At long last, the six month long baseball-less chasm, that constitutes the offseason and Spring Training, will be bridged Sunday afternoon. Behold the magnificence that is the Opening Series, dear friends. The Tampa Bay Rays will become one of six times to open the 2016 season on April 3, when they welcome their AL East foes, the Toronto Blue Jays, into the Trop for a four-game series.
The Rays finished below .500 in each of the last two seasons after making the playoffs in four of the previous six campaigns. Yet the ball-club added some pop to an offense that finished second-to-last in the American League in runs scored, 13th in batting average (.252) and 14th in slugging percentage (.406) last season. Taking the field for the first time in a Rays uniform are 1B Logan Morrison, 1B/DH Steve Pearce, OF/DH Corey Dickerson, SS Brad Miller and C Hank Conger.
And thanks to those offseason moves, the PECOTA projection system has high hopes for Tampa Bay, estimating the Rays to win the AL East with a 91-71 record. Their success will be dependent upon the upgraded offense, that is expected to score 713 runs — 69 more than they plated in 2015. They’ll also depend upon the tried and true Rays way formula: pitching and defense. The Nate Silver curated projection system sees the Rays allowing just 619 runs (second best in the AL, and just four runs behind Cleveland), while FRAA (fielding runs above average) pegs the team’s defense to save 57.8 runs above average for the best in baseball.
On the flip side of the coin, Toronto came within two wins of reaching the World Series last fall. The potent Blue Jays offense plated 127 more runs than their closest competitor and led the majors in homers (232) in 2015. That high octane offense will define the team again this season. The question begs, can Chris Archer, Drew Smyly, Jake Odorizzi and Matt Moore stifle the team that also led the majors in slugging percentage (.457) and on-base percentage (.797) last season? The three-headed beast that is Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion combined for 120 of the team’s homers and 937 RBI in 2015, and the Rays front four will be tasked with silencing those bats.
Of course there are some caveats for the Blue Jays. First, Encarnacion didn’t appear in any official Spring Training games which calls into question his timing and ability to see the ball at the moment. Then there’s the fact that the Rays won the season series against Toronto last season 10-9. Tampa Bay is also 6-4 in its last 10 home games against the Jays.
Rays series starters and key matchups
Kevin Cash will send Archer to the mound in Sunday’s season opener. Archer, who went 12-13 with a 3.23 ERA and 1.14 WHIP in 2015, has held Toronto’s current lineup to a .174 career batting average. Moreover, Donaldson, Bautista and Encarnacion are only 12-for-86 (.139) combined against the Rays ace.
Smyly, who gets the ball Monday, went 5-2 with a 3.11 ERA in 12 starts in 2015. Since joining the Rays, he has gone 8-3 with a 3.24 ERA in 19 starts. Fun fact: The three pitchers with the lowest ERA in the America League since the 2014 trade deadline (min 15GS) are Drew Smyly (2.52), Dallas Keuchel (Smyly’s college roommate, 2.56) and David Price (traded for Smyly, 2.75).
Then there’s Odorizzi. The lanky right-hander went at least seven innings in 15 of his 28 starts last season. Odorizzi posted a 2.79 ERA at the Trop in 2015.
Finally, Moore will round out the front four on Wednesday. The southpaw returned from an extended stint at Durham last season and collected a 2-1 record with a 2.97 ERA in his final six starts.
Marcus Stroman: Stroman missed most of last season after tearing his ACL in Spring Training, yet he was outstanding upon his return including three decent postseason starts. The 24 year-old went 11-6 with a 3.65 ERA in 26 games in 2014. Stroman won his only start at Tampa Bay in September 2014, allowing just two runs on seven scattered hits over six innings. He went 4-0 with a 1.67 ERA and 0.96 WHIP across four starts. What to expect from Stroman: a 93 mph sinker, an 86 mph slider, an 83 mph curveball, an 85 mph change, a 90 mph cutter, and a 93 mph four-seam fastball. Key matchups: Curt Casali (2-3), Hank Conger (1-3, HR, 3 RBI), Desmond Jennings (2-4, RBI), Kevin Kiermaier (2-5, 2B, RBI), Evan Longoria (3-5, HR, 2 RBI, BB), Steve Pearce (3-5, HR, RBI, BB)
RA Dickey: Dickey told reporters he felt better this Spring than he has in years, and because of it he hopes that he can avoid the slow start which has plagued the knuckleballer in each of the last three seasons. Last April, Dickey went 0-3 with a 5.23 ERA over 31 innings. Boding well for the Rays, they finally figured Dickey out last season, collecting a 3-1 record against the 41 year-old with a 4.40 ERA. When facing Dickey the old adage goes, if it’s high let it fly, if it’s low let it go. Key matchups: Tim Beckham (1-3, 2B, BB), Hank Conger (1-2), Logan Forsythe (6-21, 2 2B, 3 RBI), Brandon Guyer (3-12, 2B, RBI, BB), Evan Longoria (11-43, 4 2B, 2 HR, 8 RBI, 5 BB), Brad Miller (2-7, 2 BB), Logan Morrison (6-23, 2 2B, 2 BB), Steven Souza Jr. (2-6, RBI, BB)
Aaron Sanchez: Despite initially being considered for the bullpen, Sanchez was officially named to the rotation after collecting a 1.35 ERA, 19 strikeouts and just three walks over 20 Spring innings. The 23 year-old righty relies primarily on a 93 mph sinker, while mixing in an electric 95 mph four-seam fastball and an 80 mph curve. Sanchez went 0-1 with a 3.12 ERA over 8-2/3 innings against Tampa Bay last season. Key matchups: Brandon Guyer (1-2) Kevin Kiermaier (2-2, 2B), Logan Morrison (1-4, 2B), Steve Pearce (1-4, BB)
JA Happ: Happ will always be intrinsically linked with the Rays after he being struck in the head by a Desmond Jennings comebacker in 2013. The lefty tossed 14-2/3 innings this Spring and allowed five runs on 15 hits and three walks with nine strikeouts. The lefty had an incredible second half of 2015 spinning 63-1/3 innings of 1.85 ERA baseball after coming to Pittsburgh at the trade deadline. However, with Toronto, he collected a career 4.13 ERA. Happ isn’t overpowering, yet he gets by by mixing his 93 mph four-seam fastball with an 85 mph cutter, 92 mph sinker, 79 mph curveball and an 86 mph change. Key matchups: Tim Beckham (1-3, BB), Desmond Jennings (3-6, 2B, 3B, 2 RBI), Evan Longoria (7-18, 2 2B, RBI, 3 BB), Brad Miller (2-3), Logan Morrison (7-14, 3 2B, 4 RBI, BB), Steve Pearce (7-19, 2 2B, 3 HR, 9 RBI, BB)
— Rays 3B Evan Longoria has 141 career hits against the Blue Jays, tied for the most hits he has against any opposing team.
— Kevin Kiermaier batted .315 in 16 games against Toronto in 2015.
— The team filled the need for experienced catching depth at the Triple-A level by acquiring Carlos Corporan from New York for cash considerations.
Corporan has played parts of six seasons in the big leagues with the Brewers, Astros and Rangers. By adding Hank Conger to the big-league roster and releasing Rene Rivera, Tampa Bay had only one catcher with big-league experience, Luke Maile, who made nine starts last September.
— MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred will be in attendance for the season opener. He is expected to meet with media prior to the game.