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Red Sox at Rays Series Preview

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Looking ahead to the first series of 2018.

MLB: Spring Training-Minnesota Twins at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

SB Nation Blog

DRay’s Bay

The Opponent in One Sentence

The Rays aren’t officially in a rebuild but they look to be on the cusp of one with a strange roster around Chris Archer, Alex Colomé and Kevin Kiermaier.

Record

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Head-to-Head Record

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Trend

The Rays, like every other team in baseball, have not played a game yet. So, they have no trend. I’m mostly posting these last three sections so I have something recent to go back to in order to remember the format. Don’t mind me.

Pitching Matchups

3/29: Chris Sale vs. Chris Archer, 4:05 PM ET

In terms of projected finishes for the season this is not a super exciting way to start things off, but in terms of pitching matchup it may be the very best. The only other Opening Day matchup that could be in the conversation, in my opinion, would be Carlos Martinez vs. Noah Syndergaard. Sale was impossibly electric for the vast majority of 2017 — he struck out 300 batters and we probably don’t talk about that enough — and he’s coming off a spring in which he took things a bit easier in order to more freshly make it through the grind of the season. He should have his foot back on the gas starting on Thursday, though, and I simply can’t wait.

Archer is not everyone in Boston’s favorite pitcher, but the dude can deal and is a legitimate ace, or at least in the next tier down depending on how you define the term. He’s had a bit of a home run problem over the last couple of years that have led to back-to-back ERA’s very slightly over 4.00, but his talent is better than that. He’s one of the best strikeout starts in the league, regularly striking out more than ten batters per nine and he has average-to-above-average control to boot. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Archer at least on the fringes of the Cy Young conversation this year as he enters his final season in his twenties. The righty mainly features a mid-to-high-90s fastball along with a sick slider for an out pitch. He’ll also mix in a mid-80s changeup here and there.

MLB: Spring Training-Toronto Blue Jays at Boston Red Sox Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

3/30: David Price vs. Blake Snell, 7:10 PM ET

One could make the argument that Price is the most important player for the Red Sox in the coming season. The lefty has been better than he’s been given credit for since joining the club a couple years ago, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been disappointing. Still, we know the talent is still there and he showed that out of the bullpen at the end of 2017. Even before that, he was on a solid little run as a starter before going down with that injury. Given what he showed in spring training this year, things look set up for Price to be as close as he’s been to his prime self since coming to the Red Sox. As long as he can avoid any long DL stints, of course.

As Price is so important for the Red Sox, Snell could very well be just as important for Tampa Bay this season. They are going with a four-man rotation to start the year — more on that in a minute — and they could really use someone to step up behind Archer. Snell has the talent to be that guy as the lefty is a former top prospect who has struck out about a batter per inning over his 43 career starts. However, the 25-year-old has some command issues and has a tendency to walk too many batters and get knocked out early. If he can show better control in 2018, the Rays rotation may be better than they’ve been given credit for. Snell features a mid-90s fastball along with a changeup, a slider and a curveball. The slider is probably the best pitch.

3/31: Rick Porcello vs. Johnny Wholestaff, 6:10 PM ET

I’m not going to sit here and lie to you and tell you I know what to expect from Porcello this season. I think it’s fair to expect him to throw a lot of innings, and other than that it’s anyone’s guess. If he can find a way to limit his home runs and hard contact while still preventing free passes, we could see something closer to 2016 than 2017. We can’t tell too much from any one start, of course, but I’m really interested to see what the 2016 Cy Young winner looks like in his first outing of 2018.

So, about that four-man rotation. It’s not really a four-man rotation, because the starters are still going every five days. Once every turn through, though, the Rays will be going with a bullpen day. I’m not entirely sure how they plan on making this work, but they sure are going to try. If I had to guess, I’d say that Matt Andriese will be the first pitcher we see in this game for Tampa, but I have no idea what’s going to happen after that.

4/1: Hector Velazquez vs. Austin Pruitt*, 1:05 PM ET

Velazquez gets the call for the fourth game of the year, but he’s still the de facto fifth starter on the roster. The righty had something of a rough spring, though his final outing against the Cubs was at least a solid finish on which to hang his hat. We know better than to expect dominance from Velazquez, and he’s probably the biggest reason someone like Marcus Walden is also on the Opening Day roster, but he showed in 2017 that he can be a solid back-end arm and if he can consistently keep the team in the game over five innings or so, then he’s done his job.

