The Tampa Bay Rays are off to a bit of a slow start (far better than our slow start). They are 14-16, 5.5 games behind the Red Sox, but 4 games ahead of us. The Jays were 4-14 against the Rays, in 2012, and 1-8 in Tropicana Field.
Danny Russell, blogger from DRaysBay and I exchanged questions. Here are his answers.
How is our old middle infield doing? Kelly Johnson striking out enough? Yunel do anything piss off a subsection of the population yet?
The middle infield has met the opposite of my expectations going into the season, and I've found myself throwing my hands in the air (for good and bad reasons) frequently over these two. Kelly Johnson has flashed power this season (.190 ISO, .140 in 2012) and looked like his old self. and if he does improve, I'd imagine that would be infuriating for your fan base after sending off Aaron Hill... Is that a sore subject?
We've been playing Johnson everywhere, and I mean everywhere -- a player after Joe Maddon's own heart! Ok, really it's just been second base and left field, and Johnson has taken it in stride. Playing left field didn't seem like something Johnson was excited about in spring training, but he's played the corner twelve games through the first month and only had one error, which is more than I was asking for. I'm most excited to see if April 2013 Kelly Johnson continues to be the same batter through the rest of the season. His contact rate is way up (77+%, six points higher) without a spike in strikeouts, fitting the mold of hitting coach Derek Shelton's annual reclamation project (read: Jeff Keppinger, Casey Kotchman). If he keeps this up, I might be comfortable batting him higher than seventh.
Where do you start with Yunel Escobar? From a fielding perspective Yunel has been getting to the ball just fine, but his throws to first have been erratic, to put it kindly. We're fortunate that James Loney is a big, big man and can nab just about any throw out of the dirt. I thought Yunel had the makings of a decent contact hitter for second in the order, but Maddon wasn't as convinced and dropped him to sixth to start the season. Trouble is, that normally means Yunel finds himself in higher leverage situations. I've actually groaned when Yunel stepped up to the plate with runners on, it hasn't been pretty. Of course, I will point the finger at Yunel's paltry .188 BABIP for his .174/.237/.279 batting line, but lately Maddon's been dropping him in the order to ninth, and that has certainly helped (.333/.400/.556 in 20 PA's).
I guess to answer your last part of that question, Yunel has earned a decent reputation for striking out through the month of April, a bit unfairly. Longoria and Johnson have about twice as much as Escobar's 15, but it's been enough to earn the nickname EsKobar on twitter from our Stephanie Katz. I'd just like to see the bat come alive, and for that to happen we need to get out of Small Sample Size territory. Unfortunately, Yuni took a pitch to the hand so he might be out for the series, so please don't be too disappointed to see the third string short stop playing for us too (Ben Zobist is second string but missing a few days after the passing of his grandma, so Sean Rodriguez it is).
I'll ask about our other former Jays there...how are Jose Molina and Ryan Roberts doing?
Can you call a 43 year old man a poster child? Jose Molina continues to be a brilliant signing for the Rays. After the introduction of catcher framing metrics, Molina was shown to have saved 50 runs through framing pitches, I though for sure the jig was up. Surely umpires would have been wiser, and to be honest the strike zones have felt a bit more stringent when Molina is in the game, but he's doing no less damage to batters with his glove. In just 22 innings this past week, Molina got Rays pitchers nine strikes above average, according to Ben Lindbergh. According the eye test, it seems to me Molina has also touched up his swing a bit, keeping his feet planted through his swings more often. That hasn't shown in results through the first month, but worth noting.
Ryan Roberts has spent most of his time batting seventh or second in the lineup with varying results. The 2-hole is a common place for Maddon to place players to get their bats warmer, and Roberts was one of those during the latter half of April. Batting high in the order has given Roberts a 134 sOPS+, meaning 34 points above average for players batting second. He was an expensive platoon option for the Rays to hold on to this season, but in limited appearances I've been thrilled these last two weeks.
How has attendance been this year?
This has been a point of contention over the past week. I guess it's understandable, there's a reputation for attendance issues in Tampa Bay, but much of that is becoming unfair as attendance improves, and we hope the trend continues.
