The Rays are the sole possessors of the worst record in baseball and are entering Boston for what could be a challenging series, so it's easy to freak out. None of us thought this team would start the year on this bad a foot, and considering many of us still held hopes that the Rays could be in the playoff race this year, it's a very disappointing start.
But before you freak, repeat with me: the sky is not falling. Don't press the panic button; take a step back and breath deeply with me for a second. Judging by the reactions surrounding the Rays in recent days, I think we all need to get our expectations for the Rays back in line.
Going into the season, we all knew that the Rays had an outside chance of making the playoffs. This was a team that most projection systems pegged at around 88-90 wins: a good team with the change to win 90+ games if things broke right. That's a good team, no doubt, but with the strength of the Yankees and Red Sox, the Rays could have won 93 games this season and still be on the outside of the playoffs.
And since the season has begun, things have gone the exact opposite of smoothly. Evan Longoria hitting the disabled list for a month probably knocked around one win off the Rays' projected win total, and losing Manny Ramirez completely is another big hit - around two wins. And the Rays current losing streak has put them in quite the early-season hole: even if we're very generous and figure the Rays play like a 95-win club for the rest of the season, the Rays will still only finish the year with 91 wins. That'd be an impressive turn-around after this disappointing start, but it still likely wouldn't be enough to reach the playoffs.
That's not to say that playoff hopes are gone entirely - crazier things have happened in baseball, and you simply never know how a season is going to play out. But as we saw with Boston last season, getting out of an early-season hole can be very tough, even when you have a talented team. Boston started off the season at 4-9, suffered injuries to lots of key players, and didn't manage to get over .500 for good until the tail end of May. They still managed to finish the season with 89 wins, but those injuries and that early season hole proved too much to overcome to make the playoffs.
Despite what you might think from watching the team on a daily basis, the Rays still have a talented team. The Rays lost Manny, but the rest of this team is the exact same squad that we started the season with; even docking off wins for losing Manny and Evan's injury, and this team still has a true-talent level around 85 wins. They may underperform that this season for all we know, but nine games is waaay too small a portion of the season to start making judgement calls on if this team is crap or not.
If you need some reassuring, check out these numbers for the Rays:
For all our complaints about the Rays' pitching, it hasn't really been all that bad: for perspective, the Rays' starters posted a 4.24 FIP, 4.08 xFIP last season. This year's bullpen has been stronger so far than many people expected, and the defense has been bad but shouldn't stay that way (as long as we limit the amount of time Lopez is spending in the field). The real culprit has been the offense, and simply put, there's no way the offense remains this bad all season long. Last season's Mariners had one of the worst offenses of the past 20 years, and yet they still posted a .286 wOBA. Even without Longoria, the Rays are not this bad an offensive club - sooner or later, regression to the mean will hit and the Rays will start hitting.
No team will do well when they lose their top two middle-of-the-order bats, and the Rays have had the misfortune of going through a rough offensive slide at the exact same time. This is how things go during the season: you prepare as well as you can during the off-season, and then you have to see which way things break once the games begin. The Rays had things go incredibly well for them in 2008 and 2010 - remember Wily Aybar replacing Evan Longoria for a month...and hitting like Longo the whole time? - and this season has simply gone the other way at the moment.
Things can always turn around and I'm going to keep hoping that the Rays get hot, so I'm not saying that anyone should give up hope. What I am saying is: be realistic. The playoffs are a big long shot at this point, and so I don't think any of us should be disappointed if the Rays end up with a win total in the 80s somewhere. Variability happens - you can't control for everything during the course of a season. This is still a fun club to watch, though, and they're likely to improve as the year goes along. Don't write them off as screw ups yet.
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