As cliché as it may sound, the AL East is really anyone's division this season. As of Wednesday, FanGraphs' playoff odds give the Red Sox a 52.2% chance of taking the division, and a 72.1% chance of making the playoffs. Other than that, there is an 12.1% difference between the other four teams' division odds, and a 22.7% difference in playoff odds. While Boston appears to be the overwhelming favorite, there are certainly weaknesses on the team, and weaknesses on all teams in the division.
So far, the Rays' weaknesses seem to have been exposed the most—they sit in the bottom of the division, and have the fewest "expected wins" by FanGraphs' calculations. The general roots of these problems were known going into the season, but the magnitude of the problems is just being uncovered. But which of these weaknesses is the biggest, and most consequential?
When healthy, the Rays have arguably one of the best rotations in baseball. But, going into the 2015 season, the rotation was crippled by injuries. Matt Moore had not yet recovered from Tommy John surgery he underwent last April, Drew Smyly had been diagnosed with shoulder tendonitis, and Alex Cobb went down with forearm tightness. With only Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi left, the Rays had serious depth concerns about their rotation at the start of 2015.
So far, the results from the back of the rotation have been poor. Erasmo Ramirez delivered one forgettable start, yielding eight earned runs in a 3.1 inning outing against the Blue Jays. Nate Karns has shown flashes of decency but has struggled with control and home runs. Steve Geltz even got a start, going two innings before Ramirez entered in relief and imploded.
As disheartening as the four and five spots have been, help is on the way. Smyly will be starting Friday, and while the timetable on Cobb is still unclear, it looks like he may be able to return in May. Once Smyly and Cobb return, the rotation will be much improved and the situation will be stabilized. This would shift Karns to the No. 5 spot, and he has shown he could be a capable starter for the team.
Karns, who was traded to the Rays in February of 2014, has an arsenal with a lot of upside. We cannot draw too many conclusions about his stuff because the data all comes in small samples, but his two-seam fastball and changeup have the shapes to become elite. Combined with a solid curve and rising four-seam fastball, Karns has the tools to provide stability in the rotation while Moore continues to rehab.
Sitting at 93-94 mph with his fastball, he features three "bands" of velocity, with his change up at 87 mph and his curve at 83 mph, which keeps hitters off balance.
While the back of the rotation may be the worst performing facet of the team so far, it looks to be much better going forward.
After the Rays traded both Yunel Escobar and Ben Zobrist in the offseason, many clamored for them to acquire another middle infielder. But the Rays stuck with what they had, and going into the season, it looked like Logan Forsythe would be receiving the bulk of the playing time at second base. He is off to a good start, hitting .277 and slugging .468, but his track record and projections suggest that both his batting average and power numbers should start to regress downwards, and he should eventually settle in as a replacement level player.
Enter Tim Beckham and Ryan Brett. Beckham, who was the first overall pick of the 2008 MLB Draft, was described as a "bona fide five-tool player" by MLB.com's draft profile and the majority of scouts and analysts. However, Beckham has yet to prove that he was worth the early investment. In extended stays in the minors, his batting average has hovered near .270 and his slugging percentage near .385, while barely cracking double digit home runs. It is far to early to write him off as a player, and with his pedigree and skills he still has the shot to develop into an everyday starter.
Brett was called up last Friday and got his first start on Tuesday. Brett has never been on the top of prospect lists and does not have the ceiling to become a star player, but he still profiles to be a crucial part of future Rays teams. He has posted .300+ batting averages in the minors, and shown very good speed on the base paths. FanGraphs' Kiley McDaniel reports that he has improved enough defensively to stick at second base, and McDaniel says that he believes that Brett could be an everyday player.
Unfortunately, Brett has lost arguably his greatest aspect: his beard. During spring training, he featured a beard that landed him with the #1 spot on Danny's picture day rankings, but shaved it soon after he was demoted to start the season.
Even without the beard, Brett and Beckham provide aide to this needy position. Ideally, one of the two of them will emerge and start to claim the second base job. This way, Logan Forsythe can be used in a utility role, and Brett and/or Beckham can make an impact. We will have to wait to see Brett in he lineup, however, because he dislocated his shoulder in Tuesday's game.
Nick Franklin is expected to return soon from the oblique injury he sustained during spring training. He hasn't been a superstar when he has played, but he provides the Rays with another serviceable option in the middle infield.
While this position seemed like a weakness at the start of the season, there is reason to be optimistic.
Before the 2014 season started, the Rays signed James Loney to a three-year, $21 million contract. He had been the picture of consistency, delivering between 10-15 home runs and a near .300 batting average in six of the previous seven seasons.
He was expected to do more of the same in 2015, but he tweaked his oblique on April 7 and landed on the disabled list. While it was only a strain, oblique injuries have a history of being nagging and painful. Loney is due back tonight, but because swinging the bat puts a constant strain on the muscle, it wouldn't be surprising to see this come up again.
As a whole, first base is a weakness for the Rays. With Loney's consistency and low cost, the Rays sacrifice some performance at a normally powerful position. They cannot just make money appear and get a stud at first, but it does leave them with less production relative to other teams at first base. According to FanGraphs' depth charts, the Rays rank twenty-sixth in WAR at first base, projected to accrue only 1.3 WAR at the position this season.
The back of the rotation and second base are far from positions of strength for the Rays. But, the difference between those positions and first base is that there is potential for the situation to be resolved easily through recovery from injury or prospect call-ups. At first, it's a different story.
In Loney's absence, Allan Dykstra, Forsythe and even Rene Rivera have seen time at first. Steamer has Dykstra projected to finish with a .183 batting average this season as a replacement-level player. Forsythe has shown that he offers little with the bat and is best served as a utility role, and his inexperience at first base leaves questions about his defense. Rivera can be decent with the bat, he provides much more value behind the plate.
In addition to few viable options at the major league level, there is not an impact prospect to call up like there is at second base. Casey Gillaspie was ranked as the 10th-best prospect in the Rays system, but is not expected to make an impact until 2018. Jake Bauers came over in the Wil Myers trade this off-season and might become a solid hitter, but is not expected to be called up for a few more seasons.
So what can the Rays do? Unfortunately, not much. Despite his lack of upside, Loney is still by far the best option they have at first base. He is critical to their success, not because of his stellar performance, but because of the lack of options behind him. If his performance starts to erode, the Rays could be in trouble.
For the Rays to make the playoffs this season, they need everyone to be at the top of their game. While not everyone is at peak performance right now, there is a chance that these problems get resolved quickly and they make a push for the playoffs. They will face some strong competition in the division, but if the cards fall their way, they could still be playing in October.
Pitch f/x data is from Brooksbaseball.net, and statistics are from FanGraphs.