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Toxic sting of Rays' bats the first real challenge to the Rox rotation in weeks

Rollin', rollin', rollin'. Though the Rays are golden. Keep those Rockies rollin'....

Are you scared of the Tampa Bay Rays?

You probably ought to be. Yeah, yeah I know. They got off to a tough start - just 9-14 in April in fact. But no team has underachieved like the reigning AL Champions, yet here they are, three games over .500 in easily the most difficult division in MLB. They have a five game winning streak - yes, three came against the Nationals, but they still deserve credit for actually winning the games.

They have been victims of an inordinate number of 1-run games, losing 13 of their 31 games alone by a single run. Moreover, that 8-13 barely squeaked past the Rockies' own abysmal one-run record this weekend when they took two one run games from the Nationals.

Any time a team has a poor one-run showing, it's interesting to see their run differential. And Tampa's is telling. They are 2nd in MLB, ahead of the mighty Red Sox Nation and trailing the Los Angeles Dodgers by just 12 runs. This team is scary. As you'll soon see, their offense is astonishingly impressive while the arms that helped carry them to the ALCS have yet to pitch to their potential. Despite their record and the tough division, Baseball Prospectus gives them the best chance in the AL to make the playoffs outside of the Red Sox.

Also, check out DRaysBay, Tampa's SBNation site and home of RJ Anderson, who writes for Fangraphs as well. Here is their series preview. Go be nice to them.


Tampa Bay Rays (34-31, W5, t-3rd)

Tuesday-Thursday : 3-game series at Coors Field

The Bats: A+

This is where we can really evaluate the Rockies staff. We haven't allowed more than 4 runs in the eleven game streak, but of our last three opponents, there were really only five hitters to be afraid of - Ichiro, Russell Branyan, Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, and Albert Pujols. Those were three pretty poor offenses as a whole. Tampa Bay is completely different.

You have Evan Longoria near the top of the AL in RBIs and the 2nd most valuable hitter in the majors via Fangraphs. Then there Carlos Pena, who leads the AL in HRs with 20. How about Jason Bartlett, who is coming off the DL today yet ranks as a top 20 most valuable hitter in MLB despite missing over three weeks? The dude has an wOBA of .460 and would lead MLB with his .373 average if he qualified - how's that for getting tossed in the Matt Garza/Delmon Young deal?

Then of course, there's this guy that leads MLB in Fangraphs value despite not even having enough qualifying at-bats. You need to know Ben Zobrist. He has played every position except 1B, C and P and is a legit 30/30 threat. That means the top two most valuable hitters in MLB play in Tampa, and Bartlett was #4 when he got injured.

Oh right, then there's Pat Burrell, playoff hero BJ Upton, who has not regained that magic - and Carl Crawford, who is by far and away MLB's best base-stealer. Are you surprised they rank #1 in runs scored and are second in wOBA? That's probably first with park adjustments. They are also #1 in speed and 4th in HR.

B.J. Upton - CF .218 3 15
Carl Crawford - LF
.316 5 29
Evan Longoria - 3B
.305 14 58
Carlos Pena - 1B
.240 20 48
Ben Zobrist - RF
.309 13 38
Jason Bartlett- SS
.373 7 30
Willy Aybar - 2B
.274 5 20
Dioner Navarro - C
.205 4 19

That lineup is very much a guess. But in that lineup, there are three players that are ridiculously elite by wOBA standards (Bartlett, Zobrist and Longoria), two that are solid All-Stars talents (Crawford and Pena) and one comfortably above average (Aybar). Navarro and Upton fall in the below average category. I'll admit some of these players are playing over their heads, but I'm just reporting the facts. These guys have been very good this season.

Joe Maddon will need to get Pat Burrell (.241, 1 HR, 17 RBI) into games (maybe 1B against DLR tonight?) as well as the hot-hitting Gabe Kapler (.202, 3, 11). Gabe Gross (.272, 4, 22) has started in RF frequently and prospect Matt Joyce earned his callup a couple weeks ago and is on the bench as well and was sent down to bring Pat Burrell off the DL. Michel Hernandez is the backup catcher.

The Arms: C+

Joe Maddon has some very talented arms at his disposal, but they haven't been getting the desired results. You might be surprised to know that Jason Hammel, the Ray castoff, has not only been performing better the man who beat him out, tonight's starter Jeff Niemann, but he's been better than every Tampa starter if you go by tRA. In fact, the Rockies have five starters with better tRA's than Tampa's best starter James Shields. Only Cook fails to match Shields. By this method, the Rockies have the pitching advantage in each game of the series.

For a less sabermetric angle: they are ranked 16th in ERA (rotation 20th, bullpen 9th), 21st in runs allowed, 19th in FIP and 22nd in HR/9. They should get better, but right now, they are a below average staff. Prominent names in the bullpen are J.P. Howell, Grant Balfour, Joe Nelson, and Dan Wheeler.

The D: C+

The Rays have made 44 errors, tied for 6th most in MLB, which has led to 24 unearned runs; however, they are a very athletic team that can make a lot of plays, as evidenced by their 5th ranking in UZR/150.

Probable Pitchers:

Tonight, 6:40 pm MDT

2009 - Jeff Niemann 5-4 4.12 1.45 42 27

2009 - Jorge De La Rosa 2-6 5.08 1.41 72 32

Wednesday, June 17, 6:40 pm MDT

2009 - David Price 1-0 2.37 1.63 26 18

2009 - Aaron Cook 5-3 4.26 1.39 39 27

Thursday, June 18, 1:10 MDT

2009 - Matt Garza 4-4 3.63 1.19 73 34

2009 - Ubaldo Jimenez 5-6 3.92 1.38 69 35

33_15_10---fire-flame-texture_web_mediumGabe Kapler has a home run in each of his last three games. Carlos Pena (9-for-23, 3 HR) has started to heat up the last seven days after cooling off a bit in May while Ben Zobrist (9-for-23, 2 HR) and Gabe Gross (7-for-20, 1 HR) are hot as well.

IceEvan Longoria (4-for-23, 1 HR) is actually not hitting well for what seems like the first time in his career, and B.J. Upton has managed just six singles in his past 30 ABs.

Bandaid_mediumAkinori Iwamura (knee) went on the 60-day DL last month, and Jason Isringhausen just lost his season and possibly career due to Tommy John surgery. Chad Bradford (elbow), Shawn Riggans (shoulder), Scott Kazmir (quad), Troy Percival (shoulder) and Brian Shouse (elbow) are all on the 15-day DL.