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Tampa Bay Rays Series Preview: The champs arrive

MLB: Texas Rangers at Tampa Bay Rays
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

This won’t be the first series against the Rays with snow in the forecast.

The Royals long homestand concludes with a visit from the American League champion Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays went 40-20 last season in a pretty magical season for them. After coming close to winning it all, they kept their position player core together, but they dealt Blake Snell to the Padres and lost Charlie Morton to the Braves in free agency. The calculus there was that they have enough pitching to endure the loss of both of them to keep payroll down. And they can pitch, but that’s a lot of reliability, even for two guys who don’t necessarily get deep in games, out the door, leaving them with a lot of unprovens. They’ve won with unprovens before, though.

Offensively, they have a decent amount of pop throughout their lineup and a fair amount of patience, but there’s some swing and miss to their game without a doubt. Randy Arozarena burst onto the scene during the playoffs, but he was actually very good when the Rays called him up before. He went a bit unnoticed. To start this season, he hasn’t been quite as good, but you know the potential is in there. Brandon Lowe also hasn’t really gotten going yet, and when he does, that makes the Rays far more dangerous. But maybe the player most important to the Rays success is Austin Meadows. He dealt with a bad 2020 due to a number of reasons, but if he’s right, he can really make this Rays offense sing.

Pitching-wise, you never worry about the Rays, but they did trade Snell and lost Morton, as I mentioned above. But they’ve also lost a lot of guys to injury. Nick Anderson, who is awesome, is out for the year. Jalen Beeks, who is very useful, likely is as well. Pete Fairbanks is out, Colin Poche is out for at least few more months and Chaz Roe is out for a bit too. Oh yeah, they also are without Yonny Chirinos until late in the year maybe and Chris Archer, brought in as one of their famous reclamation projects, is on the injured list as well. And because of that, they’ve had some struggles, but if I had to bet, I’d say they’ll be in the top half of the league in pitching categories when it’s all said and done.

Probable Pitching Matchups

Fleming was a fifth round pick of the Rays out of Webster University in St. Louis in 2017 and has just had a steady, unspectacular climb through their system. Never a big strikeout guy, but always featuring good control, he just seems a bit to be an organizational arm that the Rays are getting more out of, as they tend to do. He uses a two-seamer that averages about 91 MPH and also throws a cutter that was very good in his first start of the year, a changeup that didn’t get a single swing and miss and the very occasional curve. His changeup was excellent last year, and that’s led to some reverse platoon splits for him in his career with lefties hitting way better than righties. Unfortunately the Royals lineup doesn’t have a lot from the left side, so they might struggle a bit here in this one.

Danny Duffy got pushed back a day by the rainout on Friday, so he’ll start game one of this series against the Rays. He’s been everything you can hope for and honestly more this season in his first two starts with 12 innings pitched, just one run allowed and getting strikeouts without too many walks. I mentioned during the Mariners series preview that he hit 97.3 on the gun, which is pretty crazy in his last start. The best start of Duffy’s career came against the Rays when he threw eight innings of one-hit ball with 16 strikeouts in Tampa in 2016. The 34 swings and misses he got in that game were seriously incredible. This is obviously a different Duffy and a different Rays team, but that memory is pretty fun. In general, he does pitch well against Tampa Bay, though, so it’s a matchup he’s seemed to like in his career.

Rich Hill made his big league debut the day after Bobby Witt, Jr. turned five years old. So you could say he’s been around awhile. He really turned his career around in a late-season audition with the Red Sox that led to a a bigger than expected one-year deal with the A’s that led to a three-year with the Dodgers where he was very successful. He’s had a tough start to this year, but from 2015 through last year, Hill has thrown 505 innings with a 2.92 ERA with 584 strikeouts. You might notice that’s not a lot of innings. He doesn’t stay on the field very well. But when he pitches, he’s generally good. Like Fleming, Hill doesn’t throw hard. He’s consistently upper-80s with his fastball and throws that and his curve about 88 percent of the time. After that, it’s minimal cutters, sliders and the occasional sinker and changeup. He doesn’t get a ton of swings and misses on the curve, but he does elicit weak contact. Most of his curves end up low and inside on his glove side, but if he does leave one up, that’s the pitch to whack. Can Royals hitters take advantage? That’s something I’m not convinced of, but we’ll see.

After two disastrous starts to start the year, Brad Keller finally had a good one, and he looked fantastic. I wrote about some of the differences here, but it seemed to be at least somewhat his mentality. And a lot of mechanics. He got up to 98 with his fastball and was clearly feeling that pitch. He still didn’t use his slider a ton, but after I worried quite a bit that he was hurt before, he’s repeatedly said he feels fine and then went out and had a good start. I don’t think he’s out of the woods. I still have my doubts, but if he can be that guy who avoids hard contact like we’ve seen the first three years of his career, he has a chance to shut down a hit or miss Rays lineup.

I don’t think Michael Wacha’s career is going the way he expected when he was a young guy posting a 3.21 ERA in 353 innings to start his career with the St. Louis Cardinals. Since then, he’s been up and down and dealt with injuries and is now on his second straight one-year prove it deal. His baseball card numbers with the Mets last season were a mess, but he struck out more than ever and walked fewer than ever but he just kept getting hit hard. It looks like the Rays are wanting him to use his cutter more (sound familiar?) and that’s the pitch he’s gone heavy with in his first two appearances, throwing it 41 percent of the time. It’s been hit fairly hard. His fastball, which was down in the 93-94 range after being 95-96 has been a bit of an afterthought. The problem is that it’s hard to know which pitch to focus on as they all got hit hard last season with the exception of his changeup. The Royals have seen a fair amount of Wacha as he was with the Cardinals for a long time, and he was mostly good, but they did light him up the last time they saw him in 2019. In that game, Jorge Soler homered in that game and Whit Merrifield had two hits.

Jakob Junis has firmly put himself into the rotation after his second straight very strong start against a good Blue Jays lineup on Thursday night. It’s easy to second guess him going out for the sixth when he was way over his season high in pitches and facing the lineup a third time, but they were up seven and he was cruising, so I think the Royals maybe saw it as a chance to stretch him out a little more. It ended up costing him with two runners he left on scoring, but the new cutter continues to be a hit. I’m still very curious how teams do against him once they’ve seen him again, but the Rays will be seeing him and that cutter for the first time, so I have high hopes for him.

Prediction

The Rays have been a little hit or miss this season as they work out their pitching. I think the Royals are catching them at a good time before they get things sorted out later in the season. I’m not entirely sure the Royals are playing well, but they do just keep on winning. I think they keep that up throughout this series and take two of three from the Rays.





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