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Rays Preview: Tampa Bay ready to run with the big dogs

ST. PETERSBURG — If the Tampa Bay Rays hope to make the 2019 season a success, they are going to need to pull a track from DJ MC Doggle’s record collection.

In the seventh race of the Friday evening greyhound racing at Derby Lane in St. Petersburg — just up the road from the new technicolor Trop — the long shot MC Doggle held off the heavily-favored Barts Justified and Dive Bar for the win. Heading into the final turn Dive Bar — who had led from the wire — and Justified were predictably one-two until Dive Bar stumbled on the inside, allowing MC Doggle, who had stayed just off the frontrunner’s pace on the outside, to sneak up from third to first in the last quarter of the race.

Along with having the coolest possible name for a racing greyhound, DJ MC Doggle showed just how the Rays could go from long shot to winner’s circle; play for show but stay within striking distance for the win should one of the favorites get shoved into the rail.

The Rays return much of an intriguingly talented roster that finished last season with 90 wins. They have the best pitcher in baseball in reigning Cy Young award winner Blake Snell and one of the brightest young coaches in Kevin Cash. They quietly added some key pieces in the offseason like starter Charlie Morton — a nice rotational compliment to Snell — and catcher Mike Zunino — a veteran backstop with a reputation for handling a pitching staff who can run into a fastball every now and again at the plate. Aside from “closer” Sergio Romo, the Rays didn’t lose any key players that they hadn’t already said goodbye to by the trading deadline.

In either of the other divisions in the American League, this would be more than good enough to put the Rays in the discussion for sure-fire Wild Card contender at the very least. Unfortunately for the Rays, they play in the AL East with the reigning champion Boston Red Sox and perennial powerhouse New York Yankees. While there’s no reason to believe that those two teams will once again be battling for divisional dominance, there is also a very real chance that either of them could go crashing into a rail at any point. The only starting pitcher on the Yankees under the age of 30 is already having serious arm injury issues. The Sox are a JD Martinez strained oblique and a Mookie Betts wrist sprain away from being offensively erratic at best.

There is no guarantee that either of those teams will falter this season and there is a very real possibility that the Rays will win 90 games and end up on the outside of a postseason spot — just like they did last year. If they are going to make it, however, they are going to have be like MC Doggle, running their race along the outside, ready to drive when the opportunity presents itself.

So if your money is on the long shot, here are more storylines to watch in 2019:

Who’s Cooking The Ribs?
For all his faults C.J. Cron did mash 30 home runs last year. Despite his penchant for poor pitch selection, Jake Bauers did have a knack for coming up big in the clutch. Both of them are gone this year. So it begs the question, on a team that struggled at times to score runs ast year, who is going to be the run producer? With the exception of Joey Wendle (61) no other player had more than than 45 RBIs for the Rays in 2018.

Tommy Pham, acquired at the trade deadline last season, and offseason acquisition Avisail Garcia have the potential to fill that role in 2019 but neither of them, for a multitude of reasons, has ever had more than 80 runs driven in their combined 12 seasons.

Until someone proves they can step up and deliver consistently with men on base, expect the Rays to have to scratch together a lot of four-run games one score at a time this year.

(Photo by Wayne Masut/Scrum Sports)

Magic Tricks or Moneyball 2.0
There was a while lot of teeth gnashing and keyboard mashing over the Rays introduction of the “opener” concept when it came to handling its pitching staff. One thing that a lot of people tended to overlook was that it was actually incredibly successful. The thing is, gimmicks tend to do really well in baseball over the short term. Baseball also has a tendency to adapt rather quickly to overcome any potential advantages. Do you remember anything noteworthy about those post-Moneyball year Oakland Athletic teams?

The Rays are committed to going with the unconventional setup to start games again this year so we will see if it was a sustainable advantage or just a fad that took a lot of teams off guard last season.

Snell and Charlie and …?
Speaking of openers… How many times are the Rays going to have to use one?
Last season the opener worked because there were usually three solid traditional starters in the rotation so the “opener” or its more democratic cousin “bullpen days” were used to great effect to piecemeal that staff back around to Snell, Nate Eovaldi and, yes, even Chris Archer. Morton is probably an upgrade in the No. 2 slot this season but there are a whole lot of questions whether the Rays will have a reliable No. 3 let alone a No. 4.

While Tyler Glasnow is tentatively pencilled in as a “real” starter, his performance, including a hitch-laden spring, has yet to live of to his potential hype. Behind him, Tampa Bay doesn’t have a lot of options that have proven that they can be that guy that can make it through three turns of a Major League lineup or stay healthy long enough to do so regularly.

If the Rays can’t get at least three competent starters in the rotation full time, they are going to tax that bullpen pretty heavily again. While they managed to make it through to the finish line last season, let’s not forget how many pitchers they ended up losing to season-ending arm injuries. They were just fortunate to find enough guys on the scrap heap like Wilmer Font and Vidal Nuno to get them through it.

If a Tree Falls in the Woods…
Pham and the now-former Ray Archer caused sports talk radio lines and Twitter threads to light up in the offseason after torching the Rays fan base for not supporting the team in person, the fact remains that, while it might be bad public relations, they weren’t wrong. The Rays ranked the worst in the AL in attendance in 2018.

The team didn’t exactly help its own cause after blowing up a potential deal for a new stadium in the offseason. They continued to rankle fans on a budget after doing away with all cash transactions and closing down the cheap seats in the third level. The fact is the attendance at Tropicana Field is pretty abysmal on most nights and it doesn’t matter what the cause of it is. No matter how good this team manages to be this year, it is pretty hard to build a buzz when the hive is empty.

Biggest Wild Card
Austin Meadows looks like a ballplayer. His .287 average with 17 extra-base hits in 59 games in his rookie season suggests he can be a pretty good one at that. If he can reach the high end of the potential that made him the centerpiece of the Archer trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Rays will have a cornerstone to build around on offense.

Final Thoughts
Even if their opening never comes and the Rays finish the year having missed the playoffs again by a miniscule margin, fans should probably still be delighted with the 2019 season. This is a team that is waiting for the window to be competitive in the AL East gets thrown wide open in another two to three years — or roughly around the time when the Yankees sluggers start developing chronic knee problems and half the Red Sox roster demands Manny Machado money at the same time.

The recent extensions for Snell and Lowe prove that the Rays are trying to put some long-term pieces into place. In the meantime, look for that younger core of players to get some much-needed experience playing in meaningful games late in the season and maybe even make a backdoor playoff appearance. Until then, we can always wait for that MC Doggle and DJ Kitty collaboration album to drop.

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