By Marc Normandin
It seems like we go through this every year. The Rays start out slow, they are written off by the same people who were gunning for them as playoff favorites just mere weeks ago, and then they turn it on and end up playing into October. In 2014, it's more of the same, as the Rays find themselves 18-23 halfway through May, in last place in the American League East and with the second-worst record in the Junior Circuit.
As with the other times, though, there is little reason to panic. Yeah, the Rays are under .500 at the moment, but the AL is packed tightly, to the point the Rays are just 3.5 games out of the AL East lead in spite of themselves, and only three games out of a wild card spot, too. They've dealt with injuries and stars underperforming, and yet here they are, a high-quality week from erasing any early-season doubts and wrecking the pitches of writers wondering how late into the summer is too late for the Rays to deal David Price.
Unlike with last year's slow start, the lineup is actually hitting this time around. Matthew Joyce, James Loney and David DeJesus are leading the charge with OPS+ of 135, 128, and 142, respectively, and center fielder Desmond Jennings finally seems to be breaking out at the plate with his .255/.348/.423 line -- remember, Tropicana Field is pitcher-friendly, so what looks like a merely decent line from Jennings is actually good for a 118 OPS+. While the non-Joyce players of the bunch might not keep things up to these levels, they might not have to, either, as the Rays have managed an above-average offensive attack despite the fact that Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist and Wil Myers have all been relatively disappointing. (Zobrist also dislocated his thumb on Wednesday, an injury likely to send him to the disabled list.)
Longoria is one of baseball's stars, a player who has managed to bat .274/.356/.507 (135 OPS+) in his career despite spending it in a park built for pitchers in a division loaded with talented opposition. His .271/.327/.406 line is well below expectations, but Longoria hasn't given anyone reason to be concerned long-term. Even the best hitters slump, and Longoria slumping still has him as an above-average bat. When he starts driving the ball over the wall again, the Rays lineup will be that much better. Zobrist might not see the same jump once he's healthy, as his performances have been far more all over the place, but so long as he continues to play quality defense and produce an above-average line, the Rays will be able to survive.
That's especially true if Myers gets out of his funk. The 23-year-old Rookie of the Year recipient is having a difficult start to his sophomore campaign, batting .250/.309/.382. Early in the year, he was expanding his zone a bit, and pitchers seemed a little wiser to his weaknesses -- such as pitches down and away -- than they were a year ago when he burst onto the scene and became a major part of the Rays' summer surge. If he can adjust and bust out of this slump as good hitters tend to do, however, we'll all forget about this slow start.
Pitching is where the real problem is at the moment, thanks in no small part due to Matt Moore's season-ending elbow surgery. Price has been pitching nearly seven innings per start, but his ERA is just below league-average. The former is more likely to last than the latter, so if Price gets his act together soon, that's one problem solved. Considering he's already the owner of a 2.57 ERA and 21 innings over three May starts in which he's posted a 23-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, you might even say said act is already together. Then there is Alex Cobb, who has been limited to just three starts this year thanks to an oblique injury. The Rays are hopeful he'll return within the next week, giving them back their second-best starter back in a rotation that desperately needs an upgrade on that designation.
Chris Archer is a problem area at the moment, but he shouldn't be. His peripherals look similar to last season's, when he broke out with a 23-start effort and 118 ERA+, but this time around he's seeing far more hits drop in. His batting average on balls in play has shot up to .345, which is even loftier relative to the average than it normally sounds thanks to Tropicana's tendency to limit offense, and that's ruining his season. Like with Myers, Archer is a better player than this: he's dealing with some second-season issues that he's just going to have to adjust to in order to become a productive player for the Rays once more. The talent is certainly there, and the sooner he's able to turn it around, the sooner the Rays can make their push to erase their sub-par start to the year.
Ideally, the Rays' rotation has Price doing this Cy Young-caliber thing, followed by a healthy Cobb, and then Archer as at least a capable, inning-eating mid-rotation arm worthy of a contender. That still leaves two spots open, one of which seems to be in working order thanks to veteran southpaw Erik Bedard, and the other occupied by rookie Jake Odorizzi, the less-mentioned portion of the Myers/James Shields trade between the Royals and Rays.
If Odorizzi improves, great: the Rays can keep the career of one of their talented young rotation pieces going. If he continues to struggle, he can be displaced once Jeremy Hellickson returns from the disabled list. Hellickson is currently throwing bullpen sessions, so that time might not be so far off. If the Rays are impatient with Odorizzi, they can also option him to Triple-A once Cobb returns, and continue to rely on Bedard and reliever Cesar Ramos until Hellickson's return. In short, they have options, and said options have been keeping them afloat while Price figures himself out, Archer struggles and Cobb works his way back from injury.
Their start isn't ideal, but when you consider their best hitter hasn't taken off and their best pitcher is just getting going in conjunction with the rotation injuries, things are looking pretty good in Tampa Bay. It's a long season, and they aren't even two full months into it yet, so a 3.5-game deficit is barely worth registering. Yes, their record is poor, and their standing is not optimal, but the full strength of this roster will return soon, and likely without the rest of the American League having taken advantage of the Rays at their weakest. They're no guarantee to win the division, necessarily, as these losses are in the bank, but so are those of everyone who has failed to push far ahead of them while they struggled. There is a whole lot of season left, and the Rays, as they do, will likely thrive during it.
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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 BaseballProspectus, ESPN, and others. You can follow him on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin