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Behind Enemy Lines: Talking Tigers-Rays with DRaysBay

Danny Russell of DRaysBay gave us some inside info on the Rays prior to this week's upcoming series at Tropicana Field.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Last season's series between the Detroit Tigers and Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field was wrought with storylines. Less than three weeks after a blockbuster trade that sent David Price to Detroit and fan favorite Drew Smyly the other direction, the road trip was a homecoming for Price. He dazzled in his return to Tampa, throwing a one-hitter with nine strikeouts. Unfortunately, the Tigers still lost that game, and the problems we noticed then are still prevalent today.

Meanwhile, the Rays are dealing with a rash of injuries that Tigers fans wouldn't wish on anyone, save for maybe the Minnesota Twins. Despite this and their usual small-market payroll constraints, the Rays have managed to stay in contention.

As apathetic as we may feel about the Tigers at this point, this week's series is actually relevant in the AL playoff picture. So, in an attempt to drum up some animosity (or interest, at the very least), we spoke with Danny Russell of DRaysBay, SB Nation's excellent Rays community. You can read my responses to Danny's questions over at their site.

1. The Rays didn’t get much love from the national media after a busy offseason, but as is the Tampa way, they are still in the playoff hunt in late July. Entering Sunday, they are four games behind in the AL wild card race. How do you think the Rays’ season has gone thus far? Do you think they have a realistic shot at the postseason?

This Rays season has been a complete miracle, with something like 30 different players that are (or would have been) on the 25-man roster spending time on the disabled list. This includes three players rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, and the Rays missing their closer to a different elbow surgery. Somehow, the replacements came through and at one point pushed the Rays 10 games above .500. However, the bottom fell out and not even the All-Star break has turned things around.

So it’s hard to feel great about the Rays right now. The big names need to turn it around (Evan Longoria, John Jaso, James Loney, Steven Souza), and the role players need to step up their game (career-year candidates Logan Forsythe, Joey Butler). Until that happens, no, I don’t think it’s a realistic shot, but with so many players returning from injury, I guess it’s like the Rays have already shaken things up.

As for the lack of media attention: The Rays aren’t the sort of team to load up for one big season. Unlike any other team in baseball, they are constantly straddling the line of being "competitive enough" in the AL East, and loading up for the future by dumping expiring contracts for good prospects. That hardly wins over the fans, let alone the national media.

2. The biggest move of the Rays’ offseason didn’t impact their 40-man roster, but rather their front office. General manager Andrew Friedman departed for greener pastures (read: bank accounts) in Los Angeles, and former manager Joe Maddon is now in Chicago. Who are their replacements, and how have they done?

Matt Silverman steps into the GM role after serving as team president, though during his tenure with the Rays he joined in most of the personnel decisions. When Friedman left, he literally took no one with him too, so the braintrust that has run the Rays since 2006 is still there. It’s more of a re-shuffling, and removing one key piece by moving everyone else a step up. Kind of like the Rays rotation every season.

Maddon is replaced by rookie manager Kevin Cash, who is a true freshman to the profession. A local kid who played for the dog-days Devil Rays and graduated from Florida State, Cash spent one year in the Blue Jays front office as a scout, and then two years under Terry Francona as the bullpen coach. Cash earned a great reputation every step of the way. He was a finalist for the Rangers' manager opening early in the offseason, but declined what I believe was the bench coach role, and that was to the Rays’ benefit. Cash’s hiring was somewhat of a homecoming, and while he’s far less verbose and more introverted than Joe Maddon, in many ways he has been far more aggressive in his saber-decisions, particularly with the bullpen and use of his bench. He’s well supported by the Rays and his staff, even if the fans aren’t used to his style. When Maddon left he only took the bench coach Dave Martinez with him, but only after Martinez resigned when he was not named a manager finalist.

3. One of the more shocking moves of the offseason was the Rays offloading 2013 AL Rookie of the Year Wil Myers to the San Diego Padres in exchange for a bunch of dudes, including catcher Rene Rivera and outfielder Steven Souza. How has the deal worked out for Tampa so far?

The deal was surprising, to be sure, but rumor had it the "Rays Way" wasn’t jiving with Myers, so it’s been quite palatable for those paying attention. His replacement, Steven Souza Jr., hasn’t risen to the occasion quite yet, with far too many strikeouts to his name, but Myers has been injured yet again, so for the Rays it’s been ok.