The Rays face significant challenges in getting fans to the stadium, namely a long stretch of highway and a huge body of water for fans to traverse. The majority of the population is that the bay area lives a significant distance from the stadium, and less than 20% lives within half an hour's drive -- something we highlighted in our stadium proposal from 2011. Imagine getting off work at 5:00 and fighting traffic home for an hour. Would you turn around and go back out for a Tuesday night game? It's evident most fans would not with such significant distances between the ballpark and the their driveway. It's a contributing factor to the Rays' stellar TV ratings, which have ranked as high as fifth in baseball. The Rays are not unpopular in the state of Florida, they're simply far away.
Last week this article on SB Nation's front page caused a major stir, mixing insults at Rays fans and their attendance with jokes about Kenny Loggins, who will be one of many artists playing at the Tropicana Field this season. I led our writing staff in a response that condemned these ideas pretty strongly. In it we highlight that the Rays are actually 22nd in attendance figures this season, which is the bit most worth noting. The team is showing strong numbers in weekend series, but it will be interesting to note how they do over this four game, weekday series.
What's the timeline on Will Myers? Are the fans getting anxious to see him?
You won't see Myers until late June, which is both a baseball and monetary decision. It's easy to pick on the Rays for their low payroll and terrible television contract, but the truth is that waiting to promote Myers until the half year mark will stave off his arbitration by a full season. If Myers performs as expects, these will be significant savings for a guy who might only be replacement level in 2013.
Myers has seen the fast track in the minors and the Rays coaching staff still barely knows the player, so it's not surprising to see Maddon and his crew keeping him down. It's simply a function of time at this point for Myers to finish his development and show he's ready for big league pitching. The kid is only 22 and at least second on the depth chart behind Brandon Guyer for a promotion if there's a significant injury in the outfield, not to mention Shelley Duncan recently accepted his assignment to Triple-A Durham after Luke Scott returned from injury. Some fans are certainly eager to see him promoted, after the Trout-Harper experience of 2012 it's quite easy to get pumped over Baseball America's No. 4 prospect. If we're only talking about 2013, half a season of Myers doesn't sound like much, but the potential pay off in dollars could be significant -- and simply put, he's not completely ready. If the team thought he was about to go Mike Trout on the AL East, you can best believe he'd be playing Right Field full time right now.
You guys have had a rough start to the season, though not near as rough as ours, what's going wrong?
The Rays are hot and cold, there doesn't seem to be a middle ground -- but that's nothing new. We are a team built around pitching with streaky hitters, so some days the guys look like they're about to be no-hit, and on other days the offense pleasantly surprises with 12 hits and 10 runs and you wonder where this team has been all along. As of late the offense has averaged five runs per game, so the hope is for the trend to continue. We'll see what the Rays can do against Mark Buehrle this year.
Who is your early season surprise?
Personally, that award goes to James Loney. His defense has been as-advertised, and Rays fans have high standards for defense -- which the team delivers on most seasons -- so that says a lot. But Loney is also sporting a .398/.444/.542 batting line through 30 games this season, mostly due to a .444 BABIP as well, but there's a variety of other factors. Loney has gone back to his old ways and is chasing pitches outside the zone less (26% O-Swing), paired with a would-be career-high 84% O-Contact rate, which has been trending up for Loney the past few seasons. He also might feature his own retooled swing. Again working off the eye test, but he seems to have this uppercut motion that's looping the ball opposite field; I'm not sure how sustainable that will be.
Mike Petriello, a life long Dodgers fan who has the advantage (ha) of watching Loney for years, says this will all be for naught thanks to the plummet in GB% of nearly 20 points, but Loney is able to play as the left-handed portion of a platoon and should continue to succeed if Maddon can avoid showing him left-hand pitching.
Anything else us Blue Jay fans should know about the Rays?
The Rays bullpen has all but fallen apart. Fernando Rodney has been moving all over the pitching mound since the World Baseball Classic, Kyle Farnsworth is a shell of his former self, and fireballer Jake McGee has been resorting to changeups after loading bases. It hurts to watch. Jamey Wright has shined as a groundballer, and Joel Peralta is still a decent pitcher for high leverage situations, but Brandon Gomes and Cesar Ramos cannot carry the load the first three I mentioned should be handling.