Rays & Red Sox Series Preview: A Tampa Sweep?

The Red Sox limp home after a tough 1-5 start and things won’t get any easier to open Fenway Park when the Tampa Bay Rays invade the visitors clubhouse for a four game set.  The Rays are showcasing their highly praised starting rotation and proving to be a legitimate threat to win the AL East this year.  The Sox will see four of their best arms this series which will conclude on Marathon Monday and with an offense that needs to get going, this series will be one of the toughest the Sox will have all year.

Quite often some home cooking will do a team some good and for the Red Sox they are in some desperate need of anything positive with the return home.  Will the Rays prove to be a task to daunting to right the ship?  Robbie, the editor from Rays Colored Glasses thinks so and he believes the Rays pitching will dominate this weekend.  So much so, that a four game sweep is a real possibility in Robbie’s mind.  Personally, a split would be considered a victory for the Red Sox and if history can repeat itself from last year when the Sox returned home to win a game or two, then maybe we’ll hear Dirty Water blare from the speakers at Fenway.

Check out Robbie’s analysis of the Rays so far this year as he was gracious enough to answer a few questions.  He breaks down the pitching matchups, players to keep an eye on and talks about the Rays bullpen that could be the opportunity for the Sox to win some games.  Enjoy.

 

1.       The Rays are off to a nice start at 4-2, which included a sweep of the Yankees, always a nice accomplishment. In all honesty, they could be 5-1 or even undefeated. What’s been the bright spot for the Rays through the first two series?

The bright spot for the Rays has been what we expected, their starting pitching. James Shields struggled mightily versus the Yankees on Opening Day, but David Price pitched well in his first start before Jeremy Hellickson absolutely blew the Yankees away, coming up just short of a complete-game shutout. Matt Moore didn’t have his best stuff, but battled, and Shields hanged tough against the Tigers on Wednesday to come away with a win after Verlander collapsed. Jeff Niemann is the only pitcher to worry about a little bit after he didn’t look right all game on Thursday and then blew it for the Rays in the 5th.

One of the main reasons the Rays are 4-2 is their bullpen. They have some nice arm out there, but with the exception of Fernando Rodney, they all have to pitch a lot better.

 

2.       The young phenom, Matt Moore appears to be ready to compete at the major league level every fifth day.  How do you see the Rays handling their plethora of starting pitching, namely a guy like Wade Davis who has recently been used out of the bullpen?

I don’t think anyone would want to be an upper-levels Rays pitching prospect right now. You have Davis in the bullpen after a 4th place Rookie of the Year finish in 2010 and 184 IP in 2011, Alex Cobb back at Triple-A despite pitching well in 9 major league starts and overpowering Triple-A hitters both in 2011 and to begin this season, and Alex Torres didn’t even get a look for an MLB rotation spot after leading all Triple-A pitchers in strikeouts in 2011. And the list goes on. But the Rays like having so much pitching depth because injuries are always a concern, as we saw when Niemann went down in 2011 and when Hellickson was hit by a ball in batting practice the other day, and because the Rays will want to limit the innings for Moore and to a lesser extent, Hellickson this season, which should guarantee at least a couple MLB starts each to Davis and Cobb. I think for the most part, the Rays stick with their current starting five, which has the potential to be dominant up and down, and keep Davis in the bullpen, where he has seen an uptick in velocity on his fastball and looks pretty comfortable out there. Cobb, Torres, and others are probably out of luck, at least for now. You would think that the Rays would be willing to trade a starter with all the starting pitching they have coming out of their ears, but after a 2009 season where great starting depth completely imploded, the Rays will play at safe at least until the trade deadline.

 

3.       If there was a point of concern around the Rays heading into the season it was their offense.  Six games in they’ve scored 26 runs. Does this offense appear to be the real deal or do they still need to look at adding a bat? Or is the pitching that good that the offense will never be a concern? 

