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Best case scenarios for the Rays 2018 season

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Or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the four man rotation

New York Yankees v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

It is July 31st, 2018.

Against all odds, the Rays have stayed in the race. Bolstered by taking three of four in Baltimore, they’ve improved to 55-51, just a game and a half out of the second Wild Card spot.

Back at the Trop for an important nine game home stand against Angels, White Sox, and Orioles again, there are rumblings that the team so many were convinced was in full tank mode during a tumultuous off season might actually be buyers at the deadline. But the Rays’ Front Office have announced no moves as of yet, and time is getting short.

It is the bottom of the seventh. The piggyback start of Yonny Chirinos and Ryan Yarborough has gone according to plan, but the offense — as it has for much of the year — has struggled, and the Rays trail 2-1.

With one out, a mini-rally starts — singles by Willy Adames and Matt Duffy — and that’s it for Shohei Ohtani. Lefty Jose Alvarez is brought in to face the slumping Joey Wendle. You sigh.

Until you hear it:

“Bah Gawd, DeWayne!” Brian Anderson roars, “that’s Longo’s music!” as number three emerges from the dugout in full Rays gear, playoff beard on his face and eyeblack under his eyes. His gaze is fixed on 162 Landing...


Okay, so fever dreams gonna fever dream. But is there any real path to get us to that point? Maybe! Here are some best case scenarios:

The Piggyback/Swingman System Works

It goes without saying that Archer needs to be good for the team to be good, but the real key to a successful rotation this year might be less about how good the starters are and more about how many of them are good.

In short, this piggyback/swingman thing needs to work.

There is precedent, by the way. Listening to the talking heads makes it sound like the 4 man rotation supplemented by the occasional “bullpen day” is some weird science experiment that has Never Been Seen Before in the History of Baseball. Except we kinda sorta used to see it, at least from time to time.

Back when 5 man rotations were first becoming a thing, not every manager was rigid about it. Some teams chose to keep their best guys on regular rest when possible and just used them more often.

This is why the league leaders in game starts during that time period routinely put up 37 or 38 starts despite working in five man rotations. (No one since Roy Halladay in 2006 has started more than 35 in a season.) As for that fifth dude? He’d start maybe 25 games if he was lucky, and he might even be asked to relieve from time to time.

Does that sound...I dunno...familiar?

A couple things that seem to be unusual about what the Rays are planning is 1) not naming a particular fifth guy, and 2) using a quicker hook for him on starts, so that 3) he is available in relief more often during the off days.

That’s really not all that crazy. It could work. It could also be awful. Ideas far more radical have both worked out and flopped. Consider the designated hitter.

Best Case: Um...it works? Also, after some early season successes, one of the swing men emerges as the clear best option and claims the fifth spot before we get to the dog days of summer where off days are few and far between.

Worst Case: Pitching on irregular rest days makes everybody worse, because this isn’t the ‘80s anymore. The plan is eventually discarded to the dustbin of history, joining the designated hitter and/or making pitchers hit as bad baseball ideas, but not before a whole group of young, talented pitchers have their confidence crushed and development set back at least a year.

Nate Eovaldi’s Arm Doesn’t Fall Off

MLB: Spring Training-Tampa Bay Rays at New York Yankees Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Former uber-prospect Nathan Eovaldi still throws 100 mph. Also, Nathan Eovaldi has had two Tommy John surgeries so far, one in high school and one that ended his 2016 season with the Yankees.

These things are not normally compatible in the long-term.

Best Case: Nate is healthy and thrives, posting about 3 WAR and topping 160 innings.

Worst Case: Don’t say it. Don’t type it. Don’t. Even. Think. It.

Joey Wendle is a Lefty Hitting DJ LeMahieu

I have previously professed my love for Joey Wendle, who grew up near me and is also a West Chester University Golden Ram. The Rays too are fond of Wendle, and not just because he is by all accounts a super-likable dude. Still, there is no denying he is the biggest question mark in a lineup full of them.

His defense should be fine, if unspectacular. But can he hit well enough?

MLB: Spring Training-Toronto Blue Jays at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

He doesn’t have to be great, mind you. Just “not terrible.” Something like a lefty-hitting DJ LeMahieu. Because, while drafting DJ LeMahieu as your fantasy second baseman is a ticket to having an eighth place fantasy team, putting him there on your real baseball team? That’s actually fine, so long as you don’t have a lineup full of them.

That’s really all we’re asking, Joey. Please don’t suck.

Best Case: Wendle puts up somewhere around a .750 OPS as a starter, then transitions seamlessly to a bench role after Willy Adames is promoted in June.

Worst Case: Joey makes us miss Jake Elmore and loses his job to Micah Johnson by the end of April. Johnson then makes us miss Juniel Quercuto, so we trade a low-A non-prospect for the actual Jake Elmore to fill the gap till Adames is ready past Super 2. The low-A non-prospect goes on to become Felipe Rivero.

The Kids Are All Right

MLB: Spring Training-Boston Red Sox at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Willy Adames. Christian Arroyo. Jake Bauers. Justin Williams. Yonny Chirinos. Diego Castillo. Ryan Yarborough. Jaime Schultz. At some point this year, each of these guys and more is likely to get a shot. Even the best case scenario doesn’t have all of them being successful.

But long term, the Rays need to hit on a healthy percentage. They have to have a core of decent-to-good major leaguers come from this crop, and at least one star. And to compete in 2018, they need it to happen with a minimum of growing pains.

Best Case: A couple pitching prospects look like 2017 Jake Faria. Several others become successful relievers. On the hitting side, one guy hits like 2011 Desmond Jennings. Another hits like 2008 Longoria. And yes, one is Reid Brignac, but we figure that out after a month, not two years. Bonus best case - Justin Williams has a cup of coffee and hits a walkoff in a meaningful September game.

Worst Case:

Jake Faria is For Real

Hey, do y’all remember Geremi González? He was a former prospect for the Cubs who, after some injuries, landed on the 2003 Devil Rays. His numbers with us were never super-impressive, but I clearly remember him being a revelation during a pretty moribund time for the team, and I was really looking forward to seeing what he could do in 2004.

Then he was awful, going 0-5, with a 6.97 ERA / 5.87 FIP and an absurd 1.828 WHIP. He was demoted in May, rode the shuttle a couple times, and was released in November.

I’m not making any predictions about Jake, other than that he is soon going to have the best significant other in baseball.

But performance on the field? Who the heck knows?

Best Case: 2017 Jake Faria Revisted

Worst Case: Yet another prospect who breaks your heart

No Freaky Injuries to Important Players

This horse has kind of already left the barn thanks to Tommy John surgery on Brent Honeywell and Jose DeLeon this spring. But we really need less of this and this.

Best Case: Kevin Kiermaier watches the video of Stephen Souza Jr. once again Souza-ing himself, realizes “holy crap, that could be me!” and finally decides to take better care of himself. Also, a force field is installed around the mound.

Worst Case: Another lost Duffy year, this time because — oh I dunno — he sprains his back sneezing? Yeah, that sounds right.

Conclusion

And yeah, it would help if Brad Miller rebounded, and CJ Cron crpwnd some people, and Blake Snell’s second half was for real, and and and...

Look, I think we all know that the worst case scenarios are far more likely, especially for this season. This team will likely be bad; make your peace with it. Treasure every win. Look for the diamonds hidden amid all this rough. This is the path to good mental health.

But...

Also remember that, once upon a time, there was a little team that could. It was young and inexperienced. It had a manager with some nutty ideas. Not many people believed in them.

I mean, this is a year that ends in “8”...