Assessing the Tampa Bay Rays After Baseball’s Opening Month

Even the most optimistic of preseason conjecture wouldn’t have anticipated a seamless start to the season for the revamped and injury-riddled Tampa Bay Rays. But after a month of action — give or take a few days — the Rays have defied the odds in remarkable fashion, winning 12 of their first 22 games, and sitting just a game out of first place in the extremely competitive American League East.

On the surface, a 12-10 record doesn’t exactly jump off the page for the perpetually contending Rays, but it’s undeniably nothing short of miraculous considering the club’s absurd pile up of injuries in the early going. These injuries have hampered the Rays in every area imaginable, sidelining the likes of Alex Cobb, Drew Smyly, Jake McGee, James Loney, John Jaso, and Nick Franklin, just to name a few.

That number will mercifully shrink to nine when right-hander Alex Colome comes off the DL to start Friday night’s contest against Baltimore, and it’ll just be a matter of weeks until the Rays are able to incorporate many of the reinforcements that should make them a much more dangerous team than most gave them credit for. However, this first month has precipitated a mixture of good and bad for Kevin Cash‘s bunch, with impressive win streaks proceeded by stretches of severe ineptitude.

The offense was predictably the focal point of much skepticism entering the season. Though it hasn’t been tremendously potent, this offense has, for the most part, effectively tread water over the first few weeks, even with several significant deficiencies. The Rays rank 15th in MLB in team OPS (.700), and 21st in batting average (.238). Unexpected contributions from Tim Beckham (.806 OPS, 10 RBI) and Logan Forsythe (.835 OPS, 10 RBI) have alleviated some of the pressure on the middle of the order, specifically Evan Longoria, who has gotten off to a bit of a sluggish start in the power department.

Steven Souza Jr. has been a bright spot, leading the club in home runs with four, and runs batted in with 11. His astronomical 34.5% strikeout rate is somewhat of a concern, but the culmination of 87 plate appearances, especially from a raw and inexperienced specimen like Souza, should be taken with a grain of salt. Overall, Tampa Bay’s offense, although inconsistencies abound, has exceeded expectations, and will only improve as the season progresses.

The Rays pitching staff has been carried by young starters Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi, both of whom have been spectacular across their first few starts. Without Alex Cobb, Matt Moore, or Alex Colome throwing a competitive pitch to date, the Rays still rank second in the American League in starter’s ERA, and they’re currently pacing Major League Baseball with a marvelous .213 starter’s batting average against. It’s truly been an outstanding development for a squad that invariably relies on it’s starting pitching to lead the way.

With Smyly and Colome now healthy, Cobb due back in less than a month, and Moore expected to return sometime in late June or early July, this team is set to feature an exceptionally formidable rotation that can rival any in baseball. The bullpen, however, is a work in progress. Once rehabbing Jake McGee rejoins the roster, the back-end of this relief core will be set, but depth has been an issue. Aside from Brad Boxberger, Kevin Jepsen, and Steve Geltz, there hasn’t been much reliability with this bullpen as a whole.

Ailments and decline have generated some shifting throughout relief group, but the talent is still in place for a potentially dominant bullpen, without question. Furthermore, the Rays have played stellar defensively, posting a .991 fielding percentage and 7.3 UZR, according to FanGraphs. The identity of these Rays is becoming clear: this is a resilient, fundamentally sound club that will continue to compensate for an erratic offense with consistently brilliant pitching.

Ultimately, it’s been an immensely successful month of April for Kevin Cash, who is the first manager in franchise history to finish his first month with a winning record. As they begin to regain their health, the Rays should continue to stay very competitive in the division race, regardless of the recurrent skepticism.

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