One series is in the books, so it’s time to draw conclusions about this team from a way too small sample of baseball games. At this point it makes no sense to talk about actual performances. Snell will be fine. The bullpen will give up runs eventually. Willy Adames will get a hit. More than one, probably.
But who the Rays put on the field, and in what situations, can tell us plenty about the internal evaluations that frame the decisions made by Kevin Cash and the Rays front office. So let’s look at some managerial moves.
Kevin Cash thinks that Yonny Chirinos is good.
Rather than go with an opener for game four of the series, as was generally expected, Cash made Yonny Chirinos a traditional starter against the Astros’ righty-heavy lineup. This might have been a case of just thinking that the matchup was a good one for Chirinos, and that he was as good a bet against the top of the Astros order as any of the short relief options. Or it might mean that he thinks Chirinos, who has struggled with command at times, could benefit from the surety of knowing when his workday would begin.
The more telling part, probably, is that when Chirinos did well, Cash let him keep going in the seventh inning, facing the top of the Astros order for a third time, with the game still close. That lack of a quick hook is a managerial vote of confidence for the young righty. Remember, just because a pitcher is cruising doesn’t mean he’s a good bet to keep pitching above his normal level, or that he’s immune from the times through the order penalty. Cash knows this. He didn’t leave Chirinos in just because he thought his pitching at that moment was good. He left him in because he thought he is good.
Pitching roles are going to be fluid.
I’m not going to go so far as to say that Chirinos will remain a traditional starter. It was only one game against a bunch of righties. And if Chirinos earned himself a starting role with that performance, what about Jalen Beeks?
In game one, Beeks relieved Blake Snell and finished out the last three innings of the loss in impressive fashion, striking out five over three shutout innings (against a tough, righty-laden lineup). That performance saved the rest of the Rays bullpen for high leverage short-relief work with the lead later in the series.
By the fourth game? Yup, Beeks was a part of that high-leverage short-relief group. With a two run lead in the eighth, the Rays went Kolarek-Roe-Beeks to get the handedness advantage against every batter. Beeks faced the dangerous Michael Brantley, and got him to ground into a double play to end the inning.
People are going to spend a lot of time talking about the Rays unwillingness to name a closer, but that’s very 2010. Jose Alvarado and Diego Castillo are both excellent relief pitchers. They can close games, and they will. They can also pitch at other important times during games, and they will. Probably some other pitchers will get saves, too. Role fluidity allows the manager to better match the skills of his players to the matchup and the game situation, but everybody has known this about the closer role for a long time.
The more interesting thing is that this Rays bullpen will have fluid roles from top to bottom. Gone are the days when the “long reliever” was the worst pitcher on the roster, tasked with soaking up innings in a rout. Far more radical than flipping the sequence of “starter and reliever” to “opener and headliner,” is the idea that long relievers should be good pitchers who you want pitching in close games, either for one batter or for many, as the situation dictates.
Managing the bullpen this way puts a ton of pressure on both Kevin Cash and Kyle Snyder. They are juggling a diverse set of innings loads without the benefit of the role-based heuristics most managers and pitching coaches use. But if they can get it right all season long, there’s efficiency to be picked up there.
The Rays think Ji-Man Choi can play first base.
This one is pretty simple. In three of the four games, Choi started at first base. Most interesting was opening day, where Choi started at first and Brandon Lowe started at DH. I’d have expected those two to be swapped, since, while Lowe isn’t a great fielder, he’s a second baseman. Generally, second basemen are better fielders overall than first basemen, and Lowe has worked out some at first.
I’d say that maybe this was an indictment of Lowe’s glove and experience at first base (he doesn’t have much), except that in game three, the Rays had a chance to lift Choi for Yandy Diaz as part of a series of defensive substitutions (more on that later) and they didn’t.
The Rays have some degree of confidence in Choi’s glove.
The Rays think Joey Wendle can play shortstop.
During the offseason and the spring, a few of the writers debated who the backup shortstop was, wondering what would happen if Willy Adames were to miss some time. Three games into the season, we have an answer, and part of it is surprising.
Against Collin McHugh, the Rays stacked their lineup with lefties, and started Wendle at short. He’s been there before, starting seven games at short in 2018, but that always seemed more like the situation dictating it, rather than it being part of Plan A. This felt like Plan A.
I still expect Adames to get almost all of the time there, but this was a quicker rotation than I’d expected. Wendle is a good defensive second baseman, so there’s no reason to think he can’t hack it at shortstop, and the Rays seem to agree.
The rank of defensive abilities of Rays infielders goes Adames > Robertson > Wendle > Lowe at 2B > Diaz at 3B.
In the ninth inning of game three, protecting a 3-1 lead, the Rays made a bunch of defensive changes. Daniel Robertson replaced Wendle at shortstop, who moved over to third base, and Yandy Diaz exited the game.
Now I assume Adames had the day off, and that Cash wanted to give him the whole day to help clear his head after a rough start at the plate, otherwise he’d be the one taking over at shortstop from Wendle. After that, this gives us a pretty good look at what the Rays believe to be their defensive hierarchy across the infield.
- Adames, Robertson, and Wendle are all really good defenders (it takes a really good defender to play shortstop).
- The Rays think Robertson is a better defender than Wendle.
- The Rays think Wendle is a better defender than Lowe or Diaz.
- Wendle could have booted either Lowe at second, or Diaz at third. It’s not a direct comparison, since I don’t expect Yandy to play at second (although Lowe may get a bit of time at third), but this seems to imply that the Rays think Lowe at second is better compared to the average second baseman than Diaz is at third compared to the average third baseman.
- Regarding Choi at first, note that in all of these defensive adjustments he remained in the game.
The Rays think Avisail Garcia is a better fielder than Austin Meadows.
In games two and four, Garcia played right field while Meadows started at DH. In game three, Garcia played right field while Meadows played left, and Meadows was eventually replaced by the speedy Guillermo Heredia.
This is an interesting comparison because both players are big guys with near-elite sprint speed, but with questions about how they translate that into outfield defense. In very limited playing time, Meadows’s UZR and DRS has been pretty bad, and the Rays have apparently focussed on improving his first steps in the outfield. In more significant playing time, Garcia’s defensive metrics have been bad-to average (career DRS of -30, UZR of -7.9, UZR/150 of -2.4).
This would be a more interesting data point for us to ponder if we knew more about Austin Meadows, but we don’t. We know the Rays think Garcia is better than him in the field. We don’t know if that’s because the Rays think Meadows is pretty bad, or because they think Garcia is maybe actually okay, or even pretty good. Remember, the speed is there for both of them.
If the Rays believe in Garcia’s feet and glove more than do the publicly available defensive metrics, that sheds light on their decision not to go more aggressively after Nelson Cruz, the most-talked-about free agent target this past offseason. One year/$14 million is not a lot to pay for a hitter of Cruz’s quality, and Garcia as part of a DH platoon with Choi is a poor consolation prize.
But maybe we shouldn’t think of Garcia as just the short half of a DH platoon.
There’s not a lot to take from the baseball performances over the first four days of the season, but the Rays have spent all offseason and spring planning, and with nothing yet having gone terribly wrong to force them into a Plan B, we can get a decent look at what they came up with for Plan A.
Internal evaluations can and will change, so take these all with a grain of salt. But after a long winter without baseball, I’m happy to have those peeks behind the curtain, salt and all.