Rene Rivera’s outstanding offense from 2014 didn’t make it on the plane from San Diego, but the catcher has been everything the Rays wanted from him: great pitch framing, great pitch calling, a solid glove. He could bat below .100 and this front office would be happy. It’s not inspiring to watch on TV, but he seems quite capable.

4. Correct me if I’m wrong, but one of the most encouraging aspects of 2015 has to be the emergence of Chris Archer as an absolute stud atop Tampa’s rotation. He has a 2.67 ERA and 2.62 FIP in 134 2/3 innings, and his strikeout rate only trails a couple of guys named Kershaw and Sale. Is there any particular factor that has keyed his breakout? What’s better: his slider or his socks?

You are not wrong! Archer is everything an ace should be, and has more than risen to the occasion of stepping in the shoes left by the David Price trade and Alex Cobb's Tommy John surgery. It was a year sooner than his development road map may have asked, but I couldn’t be prouder of who Archer is both on and off the field.

He has heavily invested his time and money into youth programs around the Tampa Bay area, and even spends time mentoring wherever travel takes him, be it in the offseason in South Africa or mid-season in Toronto. He is quite well read, but also a joy to have around. With Longoria in a two-year power slump, Archer is quickly blossoming into the face of the Rays.

His slider and his stripes are all part of the same sense of style, and it’s hard to separate the two. It’s hard to pin point his development on any one factor. Really it’s just a manner of a boy maturing into a man.

5. What in the world did you guys do to Drew Smyly?! On a serious note, national pundits thought the Rays’ return for trading David Price was a little light, and a hobbled Smyly and ineffective Nick Franklin haven’t helped. What are your thoughts on the trade a year later?

What did YOU do to Drew Smyly!? He was killing it, but a shoulder labrum tear has slowed him down. He is rehabbing it now because the team believes it might have been an old injury merely discovered upon close inspection of some shoulder tendonitis. His rehab starts begin shortly, and we’re quite excited to have him back.

Smyly was everything we asked him to be, a proxy for Price as the rotation southpaw with dominant stuff, upgraded through an elevated fastball. Franklin has had a tough go of things, dealing with injuries and not having consistent playing time. I need to see more to know if Franklin can transcend Quad-A status, but as of the spring (re: pre-injury) he was the anticipated everyday second baseman.

Then there’s Willy Adames, and I have to tell you: the Rays scouting department really did well with that acquisition. His bat looks to be major-league caliber, even if the development is a few years off. The defense looks to be holding its own at short, and even last fall he was embraced as a team leader. Newly dubbed "King Cobra" for the coil in his swing, I think we’re pretty happy with how things have gone.

Trading David Price was an inevitability. Injuries are out of our control. I feel good about the pieces to date, but it’s too early for a definitive ruling.

6. We’re six questions in, and we still haven’t talked about the Rays’ offensive stars. Of course, not many people know about Logan Forsythe, Joey Butler, and Brandon Guyer, who lead the team in OPS+. Who are they and where did they come from? What happened to Evan Longoria?

Logan Forsythe took over at second base when the aforementioned Nick Franklin fell to an oblique strain. Given consistent playing time, the utility player was on fire for almost three months, cementing himself in the second base role. The Rays picked him up as a key return in a seven-player deal with the Padres that had a lot of moving parts. I don’t think he was ever expected to be more than a utility player, though, so his dominance has been a pleasant surprise.

Brandon Guyer, meanwhile, is the quintessential bench outfielder, though he’s yet another story of a player whose career was derailed by inopportune injuries. Finally healthy, he’s a quality major league contributor that benefits from only being deployed in what amounts to ideal scenarios. Smart management is his key to success.

Joey Butler, on the other hand, is a product of Kevin Cash’s scouting and belief. Not expected to be more than a replacement level bat, the manager had faith in his bat, and enough injuries finally gave him a chance mid-season. Major league pitchers may have figured him out, unfortunately, but for a while there was nothing he couldn’t do.

The Rays are an intriguing mix of guys who shouldn’t be contributing at the level they are, and guys who should be contributing more than they do. Everything needs to fall right for this season to end in another postseason run, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility for things finally click.

It will take beating the Tigers, however, to make that happen. For both teams, I think this series could be the difference in becoming buyers or sellers at this year’s trade deadline.

★★★

Once again, a big thank you to Danny and the rest of the DRaysBay staff for taking the time to answer our questions. You can read my Tigers-centric companion piece over on their site. Be sure to check out DRaysBay for the very best Rays news coverage and analysis all season long!