What a difference a year makes.
This time last year I was writing my first ever blog for Bases Loaded, looking at what could be a massive season for the Rays and daring to dream of a first ever World Series win. Now, the Rays have come off the back of their first losing season since 2007 and are looking like a completely different team after so many changes on and off the field.
Now, I will say here that I stand by my predictions of twelve months ago. I still think that a fully fit 2014 Rays team could have gone on to great things. But the truth is, we never saw a fully fit 2014 Rays team. With Jeremy Hellickson out before the season started, Matt Moore went for Tommy John surgery in the early weeks of the season – and he still won’t be back from that until later on in 2015. Add to that Alex Cobb was on the Disabled List in April as well and you can begin to see just why the Rays struggled to ever get going in 2014. No team in Baseball can really survive having three of their main rotation out!
Fast forward to 2015 though and the Rays seem to be in a similar predicament. In addition to Matt Moore still being out, Alex Cobb was due to pitch on opening day but has since been ruled out with tendinitis. Drew Smyly – acquired as part of a three-way trade which saw David Price finally make his expected departure from the Rays – has missed spring training with a shoulder injury, while Alex Colome has been out through illness and he too has been missing from the Grapefruit League participation.
So can we expect more of the same from the Rays this year? Many would suggest this is just one of the reasons that they’ll struggle in 2015.
Another reason is there has been so many changes to the Rays during the long winter months that they are practically unrecognisable. Joe Maddon finally moved on to take over at the Chicago Cubs, and the Rays have replaced him with the young and inexperienced Kevin Cash. How he will get on remains to be seen, but certainly the word is that he might just have what it takes after two years of being the bullpen coach in Cleveland with the Indians.
Above him, Matt Silverman is now head of Baseball Operations as practically every area of the Rays has seen new faces – or in Silverman’s case old faces in new positions – but it’s below Cash that the changes will be seen by most. As well as seeing Price leave ahead of Trade Deadline Day last year, Wil Myers has been traded to the San Diego Padres while Ben Zobrist now finds himself at the Oakland As. That’s not exactly filling you with confidence when you see your big names leaving for pastures new.
But if one position hasn’t changed then it’s that of Evan Longoria. Sadly, Evan didn’t have the best of seasons in 2014, and that is another reason attributed to the disappointing year that the Rays had. Throw in Myers having a spell on the DL and never quite hitting the same heights as he did in 2013, and that same pattern more or less being seen throughout the lineup, and it’s almost amazing that the Rays reached 77 wins at all.
But maybe that’s where the glimmer of hope resides. Despite the losing season, the Rays still managed an ERA of 3.56. To put that in perspective, the World Series winning San Francisco Giants had an ERA of 3.50. The New York Yankees and the Toronto Blue Jays both finished higher than the Rays, and yet they had ERAs of 3.75 and 4.00 respectively. So despite the injury problems, the Rays pitching still proved to be one of the strong points of the team – as it almost always does.
So if there was one success story in 2014 it was that of pitcher Jake Odorizzi. He wasn’t much of a name in 2013, but for 2014 he was named as the 5th man in the rotation. By the end of 2014, Odorizzi had the best record of any pitcher in the Rays lineup – admittedly tied with Price. Okay, so it was only 11 wins, but it was the manner in which those wins came that so impressed as he struck out batters in high numbers.
Odorizzi will again be in the starting rotation for the Rays in 2015, and he should be joined by Cobb, Smyly and Colome before too long. All three are aiming to be back in April – and you have to hope that maybe this year the Rays have got their bad luck with the pitching injuries out of the way early! Other names currently in the mix to pick up the vacant slots are Nathan Karns, Jeff Beliveau and even Erasmo Ramirez who has been brought in just this week. In the meantime, Chris Archer will open the Rays season, while Brad Boxberger will continue as closer after taking over from Grant Balfour last year.
So other than Odorizzi, where else can there be hope for the 2015 Rays? Well, a lot of that is pinned on the acquisition of Asdrubal Cabrera, named as the new starting Shortstop. Picked up from the Nationals, although more likely known for his time with the Indians, the two time all star could be key to the Rays offense this year. He should be joined in the infield by James Loney and Evan Longoria at first and third bases, and hopefully those two will be much improved on their 2014 numbers.
Rene Rivera, acquired from the Padres as part of the Myers deal which also saw Ryan Hanigan move west, is likely to feature at Catcher. Nick Franklin should have completed the infield, but having picked up an oblique injury in spring training it is more likely that Logan Forsythe will be at second base – unless Tim Beckham finally gets to step up. Beckham should have made it last year, but a torn ACL put paid to that in 2014. It remains to be seen whether or not he’ll fulfill his high school potential where he was named the best prospect in the nation by Baseball America.
In the outfield, Desmond Jennings is another man who will be looking to improve on his 2014 form. Jennings will likely be joined by another man who featured in the epic 11-man Myers trade, Steven Souza, while Kevin Kiermaier is another name on the lips of everyone in Tampa Bay area. It’s possible he might just have done enough to take centre outfield, pushing Jennings to left. The returning John Jaso at DH should complete the offensive lineup.
There’s certainly enough there to give some hope that 2015 will see the Rays heading back in the right direction again. It will take a combination of better luck with injuries, players playing to the ability that we all know they’re capable of, and the new guys showing their worth, but there’s certainly some cause for optimism. How long the new look Rays will take to gel together, well that remains to be seen. Hopefully not too long, and hopefully the rotation will be back to full strength within a couple of weeks of opening day, or it could be another season of basement Baseball in the AL East after all.