It may be early, and they may only be two games below .500, but the Tampa Bay Rays are in real trouble. A popular pick to win the American League East heading into the season, the Rays are currently languishing in last place with a 7-9 record that bests only that of the Astros in the American League. They have lost their last four games in a row, three of them to division rivals. Three-fifths of their starting rotation is on the disabled list, and over their last 10 contests, they have averaged just 1.6 runs scored per game.
Despite routinely having one of the lowest payrolls in the majors, Tampa Bay has averaged more wins over the last six years (91.7) than all but one team (the Yankees, whose resources fall on the other side of the scale), and have made the playoffs in four of those seasons. Yet the team's success has always had something of a smoke-and-mirrors feel, the result of its astutely exploiting every marginal advantage possible, building a club around pitching and defense that plays particularly well in its home ballpark and relying on manager Joe Maddon's ever-shifting lineups to keep the offense afloat. An organizational philosophy built on finding that extra 2 percent leaves little room for error, and in the early going this year, that margin has been eaten up by the injuries in its rotation.
Starting pitching depth has been a strength of the Rays franchise throughout those last six seasons. This is a team that traded away Edwin Jackson, Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza and James Shields -- four of the five starting pitchers from its pennant-winning rotation in 2008 -- and just kept on winning. It is a team that went from June 2006 through April 2012, five and a half seasons, without giving a single start to a pitcher older than 29. So it says something about the state of the team that its starting pitcher against the division-leading Yankees on Friday night will be 35-year-old retread Erik Bedard, a pitcher who went 11-26 with a 4.78 ERA for the Pirates and Astros over the last two seasons. On Sunday, Tampa Bay will start Cesar Ramos, a 29-year-old reliever who has made just four major league starts over parts of six seasons. The fourth of those came against the slumping Reds last Sunday and saw Ramos give up four runs in just two innings of work. To that point in the season, Cincinnati had scored four or more runs in just three of its 11 games.
That is what the Rays have been reduced to with Matt Moore out for the year following Tommy John surgery, Alex Cobb out for four to six weeks with an oblique strain, Jeremy Hellickson still trying to work his way back from January surgery to remove loose bodies from his pitching elbow and rotation prospect Alex Colome suspended for the first 50 games of the season after testing positive for an anabolic steroid. It's unlikely that either Cobb or Hellickson will be back before late May. Colome won't be eligible to return until May 25.
Thus, Tampa Bay is looking at a solid month of faking the back end of its rotation behind ace David Price, who was lit up by the Yankees on Thursday night; sophomore Chris Archer, who was lit up by the Orioles on Monday; and rookie Jake Odorizzi, who was lit up by the Royals last week. Odorizzi was also the Rays' sixth starter prior to Hellickson's surgery. If forced to reach further down the depth chart, the team has hard-throwing Enny Romero, former Royals prospect Mike Montgomery and offseason additions Nate Karns (from the Nationals) and Matt Andriese (from the Padres) in Triple A. All four have put together impressive strikeout rates and problematic walk rates this season with middling-to-poor overall results.
All of that puts a lot of pressure on an offense that is not used to doing the heavy lifting for this team. Stalwarts Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist are doing their part, as are outfielders Desmond Jennings and Matt Joyce, but the team desperately needs rightfielder Wil Myers, last year's American League Rookie of the Year, to break out of his current slump (6-for-43 without an extra-base hit since the third game of the season), and soon. The Rays also should be able to expect more at the plate from shortstop Yunel Escobar (.218/.259/.327 thus far), their catching corps (a combined .157/.217/.235 from Ryan Hanigan and Jose Molina) and leftfielder David DeJesus (.156/.250/.281). Eventually, all four should perk up, but even if they do, Myers is the only one of that quartet likely to make a big contribution. From the start of this week through May 25 Tampa Bay will play the Yankees seven times, the Red Sox six times and the Orioles five times (in the three games they have played against those rivals this week, they are 0-3); have a seven-game west-coast swing; and will welcome the team currently boasting the best record in the AL, the A's, to Tropicana Field for three games. So the schedule will do the Rays no favors, but it is precisely over that portion of the schedule that they need to find a way to wake up their bats and win despite the loss of 60 percent of their intended rotation.