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Is Rays' recent surge a sign of things to come or too little, too late?

Photo: Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Sidelined all season after elbow surgery, Jeremy Hellickson went 12-10 with a 5.17 ERA and seven strikeouts per nine over 31 starts and 174 innings in 2013.

On the morning of June 11, the Rays were 24-42 (.364), the worst record in baseball at the time by four games, and were on the brink of a lost season. Tampa Bay had the worst run differential in the majors, was 11 games out in the wild-card race and a staggering 15 games behind in the American League East. Since then, however, the Rays have risen from the dead, going 17-9 (.654) and shaving 5 1/2 games off their deficit in the division.

On Tuesday, Tampa Bay will get a boost to its roster, as Jeremy Hellickson will make his first start of the 2014 season, pushing veteran lefty Erik Bedard to the bullpen. And just as the Rays' run has some believing they might climb back into contention in the second half, the fortuitously timed return of Hellickson​ will allow Tampa Bay to evaluate better​ its chances over the coming weeks as they make a crucial and much anticipated decision about whether or not to trade ace David Price.

The Rays' recent success can be broken down into two chunks. From June 13 through June 25, they played four series, going 5-2 against the Astros and 2-4 against the Orioles and Pirates. In their next three series after that, they went 9-2 against the Orioles, Yankees, and Tigers, three teams with winning records, two of whom are currently in first place. That latter run — all of which came on the road, where the Rays have a better record but a worse run differential on the season — was impressive, but I’m not convinced that it was meaningful. And even with that spurt, the Rays are still 9 1/2 games behind in both the AL East and wild-card races, and a fair amount of that recent success came against the lowly Astros, who have replaced the Rays as the team with the majors’ worst record and run differential.

The Rays do have one thing in their favor, though, and that's the return to form of Price. Since posting a 4.42 ERA in his first 11 starts despite an absurd 10.50 strikeout-to-walk ratio, Price has posted a 2.31 ERA in his last eight starts, all of which have lasted at least seven innings. That improvement is thanks in part to a drop in his home run rate from 1.4 per nine innings to something closer to the league average of roughly one per nine innings. Rookie Jake Odorrizi has also experienced a normalization. After a frustrating first dozen starts in which he went 2-6 with a 5.31 ERA while opposing hitters hit .374 on balls in play, Odorizzi has posted a 2.21 ERA over his last six starts. That may be a bit of an overcorrection, but it is more in line with his strong peripherals (10.4 K/9 and a 3.28 Fielding Independent Pitching figure on the season).

The rest of Tampa Bay's rotation has been less inspiring. Chris Archer has posted a 1.71 ERA over his last ten starts, but that performance is less convincing. Archer has allowed 15 runs in 32 innings in his last five starts (4.21 runs per nine innings), but only nine of those runs were earned. Worse, his peripherals have been middling, and his suppression of home runs appears to be mostly luck given that only 3.7 percent of his fly balls have left the park this season, compared to the league average of 7.3 percent. Meanwhile, Alex Cobb has a 5.98 ERA over his last eight starts dating back to his turn after returning from the disabled list at the end of May.

Removing Bedard from the rotation should help, as he was 2-4 with a 7.05 ERA over his last eight starts. But there’s no guarantee that Hellickson, who posted a 5.17 ERA last year, is going to be able to recapture his 2011 and ’12 form after spending half the season on the disabled list after elbow surgery. In all, despite the usual abundance of youth and talent, there’s not a lot of stability in the rotation behind Price, where the loss of Matt Moore to Tommy John surgery continues to haunt the team.

On the other side of the ball, Ben Zobrist, who got off to a slow start this season and has recently been filling in at shortstop for the injured Yunel Escobar, appears to have found his groove, hitting .323/.407/.505 since June 11, but there are not many other hot bats in the Rays’ offense that seem likely to remain so. Logan Forsythe, who has been starting at second base while Zobrist is employed at shortstop, hit .431/.482/.667 in 56 PA from June 16 to July 5, but he’s a 27-year-old who, even with that performance included, has hit .241/.307/.348 in 955 major league plate appearances.

In the outfield, Kevin Kiermaier, who has been filling in for the injured Wil Myers in leftfield, is slugging .557 with seven home runs in 150 plate appearances for the Rays thus far, but that’s not who he is. He’s a defense-first outfielder who hit .278/.352/.398 in the minors with 15 home runs over five seasons. Kiermaier may be one reason the Rays’ pitchers have been having better luck on balls in play, but he won’t be a sufficient replacement for Myers at the plate over the long term. I’m only slightly more sanguine about the similar power surge from utility man Sean Rodriguez, whose next home run would tie his career high of nine despite the fact that he has made just 146 plate appearances on the season. Rodriguez did hit 30 home runs in Triple-A in 2009, but he has slugged just .365 in 457 major league games since.

The Rays’ surge would be far more convincing if Evan Longoria and Myers were joining Zobrist in leading the offensive charge, but Longoria has hit an underwhelming .263/.362/.424 since June 11, and Myers remains on the disabled list with a sprained right wrist that could keep him out past the trading deadline. There’s obviously potential there for a late surge, but Longoria is slugging .398 on the season and Myers hit a mere .227/.313/.354 before getting hurt, so visions of a contending Rays team still seem like a pipe dream this season.

Yes, the Rays have the talent to contend, and the AL East is far weaker this year, with only the Orioles and Blue Jays boasting positive run differentials and Toronto in free-fall, having gone 9-20 (.310) over the last month. However, the Rays would have to realize that potential over far more than an 11-game road trip, and in far more concrete ways, to make the switch from sellers to buyers in the next three weeks. 

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