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Behind Enemy Lines: Why the Rays are still worth your attention

We talked to Danny Russell of DRaysBay about the newly red-hot Rays.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Boston Red Sox Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Normally, with our Behind Enemy Lines series we reach out to a writer who focuses on the team the Tigers will be facing in order to glean some insider knowledge from them. With this upcoming three-game series against the Tampa Bay Rays, we found ourselves in a bit of an interesting situation. In addition to being a writer/editor at BYB, I’m also editor and deputy manager for, DRays Bay, SB Nation’s Rays community.

Since I was informed I can’t interview myself (spoil sports!) I decided to do a back-and-forth chat with DRB’s managing editor, Danny Russell, to do a bit of a deeper dive on the Rays and what we can expect from this upcoming series.

Ashley: Danny. You write about the Rays. I write about the Rays. Let’s try to make this a little more interesting for folks in this upcoming Tigers/Rays showdown for the ages. You were at the recent series against Boston (that involved a beautiful revenge inside the park home run, might I add). What did you see the guys doing differently that has led to their recent run of success?

Danny: What helped the Rays the most may actually be what never changed: the managing team’s confidence. Kevin Cash has proved himself to be a quality manager in his fourth year on the job (this season having traded out the coaching staff he inherited from Joe Maddon for his own), and throughout the 1-8 run to start the season he displayed a quiet confidence in his players. It was jarring when the Rays were in tailspin to see him calm and collected, but on the other side of an eight game winning streak, it comes as no surprise that the Rays got there.

The Tigers have a different look in the manager’s office too this season, and here I appreciate that you pay attention to two teams. What do you make of Ron Gardenhire. Was he the right hire to tend the Tigers garden?

Ashley: Omg Danny, it’s too early for bad garden jokes. I think Gardenhire was actually the perfect guy for the Tigers in this current rebuild. I wasn’t thrilled with the pick initially (I was actually championing Gabe Kapler at the time, who the Tigers never even interviewed). I think Gardenhire provides a levelheaded old school approach to things that is proving to be really beneficial to the young up-and-comers. I think it’s laying the groundwork for a great future team where the Tigers can then decide to get risky with a different, more modern-era leader if they should choose to. I also think bringing in Chris Bosio as pitching coach was the best decision the team made all offseason.

The Rays are seeing a youth movement of their own with guys like Mallex Smith, Daniel Robertson, and even Johnny Field making some great strides in recent weeks. Smith, especially, has been advantageous in the wake of Kevin Kiermaier’s injury. Do you think these young guys are maybe revitalizing the team in unexpected ways?

Danny: The youth is revitalizing the team through success. Names like Robertson and Smith (who were bench players last year), Field (who was an org soldier), and Joey Wendle (who was acquired from the Athletics for a minor league catcher to be the starting second basemen) are notable because they are all performing way above expectations on offense while meeting the Rays admittedly sky-high expectations on defense. They will come back down to earth eventually, probably, but it’s notable that none of those names are top prospects from the system. The Rays are fielding a motley crew of veterans this season because it is a bridge year for prospects to be promoted. The real youth movement hasn’t even started yet.

I can only assume the 2018 Tigers also look very little like what future iterations should hold?

Ashley: The 2018 Tigers do feature a handful of guys you can expect to see around when the team contends again in 2020 or 2021 (I’m being optimistic but I don’t think the time frame is out of the question). Guys like Jeimer Candelario, who was a sensational pick up at the trade deadline last year (thanks, Chicago Cubs!). He has been excellent. I think if he stays healthy and consistent, he’ll be the Tigers third baseman of the future. Miguel Cabrera will be around until he retires. If the Tigers don’t decide to trade him, Michael Fulmer will still be with the team just as the “new” good years begin, but I have a feeling they may deal him. I think some of the guys currently in the minors; Dawel Lugo for example, will also be long-term Tigers players, but they certainly don’t have the standout depth in the minors the Rays do. Can we have Willy Adames back?

Danny: Hell no! We’ve already lost our top two pitching prospects to Tommy John this season (top-100 notables Brent Honeywell and Jose De Leon) so Adames is the bluest chip we have. Besides, we already gave you Mikie Mahtook, who I assume is worth 7 WAR now.

Ashley: Mikie Mahtook got shipped to the minors, where he continues to struggle, but on the plus side it gave JaCoby Jones a shot and he is running with it.

Brendan McKay, let’s talk about this for a second. In spring training, Keith Law said McKay might actually have better two-way potential than Shohei Ohtani. Ohtani, as we’ve seen, has been tremendous. Do we think the Rays will continue developing McKay as a two-way player right into the majors now that Ohtani has proven it’s possible?

Danny: McKay will absolutely keep developing as a two-way player until he can’t do both any longer. The pitching results have been particularly sterling, but he’s also still in Single-A ball with three minor league levels left to climb. And it’s still early. He might be good, but it’s one day at a time until he is. Nothing about him is a guarantee right now.

Ashley: Lightning round! Who is the one Rays player to keep an eye on?

Danny: Joey Wendle. He might be good! Who knew? (if so, the Rays FO who chose him over the likes of Neil Walker, that’s who). Who is the one Tigers player to keep an eye on?

Ashley: Leonys Martin or JaCoby Jones. Blake Snell vs Michael Fulmer is this the best pitching matchup we’ll see all year? For our teams, anyway.

Danny: Yes. Snell is so close to figuring this whole “elite pitching thing” out I can taste it.

Ashley: Does Kevin Kiermaier love being on the disabled list?

Danny: KK loves three things: His family, his fishing, and his fielding. He’s gotta be going stir crazy.

Ashley: Last question: The Rays just ended an eight-game win streak, and the Tigers are inexplicably second in the AL Central. How do you see this series playing out?

Danny: I have high hopes for the Rays continuing to fire on all cylinders.

Thanks to Danny for being a good sport and humoring me with these questions. If you’re interested, I also did a Tigers lightning round with him, in which we tried to decide which Tiger would get eaten first if live Tigers were released on the field. You can read that here.

You can find more of Danny’s (and my own) work at DRays Bay.