2018 Tampa Bay Rays
2018 Tampa Bay Rays / Franchise: Tampa Bay Rays / BR Team Page
Managed by Kevin Cash
History, Comments, Contributions
The 2018 Tampa Bay Rays had a tumultuous off-season, After finishing a surprising third in the AL East in 2017, there was a sense that contention was just around the corner, but the first major move the team made was to trade the player whose name was most associated with the franchise, 3B Evan Longoria, to the San Francisco Giants in return for veteran OF Denard Span and prospects. While the move was generally considered a good long-term one, as Longoria was getting on in years and the return for his services was not negligible, it was not the type of move that a team wishing to contend would make. Neither was the team's declining to attempt to re-sign 1B Logan Morrison, who was coming off the best season of his career. There was some good news on a different front in early February, however, as ownership announced it had identified a site in the Ybor City neighborhood of Tampa, FL as a site for a new ballpark. While there were still a number of hurdles to clear, this was the first time a concrete solution was proposed to fans to address the issue of the team's awful home ballpark, Tropicana Field.
The real action began the first week of spring training, however, as the front office suddenly made a number of moves, and unfortunately for the fans, they all seemed to put control of costs ahead of competitiveness. Three solid veteran players still in their prime were moved within the span of a few days: SP Jake Odorizzi was sent to the Minnesota Twins, OF/DH Corey Dickerson was first designated for assignment then traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates, and OF Steven Souza went to the Arizona Diamondbacks. While the Rays received players in return for the three, none were expected to help the team immediately or be front-liners. Instead, the team brass went out and signed some cheaper players such as 1B C.J. Cron and OF Carlos Gomez. It was left up to the few top-rank veterans remaining, such as Span, P Chris Archer and OF Kevin Kiermaier, all also the subject of trade rumors, to convince their teammates that a finish in the cellar was not a foregone conclusion. To illustrate how much churning there had been, half of the players on the Rays' 40-man roster in late February had not been there at the end of the 2017 season. The Rays also had to deal with two serious injuries to top pitching prospects in the first few weeks of camp, as both Brent Honeywell and Jose De Leon went down for the season with elbow issues.
The Rays announced in spring training that they would try an innovative approach for their starting rotation: they would have four full-time starters, but instead of going with an old school four-man rotation, they would use the fifth day, when needed, as a "bullpen day", with various relievers combining to provide the required innings, or would call up someone from the minors for a one-off start. The four regular starters were expected to be Archer, Nathan Eovaldi, Blake Snell and Jake Faria. With Eovaldi going down with an elbow injury just before the start of the season, that rotation was reduced to three starters and two bullpen days. Andrew Kittredge was the first reliever to get a start on March 31st, followed by Austin Pruitt on April 3rd, although that start was snowed out; neither had been expected to pitch more than 3 or 4 innings. In spite of the uncertainties, manager Kevin Cash was planning to stick with this approach at least for a couple more weeks, with two youngster, Yonny Chirinos and Ryan Yarbrough, both having made their major league debut in the season's first week, next in line to make an abbreviated start. There were some questions about whether the approach was sustainable in the long run, however, even if the pitchers themselves said they were fully on board. In any case, all the moves were not translating into wins, as the Rays lost seven of their first eight games to fall to 1-7 for the first time in franchise history, including the awful years after expansion when they were known as the "Devil Rays" and were routinely losing 100 games per season.
