Sox, Rays Going In Different Directions

Last Thursday, as the Red Sox and Rays each dropped to 0-6 on the season, I wrote that each team’s expectations for the rest of the season hinged on unpredictable starting pitchers. The Red Sox and Rays each picked up their first win on Friday, and each suffered an ugly loss on Saturday, but going into their first head-to-head matchup of the season tonight, it’s clear that the two squads are going in vastly different directions, and starting pitching is just one of the reasons.

In Tampa, there’s really been no good news all season. Evan Longoria’s oblique injury will only keep him out of the lineup for a few weeks, but we don’t know what to expect from him upon his return, and his absence has shone a light on just how thin this Rays offense is.

Manny Ramirez’s steroid suspension and subsequent retirement won’t have a huge impact on the team’s performance, as Ramirez offered no defensive value and had yet to find his stride with the bat, but the news hurts nonetheless. For once, the Rays front office looks foolish for what seemed like a low-risk signing. In the three-plus years since Tampa emerged from the AL East basement, how many moves has their front office made that left fans shaking their heads? Trading the promise of Delmon Young may have seemed short-sighted, but would any Rays fan rather have had Young than Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett these last few seasons? It was sad to see Scott Kazmir, who once looked like the long-term face of the franchise, traded away, but in hindsight, that was a brilliant move, as Kazmir has been worth one run less than a replacement-level player in his time with the Angels. Only when the Rays had too many holes to fill and too few dollars to fill them with did they finally turn to the Ramirez contract, the type of strange move we’ve come to expect from the Mets, not from a savvy leadership group like Tampa’s.

Back to the playing field, with Manny gone, Tampa has Sam Fuld in left field and Johnny Damon designated hitting while they wait and hope for Desmond Jennings to develop into a Carl Crawford clone. Here’s how the Rays lined up a year ago today for a Sunday afternoon game against the Yankees. I’ll offer each player’s prior season Wins Above Replacement, since 2011 data is incomplete.

1. Jason Bartlett, ss (4.9)
2. Carl Crawford, lf (5.7)
3. Ben Zobrist, rf (8.4)
4. Evan Longoria, 3b (7.3)
5. Carlos Pena, 1b (2.8)
6. BJ Upton, cf (2.2)
7. Pat Burrell, dh (-.4)
8. Dioner Navarro, c (-.1)
9. Sean Rodriguez, 2b (0)

That’s 30.8 wins, depsite getting nothing (or perhaps less than nothing) from the bottom three spots. Later in the season, the Rays dumped Burrell and gave most of his at bats to Willy Aybar and Matt Joyce, who were slightly better (while Burrell destroyed National League pitching with the Giants), and rookie catcher John Jaso took over primary catching duties and was worth a surprising 2.5 marginal wins. Rodriguez was young and has developed into a serviceable every day starter.

Now here are the Rays who will face Daisuke Matsuzaka at Fenway tonight:

1. Sam Fuld, lf (-.2)
2. Johnny Damon, dh (1.9)
3. BJ Upton, cf (3.4)
4. Dan Johnson, 1b (.1)
5. Ben Zobrist, 2b (3.1)
6. Matt Joyce, rf (1.9)
7. Sean Rodriguez, 3b (1.9)
8. Kelly Shoppach, c (.4)
9. Reid Brignac, ss (1.2)

That’s less than 14 wins in their starting lineup. A team of replacement players would theoretically win 40-45 games in a season. Let’s be generous and call it 45. Let’s also generously assume that Longoria returns healthy and replaces Rodriguez’s 2 wins with 6 of his own. We’re up to 63 wins. That means the Rays are counting on 5 marginal wins per starting pitcher and a few more from their less-than-inspiring bullpen and bench to make a run at the playoffs. For reference, David Price’s 2010 (when he finished second in the Cy Young voting), was worth 4.3 wins above replacement.

In my season preview, I suggested that the Rays could win 90 games and contend in the AL East. Upon further review, even an MVP-caliber Evan Longoria and five David Prices in the rotation probably couldn’t carry this team to the playoffs.

On the other hand, the Red Sox turned their hitting around, as expected, as soon as they returned to Fenway Park. Last night, the pitching finally caught on. In comparing Boston’s and Tampa’s respective 0-6 starts, it should be noted that the Rays played their first five games at home, where they went 49-32 in 2010, while the Red Sox played their first six on the road, where they barely broke .500 (43-38) last year, and where they finished under .500 (39-42) in 2009, when they last made the playoffs.

Boston scored 17 runs in three games against New York, one more than they scored in their first six games, and could have tacked on a few more Sunday night, as they scored just four despite having 20 baserunners in 8 innings. Dustin Pedroia is hitting .400 and slugging .571 after nine hits in the weekend series. Adrian Gonzalez is reaching base at a .375 clip and David Ortiz is slugging .486. Even slumping Kevin Youkilis has 11 walks, bringing his OBP close to .400 despite a .148 batting average.

On the pitching side, John Lackey’s struggles continued, as he gave up six runs in five innings on Friday, and Clay Buchholz couldn’t get past a tough Yankee lineup, giving up five runs (four earned) in less than four innings. But Josh Beckett gave the pitching staff reason to believe better things are coming, striking out ten and walking one in eight dominant innings Sunday night. Closer Jonathan Papelbon, who has devolved from dependable bullpen ace to a white-knuckle roller coaster ride over the past three years, pitched perfect ninth innings on Friday and Sunday, and now has seven strikeouts in three innings.

There are 153 games left in this year’s baseball season. For the 2-7 Red Sox, that means 153 opportunities to showcase their certainly-powerful offense and 153 chances to reevaluate their sometimes-dominant pitching, and 78 more chances to wow the crowd at Fenway Park. For the Rays, that means 153 more learning experiences to suffer through while their young players develop. With one of the game’s best hitters entering his prime, some promising young pitching, and perhaps the most brilliant and entertaining manager in the game, the Rays long-term future may be bright. 2011 is not the future in Tampa though. In fact, 2011 may look more like 2007.

Maybe for both teams.

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