You can only play who is on the schedule. That’s an axiom as old as baseball, and it’s mostly true. The Tampa Bay Rays got to start their season with nine games against MLB’s kids with mittens pinned to their jackets year-round, and they’ve done all they can do. Which is to beat the ever-loving piss out of them, to the tune of a 9-0 record with a run-difference of +57. That would work out to a +1,026 run difference over a full season. Which would be tasty.
But yes, it’s hard to judge what the Rays are when they’ve played the Tigers, Nationals, and A’s, the last of which they beat Saturday and Sunday by a combined 22-0. You’d figure that at least on Opening Day they’d face a top-tier pitcher, given that most everyone has to. They got Eduardo Rodriguez in Detroit, who is the very definition of fine. It’s also the only game they’ve been held to under five runs, so clearly they’re butt when facing a warm body on the mound! Well, not really.
Here’s the list of starters they’ve faced since, and see how many you knew were real people before reading this: Spencer Turnbull, Joey Wentz, Trevor Williams, Chad Kuhl, Patrick Corbin, Ken Waldichuk, Shintaro Fujinami, and James Kaprielian. Williams and Kuhl the definition of plugs that bad teams sign because someone has to actually stand on the mound and hurl the ball somewhere toward home plate every fifth day. Patrick Corbin is dead. Waldichuk is not a real person, and Fujinami and Kaprielian are Athletics. So yes…chum.
The Rays’ numbers are pretty hilarious. Wander Franco is slugging .757, which would make him Frank Thomas who can play shortstop. He’s already collected 0.8 fWAR, which would set him on a 14.4 fWAR pace, which would be the second-best single season of all-time (Ruth, ‘27, you may have heard about it) They have five guys who have a wRC+ over 200 (100 is average). Drew Rasmussen and Jeffrey Springs haven’t given up a run in four combined starts. Shane McLanahan has given up two. Zach Efflin has been the real bum of the group, giving up four runs in 11 innings through two starts. Four of their relievers haven’t given up a run so far.
Nothing lasts forever, and the Rays will get something of a sterner test with three games against the Red Sox and then a decidedly sterner test against the Jays next weekend (though they can’t get anyone out at the moment either). There are no big games in an MLB regular season, especially with the expanded playoffs, but at least the Rays might have to breathe hard at some point this week.
That said, in a division where one might expect the Yankees, Rays, and Jays to kind of take equal bites out of each other, who wins the division and gets to skip out on the wildcard round might come down to how much they beat up on various dregs around the league. A 9-0 run against them could play a big role against either the Yankees or Jays going 7-2 against them, which would still be a more than acceptable run.
Franco is the one worth watching. Last season he was blighted by an injury to his wrist, which is something that hitters take a long time to recover from even after they return to the lineup. While a quarter of his fly balls aren’t going to keep turning into homers (though with this baseball it might), he has shown far greater discipline so far at the plate while still putting up high-end contact numbers when he does swing. That means his 90.5 average exit velocity and 40 percent hard-hit rate might be things we continue to see, which should lead to some pretty bonkers numbers.
On the pitching side, though they were the pioneers when it came to bullpen usage and openers, the Rays have gotten pretty conventional recently. And that’s even with trying to find all the pieces to Tyler Glasnow and put him back together again. Drew Rasmussen is striking out 35 percent of the hitters he’s seen in two starts, and the added depth to his cutter so far this season has made it Bugs Bunny-like (40 percent whiff rate).
The Rays will lose, probably this week. They won’t get to face fodder like this for most of the season. But hey, you can only eat what’s served.