The Tampa Bay Rays have arguably the slimmest margin for error of any team in Major League Baseball. Playing in the same division as baseball’s blue bloods — not to mention a Toronto Blue Jays team sometimes willing to open its deep pockets — the Rays are at a constant disadvantage. They made things work several years ago, besting those rich clubs on the way to two division titles and their first World Series appearance in franchise history in 2008. They won 90 games in five of six seasons from 2008 to 2013, and made the playoffs in four of those years.
Since that run came to an end, the Rays have been on the periphery of the playoff picture. Never sentenced to a full rebuild, they have continued to stockpile assets and young talent with the hopes of emerging as a contender again in the near future. They lost 94 games last season, their highest total since 2007, but fluke injuries and a relatively modest run differential — their pythagorean expected record was 77-85 — suggested that they were closer than people thought.
The Rays jumped out of the gate with wins in five of their first seven games, all at home. However, things started to fall apart a bit over the next week when they went on the road. They lost six of seven to the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, pushing them back to fourth place in the AL East. Worse yet, they also lost players. Starter Jake Odorizzi and outfielder Mallex Smith were both placed on the disabled list over the weekend, joining a host of other Rays players already on the mend.
With the Yankees looking better than expected, the Red Sox rounding into form, and the Baltimore Orioles off to another hot start, the Rays can ill afford to fall too far behind in the standings. It’s a long season, but look for them to come out with a slight sense of urgency as they return home for a couple series — the first against the Detroit Tigeres.
Game 1: RHP Michael Fulmer (1-0, 2.25 ERA) vs. RHP Matt Andriese (0-0, 4.50 ERA)
No one flew under the radar like Matt Andriese did in 2016. Originally one of the pieces that came over to Tampa with second baseman Logan Forsythe in a trade with the San Diego Padres in 2014, Andriese quietly compiled a solid 2.0 fWAR season in 2016. His 4.37 ERA was roughly a half run higher than his 3.78 FIP, while a 3.63 Deserved Run Average (DRA) was even more optimistic about Andriese’s performance. There was a lot to like, as Andriese has developed a solid four-pitch arsenal including a cutter, curveball, and changeup. He generated an above average pop-up rate and a minuscule walk rate in 127 2⁄3 innings, along with a league average strikeout rate. The one problem has been home runs, an issue that has continued to rear its ugly head early in 2017 with two allowed in just two starts.
Game 2: RHP Jordan Zimmermann (1-1, 5.06 ERA) vs. RHP Chris Archer (2-0, 2.21 ERA)
After a dazzling 2015 season in which he made the All-Star team and limited opponents to a 3.23 ERA in 212 innings, Chris Archer’s 2016 campaign may have felt like a letdown. He lost 19 games and his ERA went up by nearly a full run, to 4.01. Don’t worry, though, he was largely the same guy.
Well, that should made opposing lineups worry. Archer nearly duplicated his excellent strikeout rate from 2015, fanning 27.4 percent of the batters he faced in 201 1⁄3 innings. He struck out double-digit batters on six occasions, including a 10-strikeout performance against the Tigers at Tropicana Field on July 3. His walk rate was nearly identical as well, resulting in a Deserved Run Average (DRA) of 3.17.
Game 3: LHP Daniel Norris (1-0, 2.19 ERA) vs. RHP Erasmo Ramirez (1-0, 3.72 ERA)
The Tigers caught a break on Saturday when righthander Jake Odorizzi tweaked his hamstring early in a start against the Boston Red Sox. Instead of dominating the Detroit lineup — Odorizzi has a career 2.28 ERA with 28 strikeouts in four starts against the Tigers — he is on the 10-day disabled list.
Instead, the Tigers will face swingman Erasmo Ramirez, who has almost been a utility pitcher of sorts for the Rays since arriving in a trade from Seattle two years ago. Ramirez logged 90 2⁄3 innings for the Rays last season, all but 5 2⁄3 of which came out of the bullpen. Ramirez entered the game at any time through the middle innings, and even served in a setup-like role down the stretch. Still only 26, Ramirez has significantly increased his ground ball rate since arriving in Tampa. He induced grounders on 52.5 percent of batted balls, and is at 53.3 percent through his first 9 2⁄3 frames of 2017.
Help is on the way
While the Rays are looking to contend right now, their best years may still be ahead of them. They have a farm system that was ranked 11th in the major leagues by Baseball America, and that doesn’t include young talents like Blake Snell and Mallex Smith that are already in the major leagues. Even current stars like Kevin Kiermaier and Chris Archer are still in their 20s, and Evan Longoria is under contract through 2022.
The prospects are interesting, though. The Rays added a potential front-line starter in Jose De Leon during the offseason, and they recently promoted top pitching prospect Brent Honeywell to Triple-A Durham. Tigers fans should be familiar with shortstop Willy Adames, who was originally traded to Tampa Bay when the Tigers acquired David Price in 2014. Jake Bauers is another name to watch after a great season at Double-A Montgomery, and the Tigers may ultimately be thankful that righthander Chih-Wei Hu isn’t starting in Odorizzi’s place on Thursday.
How the Tigers win the series
The Rays have managed to be an above average offensive team thus far, with a 106 wRC+ through their first 14 games. Good things have happened when they put the ball in play this year, and sometimes even when they haven’t — their 9.6 percent walk rate is fifth in the American League, just behind the Tigers. Corey Dickerson, Steven Souza, and Logan Morrison are all off to hot starts; each has a wRC+ over 150.
However, they have also had some trouble putting the ball in play. The Rays lead the major leagues by a wide margin with a 28.6 percent strikeout rate. Their 13.3 percent swinging strike rate isn’t as far out ahead of the pack, but still leads baseball. They have five different players who have struck out in at least 30 percent of their 20+ plate appearances so far, including Evan Longoria (34.4 percent) and Brad Miller (38.2 percent).
While these rates should come back to earth somewhat, this is nothing new. The Rays led baseball with a 12.1 percent swinging strike rate last season, and their 24.5 percent strikeout rate was highest in the American League. Justin Verlander may not get to take advantage of Tampa Bay’s whiff-happy hitters, but Michael Fulmer and Daniel Norris have the type of swing-and-miss stuff that could suppress an otherwise potent lineup for the next few days.