The Rays offense is OK, not great, but it will be better when B.J. Upton and Luke Scott return from injuries. If all goes well, the Rays will have a lineup in the upper third of the 30 MLB teams. I don’t think the Rays are intent on adding a bat unless injuries persist because of their pitching, like you said, but nothing is out of the question, especially with Andrew Friedman.

 

4.       Like the Red Sox, the Rays suffered a major blow when they lost their closer, Kyle Farnsworth for a good part of the season.  Fernando Rodney appears poised to step in and handle the closer role.  How confident are Rays fans with Rodney at the back end? 

It was supposed to be a closer by committee for the Rays, but they clearly like Rodney. Rodney has succeeded thus far for the same reasons that Kyle Farnsworth was so great for the Rays last season. He isn’t striking everybody out but he isn’t walking anybody and is forcing contact on the ground, an excellent game plan when you have the Rays defense behind you. I think by nature, Rays fans don’t trust any relievers after our horrific experiences in the D-Rays years and how significantly Jake McGee has struggled at the big league level despite arguably the best arm on the entire team, but Rodney has looked as good as ever, better even than his 37-save year for the Tigers in 2009, and I’ll admit that I’m starting to believe in him. If Farnsworth can somehow get healthy, the Rays could have a dynamic back of their bullpen.

 

5.       Aside from the usual suspects, Longoria, Upton, Pena, who are two players that could be game changers in this series that Red Sox fans should worry about? 

The obvious answer is the starting pitchers, but I assume you mean a couple hitters. I think the two players to watch are Desmond Jennings and Ben Zobrist. Jennings has been just OK to begin the year, but he has power and speed and can do everything for the Rays. He has ability to wreak havoc both in the batter’s box and on the basepaths, and if he can get hot over the weekend, the Red Sox will be in trouble. Zobrist has gotten off to a bit of a slow start this season, but he’s a professional hitter and we saw him lace the big 2-run single that gave the Rays their 4-2 win over the Tigers the other days.

 

6.       Looking at the four game set, briefly breakdown the pitching matchups and who in your opinion wins this series?

Here are the four matchups:

Friday: David Price versus Josh Beckett

Saturday: Jeremy Hellickson versus Clay Buchholz

Sunday: Matt Moore versus Felix Doubront

Monday: James Shields versus Daniel Bard

David Price is a guy who has flown under the radar a little bit after just a decent 2011, but he actually improved his strikeout to walk ratio and is primed for a huge year. We saw Beckett struggle against the Tigers, and although the Rays’ lineup is not of that caliber, you’re going to want to struggle when you’re facing off against Price this year.

Jeremy Hellickson is a guy people have tagged for a regression in 2011 after his ROY-worthy rookie season, but the reason his strikeout to walk ratio was not up to par was that he fell in love with his fastball-changeup combo. Against the Yankees, he got his curveball and cutter working and the Yankees couldn’t get anything against him. Buchholz is a nice pitcher and this will be a nice game, but Hellickson has the edge right now.

Matt Moore has an electric arm that was mitigated some by the cold Detroit weather on Tuesday, but we’ll see him in full force on Sunday. Doubront has the ability to be a fine pitcher, but he struggles at times with control and is a very favorable matchup for the Rays. I feel like this is a game that the bullpen could blow for the Rays, but I have little doubt Moore can outduel Doubront.

And the finale is a mismatch. If Shields is on, this one could be a blowout. Bard has electric stuff but I won’t trust him as a starter yet at all. I have a good feeling about Big Game James in this one, and this may just be his first complete-game shutout of the season.

I’m definitely biased on this one, and the Red Sox definitely have a chance in the first three games of the series (especially when considering the Rays’ sketchy bullpen), but this could definitely turn into a 4-game sweep for the Rays and panic time in Boston.

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Tags: B.J. Upton Ben Zobrist Boston Red Sox Clay Buchholz Daniel Bard David Price Desmond Jenning Felix Doubront James Shields Jeremy Hellickson Josh Beckett Kyle Farnsworth Luke Scott Matt Moore Tampa Bay Rays Wade Davis

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