickson with a career 122 ERA+; 24-year-old Matt Moore in what could be a breakout season after a quality second half in his rookie year; Alex Cobb, who has been average in his 200-plus big-league innings; and then Archer and whatever his potential means. That's strong, even in a tough division, and if the lineup can turn itself around quickly, it should be more than enough to keep the Rays in the race all season long. If something else goes down that requires even more dipping into the depth, they also have Jake Odorizzi (No. 92 prospect) and Alex Torres (should he work things out in Triple-A with his mechanical changes) at their disposal.
Their defense should still be exceptional, as all the usual suspects (sans Upton) are there. The bullpen might not be as good as last year's, but that was going to be hard to top anyway considering Fernando Rodney's record-setting season. It's still a pen with Rodney, future closer Jake McGee, Joel Peralta (132 ERA+ over the last four years) and Kyle Farnsworth (130 over the same stretch), though, and that should get the job done once the starters hand the ball over.
With a lineup that should be able to not only move in the right direction, but also upgrade from within thanks to returning players and promoted ones, and a rotation that rivals that of any other in the AL East, it's too early to discount the Rays. They've played this game before, where injuries to someone like Longoria or a rough early start get people thinking they just can't overcome the juggernauts of the AL East. Despite this, they've made the playoffs in three of the last five years in what has been for most of that stretch baseball's toughest division. Just because the Blue Jays fancy themselves contenders this year doesn't mean a slow April has doomed the Rays.
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Marc Normandin writes and edits for Over the Monster, a Boston Red Sox blog, as well as SB Nation's baseball hub. He's one of many behind the e-book " The Hall of Nearly Great," and has written for Baseball Prospectus, ESPN, and others. You can follow him on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.