So, there’s an asterisk next to Pruitt name here because this is just my guess on who will start. It was originally supposed to be Nate Eovaldi, but it was announced on Wednesday that the former Yankee would have to undergo elbow surgery. Tampa Bay has yet to announce a starter, but Pruitt was called up to replace Eovaldi on the roster so I’ll put him here. Jacob Faria, who is currently listed to start Tampa’s series opener against the Yankees, is also an option along with Andriese.

MLB: Spring Training-Toronto Blue Jays at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Old Friends

The Rays don’t have any former Red Sox on their rosters, but former Red Sox backup catcher Kevin Cash returns for his fourth year as Tampa’s manager. Cash, as you may recall, served as a backup catcher in Boston in 2007, 2008 and 2010. He was not very good, posting a 43 OPS+ in his three years with the Sox. As a manager, he’s yet to record more than 80 wins and has a .469 winning percentage early on. Though the Rays don’t have huge expectations for the coming year, I wonder if there’s a chance the Rays may look in another direction if they don’t take a step forward in 2018.

Notable Position Players

Kevin Kiermaier is, for this author’s large fortune of money, the best defensive outfielder in all of baseball. He is without a doubt the best position player on the Rays and he’s right in the middle of his prime entering his age-28 season. The center fielder missed a big chunk of 2017 with injury, but when he played he put up his best season at the plate with a 112 wRC+. I’m not sure if he’s going to repeat that, but he’s an above-average hitter who brings (arguably) unmatched value with the glove.

Carlos Gomez just signed with Tampa Bay towards the end of the offseason, and while he never quite turned into the superstar he looked to be a few years ago, the outfielder is still a good player. He’ll play good defense alongside Kiermaier and provides nice pop to go with good baserunning that helps cancel out his contact issues.

Denard Span is another new addition, coming over from San Francisco as part of the deal that sent Evan Longoria out west. The veteran outfielder is a post-prime player and doesn’t run like he once did, but he’ll provide consistent contact and solid on-base skills at the top of the lineup.

Matt Duffy is another former Giant, though he’s been with the Rays for a few years. The infielder missed all of last year and two years ago he was pretty lackluster as a contact-oriented hitter.

Wilson Ramos was a bit disappointing in an injury-delayed 2017 but he still has legitimate power potential, especially considering his position, and should hit in the middle of Tampa’s lineup.

Brad Miller has been good in the past and can play all over the infield but in 2017 he walks over 15 percent of the time and still managed a wRC+ of just 83.

C.J. Cron is another new Ray, having been acquired from the Angels. He’s roughly a league-average hitter, which isn’t that great for a first baseman.

Adeiny Hechavarria is a really good defensive shortstop who is pretty bad at hitting. Well, relative to other major leaguers. Relative to schmucks like me he’s pretty amazing.

Bullpen Snapshot

Alex Colomé led the league in saves in 2017, which may overstate his talent level a bit — he’s not the best closer in baseball, ya know? — but he’s still really good and when he’s at his best he misses bats and gets ground balls. That’s a winning combination out of the bullpen.

Sergio Romo is easily the second best reliever in the Rays bullpen and the clear option to set up in front of Colomé. The former Giant could get into more trouble on the East Coast than he did out west with his flyball tendencies, but he’s got legitimate swing-and-miss stuff and solid control.

Jose Alvarado is the top lefty in the Rays bullpen and he had a really solid rookie year, but he actually posted extreme reverse splits allowing a .449 OPS to righties and a .736 OPS to lefties.

Injuries

Brent Honeywell is the Rays top prospect and was expected to be up and a major factor in their rotation at some point in 2017. Instead, he was injured fairly early in camp and underwent Tommy John surgery. The exciting righty will be out all year.

Nate Eovaldi, as mentioned above, just found out he’ll be going back under the knife after missing all of 2016. The hard-thrower should be back in a few months, but with his injury history we shouldn’t rule out the possibility of setbacks.

Jose De Leon is another top prospect who recently underwent Tommy John surgery in a year in which he was supposed to contribute at the major-league level.

Weather Forecast

The Rays, as you may know, play in a dome. It sucks. The good part, though, is that the weather doesn’t matter and baseball is guaranteed to be played as long as the structure is still standing when they arrive at the ballpark.