They began to play a lot better after that dreadful start, and in late April did something very surprising for a team generally considered to be lacking in offensive punch: they scored at least 8 runs in five consecutive games from April 20-26. This had never been done in franchise history, and it came as part of a six-game winning streak that improved their record to 10-13. They continued to win after that, and were sticking to the plan to use bullpen days regularly. On May 19th, their starter was short reliever Sergio Romo, who was starting a game for the first time after 11 season and 588 games exclusively as a relief pitcher. Facing the Los Angeles Angels, he struck out the side in the 1st inning, then gave way to Yarbrough, who followed with 6 scoreless innings before allowing a run in the 8th as Tampa Bay won that game, 5-3 to move to .500 at 22-22. The Rays had won 18 of their last 26 games and 6 in a row at that point. Yarbrough was thriving in the newly defined role: that game was his longest outing of the season, but 7 of his 10 games thus far had gone between 4 and 5 innings, either as a bullpen starter or as the tag man in a bullpen start - and he was now 4-2, 3.54. Cash then decided to have Romo start the following day's game as well, since the experiment had gone absolutely perfectly. He had another good performance the following day, not giving up a run in 1 1/3 innings, but the Rays lost the game, 5-2. Not everyone was enamored about the experimentation, though, as the Angels' Zack Cozart, who had faced Romo in both of his abbreviated starts, said it was "weird", "bad for baseball" and more reminiscent of spring training than of a major league contest. Of course, disturbing hitters like Cozart who were hoping to have three at-bats against the starting pitcher and prepare accordingly, was the whole point of the exercice. In any case, the Rays were apparently very pleased with the outcome, as they announced that all three games of a week-end series against the Baltimore Orioles on May 25-27 would be started by relievers, with Romo getting the nod in the first two, and Ryne Stanek in the third. On May 25th, they also showed that their spring training trading frenzy was not over, as they swung another trade of veterans for prospects, this time sending CF Denard Span and closer Alex Colome to the Seattle Mariners in return for two pitching prospects, Andrew Moore and Tommy Romero.
Heading into the All-Star break, the Rays were surprising everyone by hanging around .500, even if they were miles behind the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, who were duking it out for first place somewhere in a far distant galaxy. On July 14th, they tied a team record with 19 runs scored in a 19-6 beatdown of the Minnesota Twins, the third time in franchise history they had ever scored that many runs, but the last had come in 2006, when they were still known as the "Devil Rays". In that game, they were the first team since 1920 to score at least 5 runs in each of the final three innings of a game. It helped that utility player Willians Astudillo pitched the final inning for the Twins, allowing a pair of long balls. On July 25th, they made a couple more trades, sending P Nathan Eovaldi to the Red Sox for prospect Jalen Beeks and P Matt Andriese to Arizona for C Michael Perez and P Brian Shaffer. The following day, it was the turn of successful reclamation project Jonny Venters to be traded: he went to the Atlanta Braves in return for international bonus pool money. On the final day before the trading deadline, July 31st, they sent nominal ace Archer to the Pirates for two young major leaguers, Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows and a player to be named later, and C Wilson Ramos, who was on the disabled list at the time, to the Philadelphia Phillies for another player to be named, but they then turned around and made one final puzzling deal, obtaining OF Tommy Pham from the St. Louis Cardinals in return for three prospects.
While many people expected the Rays to fade away at that point, it wasn't the case at all, Not only did they continue to hold on, they began to build a cushion ensuring they would finish above .500. Ace Blake Snell was having a great season, and the strategy of regular bullpen days worked better than anyone could have anticipated. On August 24-26, they became the first team to sweep the Red Sox that season, doing so in a three-game series at home; the wins also extended their winning streak to 8 games and placed them at 9 games above .500 at 70-61, the first time they had been that far ahead of the break-even point since June of 2015. In September, they had a streak of 11 straight wins at home, tying a team record dating back to their World Series season in 2008. They had also won 16 of 19 games and caught the the Seattle Mariners for third in the wild card race, although the two teams ahead of them were probably too far in front to be caught with three weeks left to play.
Awards and Honors
- Ted Berg: "'This could change the game:' Rays' 'openers' and 'bulk guys' on their new pitching strategy", "For the Win!", USA Today Sports, August 23, 2018. 
- Bill Chastain: "Cash: Rays' fifth starter will be 'a bullpen day': Manager will attempt to stick to four-man rotation past six-week mark", mlb.com, March 7, 2018. 
- Daniel Kramer: "Reaction to Rays' strategy: 'Complicated,' 'weird': Decision to start Romo on back-to-back days catches attention across MLB", mlb.com, May 21, 2018. 
- Gabe Lacques: "After winter razing, Rays raise hopes again - and insist they didn't wave white flag", USA Today Sports, February 27, 2018. 
- Gabe Lacques: "Amid roster chaos, pitching experiment, 'oddball' Rays still standing", USA Today Sports, July 30, 2018. 
- Janie McCauley, Kristie Rieken and Doug Gould (Associated Press): "Steady relief: Rays use bullpen in place of No 4 starter", USA Today Sports, April 5, 2018.