Tonight marks the first of a three game series the Rays will have at home against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Arizona (28-45) has not been good this year, as evidenced by their last-place in the N.L. West record. Things don't look to get better for the D-Backs andtrade talks have already started throughout the baseball world with the assumption being that they have already given this season up and are starting to concentrate on the future. It is this type of team that the Rays really need to beat up on at home to continue to make a push for a division title. Don't get me wrong, I am in no way saying that if we lose this series we are doomed. What I am saying is that series victories (sweep anyone?) against poor teams like this are what pad your record for August/September baseball, because honestly how many victories do you expect against the Yankees/Red Sox?
With that said here are the matchups:
Friday: Edwin Jackson (4-6, 5.05) vs. Jeff Niemann (6-1, 2.84)
Rays fans should be familiar with Jackson's repitoireseeing as he spent 2006-2008 with us. However, for those of you unfamiliar Jackson features a fastball that sits around 94 and can run up to 97/98, that he compliments with a slider, change-up, and rarely a curve. Don't let his ERA fool you as he is an above-average starter (4.08 FIP). The funpart of this game, in my opinion comes in who he is facing. WithCarl Crawford's day-to-day status, coupled with the recent promotion of Matt Joyce and the fact that Jackson is a righthander, Jackson may end up facing the man he was traded for in 2009, Matt Joyce. Many people bemoan the fact that the Rays traded Jackson for Joyce, citing the fact that Joyce has been oft-injured and Jackson went to the All-Star game last year. But keep in mind if we hadn't let Jackson go last year we wouldn't have has a roster spot for David Price or Jeff Niemann.
Saturday: Ian Kennedy (3-5, 3.60) vs. David Price (10-3, 2.45)
Kennedy was the other piece (besides Jackson) for Arizona last year in a three team deal that landed Austin Jackson in Detroit and Curtis Granderson in New York (American). He has been just about the opposite of Edwin this year as his FIP (4.85) is over a full run worst than his ERA. Kennedy features an 89 mph fastball, a curve, slider, and changeup. Do to his lack of fast ball, he relies heavily on his off-speed stuff (throws off-speed ~42% of the time).
Sunday: Rodrigo Lopez (3-6, 4.59) vs. Wade Davis (5-8, 4.90)
Lopez has been for the most part pitching to his talent level this year. He has a career ERA of 4.80 and a career FIP of 4.60. This year those marks are 4.59 and 4.79 respectively. Lopez puts his arsenal together around an 88 mph fastball anda slider. He uses these two pitches over 65% of the time with the rest of his offerings a mix of cutters, change-ups andcurves. The most interesting thing that I find is that he throws his cutter just as hard as his fastball (average mph of cutter 88.5, vs 88.4 for fastball).
*Note all pitch types/speeds found at fangraphs.com
Arizona Offense: The Diamondbacks field a good-hitting team, ranking 8th in MLB in wOBA at .335. For reference the Rays rank one spot lower at 9th with a .334 wOBA. Arizona's attack is led by younger Upton Justin who continues to show all of the talent that led to him being drafted No. 1 overall in 2005. He currently sports a .261 BA with 13 HR 38 RBI and 11 SB. Complimenting Upton is Kelly Johnson at 2nd. A shrewd off-season signing by GM Josh Byrnes, Johnson was had on a 1-yr $2.35 million contract (Cot's Baseball Contracts). He has been tearing the ball up ever since hitting AZ. Other major contributors are the steady, but un-spectacular first-baseman Adam LaRoche, the Dr Jekyll HR/Mr. Hyde Strikeout (or better known as their version of Carlos Pena) Mark Reynolds, OF Chris Young, and SS Stephen Drew.
Arizona Defense: Part of the reason Ian Kennedy has such a stellar ERA compared to his FIPis due in part to the cast behind him. The Arizona defense is sporting an MLB 5th best UZR of 21.3. Almost all of that defense comes from their outfield though, as Upton, Young, and leftfielder Geraldo Parra have combined for a UZR of 17.4. The Infield comes in at a much more pedestrian 2.5 (most frequent IF combination of LaRoche at 1st, Johnson at 2nd, Reynolds at 3rd, and Drew at SS).
Arizona Bullpen: So what makes Arizona so bad? I mean they have an above average offense coupled with an above average defense and an average starting rotation (Jackson and Kennedy average, Lopez below, newly acquired Dontrelle Willis average-to below average, and Dan Harenabove-average). The weak link is the bullpen. This is where the Rays must capitalize. The D-Backs currently feature a pen that has pitchers with ERA's of 6.00 (Blaine Boyer), 8.03 (Juan Gutierrez), 8.88 (Chad Qualls), 6.57 (Carlos Rosa), and 6.00 (Esmerling Vasquez). If the Rays can get to the AZ starters early, they should be able to have a field day with the bullpen.
Things to look for: Crawford's return. Carl Crawford is listed as day-to-day with shoulder soreness. How soon will he come back? Can we expect him in this series or will Maddon give Joyce a few starts in Left to get him some AB's and wait until after the off-day on Monday to bring CC back. The combination of this with all of the off-days he received a week-or-so ago means the Rays are missing significant AB'sfrom one of their best players. How will the catching situation be treated. With the demotion of Navarro, one would expect Kelly Shoppach is fully ready to take on the day-to-day rigors of catching. How will Maddon treat his backstop situation though? Will Shoppach and John Jaso truly platoon the position (Shoppach vs LHP, and Jaso vs. RHP) or will Jaso have to cover for Shoppach a little more as he Shoppach continues to test out his knee.
Rays Playoff Odds: I will be including this in every series preview going forward. This is calculated by coolstandings.com based on current record and projections going forward. As of today the Rays have a 32.4% chance of winning the division coupled with a 29.2% chance of taking the wild card for playoff odds of 61.6%.