Rays' slow start not a total surprise
Loss of key free agents, injury to Longoria taking toll on club
Here's how this normally works: A team with high expectations starts 0-6. Columnists and experts adamantly pronounce that it's too early to press the panic button for such a start. Said columnists and experts immediately proceed to provide a laundry list of reasons as to why it actually might be time to press the panic button.
At some point, they wrap a bow on everything by proclaiming: "But of course, it's way too early to press the panic button."
So on that note, I'm going to just go out and say that it's time to get concerned about the Rays, a team that had some question marks heading into the season and will be without franchise player Evan Longoria (left oblique strain) until late April. The fact that Johnny Damon already held a players-only, closed-door meeting is certainly telling.
Last season, the Rays produced a 96-66 record and finished in first place in the American League East, ahead of the Yankees by one game, all with a payroll of around $70 million. Their payroll for 2011 is estimated to be $36 million. There is a simple reason for (most of) that reduction -- four of Tampa Bay's best players from last season are no longer Rays.
We all knew that Carl Crawford would be a tremendous loss for the 2011 Rays, but perhaps we never fully examined why. Last season, Crawford was the team's best player when it came to batting average (.307), stolen bases (47) and runs (110). Combined with his stellar defense, he finished the '10 campaign with a career-best 6.9 WAR (Wins Above Replacement player). Among AL players, only Josh Hamilton (8.0) and Adrian Beltre (7.1) finished the season with a better WAR than Crawford. His replacement in left field this season is the aforementioned (and defensively challenged) Damon, who posted a barely pedestrian 1.7 WAR last season with the Tigers.
That's a big deal and, along with the Longoria injury, has a lot to do with why this team has only managed to score eight runs total through six games.
Say what you want about Carlos Pena, but he's better than any first baseman Tampa Bay is currently fielding -- by a long shot. Pena has clubbed at least 28 home runs for four straight seasons, and while he likely sunk your fantasy team's battleship with a .196 batting average last year, his incredibly low .222 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) combined with a respectable 14.5 percent line-drive rate indicates that the back of his 2011 Chicago Cubs baseball card should show a sharp improvement in his numbers.
Pena has been replaced in St. Petersburg by Dan Johnson, a 31-year-old Minor League journeyman who hasn't seen 150 Major League plate appearances since 2007. In related news, Johnson hasn't batted north of .198 since that season, and he has started this year hitting -- gulp -- .043 (1-for-23).
Joining Pena in Chicago is 2010 Rays teammate Matt Garza, who went 15-10 with a 3.91 ERA and 1.25 WHIP last season pitching through the gauntlet of the AL East. Garza also has a lifetime 3.48 postseason ERA, but I'm guessing that won't really matter for Tampa Bay this season. Anyway, Garza has proven that he can hold his own pitching in the AL East for some time, rocking a 3.86 ERA over three seasons with the Rays.
He was replaced in St. Petersburg by right-handed wunderkind Jeremy Hellickson, who I love and own in almost every fantasy league I'm in this year. Hellickson impressively went 4-0 with a 3.47 ERA and a 33/8 K/BB ratio over 36 1/3 innings in his maiden voyage through the Majors last season. He also looked poised in his lone start this season, fanning 10 Angels in 5 2/3 innings in a losing effort.
Hellickson is good enough that, on the surface, a Garza/Hellickson swap could easily be a wash for the Rays. And I suppose that if this absolutely had to be a one-for-one swap, it could be. Unfortunately, the Rays had the opportunity to bring in both the noise and the funk this year and have Garza (noise) and Hellickson (funk) in their rotation together. Instead, Garza was sent to the North Side of Chicago and James Shields is still a key cog in the Rays' rotation. Now, I do expect Shields to have a bit of a bounce-back year. However, I cannot ignore the fact that Shields won the bizarro Triple Crown of pitching last season -- leading all Major Leaguer pitchers in hits, home runs and earned runs allowed. That's not a good thing.
Moving on, the Rays are without 2010 closer Rafael Soriano, who led the AL with 45 saves while posting a microscopic 1.73 ERA and 0.80 WHIP. He even finished eighth in AL Cy Young Award voting. Soriano will be replaced by, well, we don't really know.
So with that, it's time to take a serious look at the current bullpen situation in St. Petersburg.
Last year, the Rays' bullpen was the prettiest in all of the land. As a group, they led the Majors in ERA with a pristine 3.33 clip. They also did a magical job of not walking anyone, as their 2.97 BB/9 ratio was the belle of the Major League ball.
As a whole, the 2010 Rays bullpen logged 454 innings, and 354 of those lavender-scented frames were slung from the golden arms of Soriano (62 1/3 innings), Lance Cormier (62), Joaquin Benoit (60 1/3), Dan Wheeler (48 1/3), Randy Choate (44 2/3), Grant Balfour (55 1/3) and Chad Qualls (21).
Those aforementioned pitchers have not returned their talents to St. Petersburg this season. Putting some fuel on this fire is the fact that Hellickson accounted for 10 innings of relief last season. Since Hellickson is now in the rotation, manager Joe Madden will have to shuffle up and deal and find a way to replace 364 innings' worth of relief pitching, which accounted for 81 percent of last year's bullpen magical mystery tour. Not since the 1922 St. Louis Browns has a team returned a smaller percentage of bullpen innings the following year. Alright, I made that last sentence up, but the fact that it was entirely believable only underscores the difficult situation in St. Petersburg.
As things currently stand, the 2011 Tampa Bay bullpen will consist of newly signed Kyle Farnsworth (career 4.38 ERA), J.P. Howell (who missed the entire 2010 season with shoulder surgery), Juan Cruz (5.37 ERA since '09), long reliever Andy Sonnanstine and a combination of Joel Peralta, Jake McGee, Adam Russell and Cesar Ramos.
So on that note, no, I don't think it's too early to start pushing any panic buttons.
Dave Feldman is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.