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Monday, April 11, 2011
These Rays in big, big trouble

By David Schoenfield


As miserable as the Red Sox have played so far, at least they can look at a lineup that includes Adrian Gonzalez, Kevin Youkilis, Carl Crawford, Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz and know -- eventually -- they’re going to score a lot of runs.

The fans of the Tampa Bay Rays, however, are staring down a lineup that includes Triple-A veteran Dan Johnson hitting cleanup, Cubs castoff Sam Fuld hitting leadoff and 37-year-old Johnny Damon trying to hold off the cruelties of age.

It’s been brutal start for the defending AL East champions: 20 runs scored through nine games, with a .163 team batting average. With runners in scoring position, they’re hitting .150. It’s added up to a 1-8 record and now the Rays have to play the Red Sox and Twins this week, two other teams with playoff aspirations due to break out of hitting slumps.

In 2010, the Rays finished third in the AL in runs scored, despite finishing 13th in the league in batting average. They did it by drawing the most walks in the league and stealing the most bases. And they also did it with clutch hitting. Overall, the Rays hit .247/.333/.403, but with runners in scoring position they hit .266/.368/.422 and in so-called high-leverage situations, when a game’s outcome is most up for grabs, they hit .272/.354/.442.

In other words, the talent level of the Tampa Bay offense wasn’t that of the third-best offense in the league. Yes, the speed and stolen bases helped, but it was a team that relied on timely hitting. The 2011 Rays were counting heavily on big production from Manny Ramirez and Damon. Ramirez is gone and Damon looks lost early on, hitting .125 (4-for-32) with nine strikeouts and just one walk.

OK, they’re not going to hit .163 all year and they’ll hopefully get Evan Longoria back in a couple weeks, but this team is going struggle to score runs all season. And that’s not the only reason I’m declaring the Rays on life support:

1. The rotation is shaky. In 2010, Tampa Bay starters posted a 3.99 ERA, third-best in the AL. Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis combined to go 24-18 with a solid a 4.23 ERA. James Shields had an ERA over 5.00. Of 92 major league starters to pitch 162 innings, Niemann ranked 82nd, Davis 83rd and Shields 91st in home runs allowed per nine innings. Yes, some of that was due to facing the tough lineups of the AL East, but Tropicana Field is a relatively tough home run park. Niemann (.263) and Davis (.272) also had low averages allowed on balls in play, suggesting some regression would occur in 2011 (even with Tampa’s usually stout defense).

2. The bullpen. As “Baseball Prospectus 2011” reported, Tampa Bay’s bullpen was the best in the league last season, worth 4 wins more than the Yankee pen, eight more than Boston’s. All those guys are gone, replaced by Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta, rookie Jake McGee and others who will be hard-pressed to come close to the 2010 results.

3. The running game. So important to Tampa’s success last year, the Rays are on the losing end this year -- because they can’t stop it. While Tampa is eight for 10 on the bases, their opponents are 15 for 15. Something else to worry about.

Look, Tampa is every stat head’s little engine that could. They’ve won two of the past three AL East titles despite spending about $444 million less than the Yankees and $243 million less than the Red Sox.

But it’s not going to be three out of four.

SERIES OF THE WEEK

Dodgers at Giants

Monday: Clayton Kershaw versus Madison Bumgarner
Tuesday: Chad Billingsley versus Tim Lincecum
Wednesday: Ted Lilly versus Jonathan Sanchez

Sadly we won’t get a Kershaw-Lincecum rematch of Opening Day, but we’ll see three excellent matchups. Bumgarner must rebound from a bad first start in which he lasted just three innings. With last week’s incident at Dodger Stadium involving fan-on-fan violence, extra security will be on hand at AT&T Park. The Dodgers are 5-4 but another team with a struggling offense, having scored just 28 runs in nine games.

PITCHING MATCHUP OF THE WEEK

Tuesday: David Price versus Jon Lester (Tampa Bay at Boston)

Yes, I think I’ll want to check this one out.

THREE SWINGS

1. Jered Weaver and Dan Haren may be as good as any 1-2 combo in the majors. After Weaver added the strikeout to his arsenal last season, he moved into the upper echelon of major leaguer starters. He’s showing it wasn’t a fluke after sending down 15 Blue Jays on Sunday. Haren got the win in relief in Saturday’s 14-inning win over Toronto and has 13 strikeouts without a walk so far.

2. Is Joey Votto even better than last season? The 2010 NL MVP is hitting .455/.548/.727 and NL pitchers are showing their fear: Votto has eight walks, only three strikeouts.

3. Kudos to Ozzie Guillen for suggesting he may go to a closer-by-committee approach. Yes, this came about primarily because former setup man Matt Thornton blew two of his first three save opportunities, but going to a committee allows Guillen to tactically deploy his two late-inning lefties (Thornton and Chris Sale) and his late-inning righties (Jesse Crain and Sergio Santos) as best suited to the situation.

RANT OF THE WEEK

James Loney, it’s time to step up. The Dodgers first baseman turns 27 in May, but instead of reaching his peak, he’s become a dud. After hitting .331/.381/.538 in 96 games as a rookie in 2007, big things were expected. After hitting .289 with 13 home runs in 2008, big things were still expected. When his OPS slid to .756 in 2009, people said the power may still come. When he hit .267 with 10 home runs in 2010, reality set in: James Loney isn’t that good anymore. He’s off to a slow start (.441 OPS) and the Dodgers -- if they want to contend in a tough division -- may need to figure out a way to upgrade their offense at first base.

PHOTO OF THE DAY

Willie Mays & Buster Posey
Giants past (Willie Mays) alongside Giants present (Buster Posey). Not bad company.