COMMENTARY | It's been one of the biggest surprises of the 2013 MLB season to date: The Tampa Bay Rays are winning games with their bats.
Seriously, who saw that coming?
The organization is heavily vested in pitching, but it has paid less -- much less -- attention to hitting.
It's easy to understand why. Find a few great young pitchers, sign 'em to long-term contracts, throw in a bullpen that at least won't (often) fall to pieces and you're immediately competitive.
A few big salaries, a few big contracts, one playoff team.
Building from the plate takes more capital -- with less guarantee of return.
We've all learned over the last couple of decades that it's hard to buy championships. Personalities clash, free agents fizzle.
"Build from within" is the modern mantra of most MLB teams. For the Rays and other smaller-market organizations, the second part of that motto reads, "… and do it as cheaply as possible."
Cast-offs, Rejects, Has-Beens and Never-Wasses
When it comes to the bats, every year manager Joe Maddon and GM Andrew Friedman cobble together a network of castoffs, has-beens, rejects and never-wasses that somehow fit the Tampa Bay zeitgeist and jell into a competitive crew.
Usually a slick-fielding, weak-hitting crew, but Papa Joe somehow manages to squeeze out the best of what they've got. Witness the resurgence of 1B Casey Kotchman in 2011 (.306 BA followed by a .229 in Cleveland last year and, uh, .000 in Miami so far this season), utility man Jeff Keppinger in 2012 (.325; .229 with the White Sox in 2013), and 1B James Loney this year (.325/.387/.507 and 8 HR after 2012's .249/.293/.336 and 6 HR).
Pencil in a bona fide superstar like 3B Evan Longoria to put butts in the seats and you've got what the Rays have had for more than a half-decade now: a successful franchise.
But what happens when the pitching hiccups? Well, the 2013 season so far, that's what. The Rays have remained remarkably competitive despite a staff ERA of 4.26, a full run-plus above last season's 3.19.
Longoria has done his job (.306/.362/.525, 11 HR). There's not another All-Star candidate in the starting lineup. But the rest of the Rays batters, who were mostly voted off other islands, have put together strings of opportune bloops and blasts as the pitching has faltered and are hitting a collective .260, a full 20 points better than 2012. It may be a simple case of guys trying to hold on to careers in what may be a last chance for some. It may just be Maddon mojo.
But it almost certainly won't last. The highest batting average of any starter not named Longoria or Loney is .260.Rays Fans (and Longo) Want to Know: Where's Wil Myers?
That doesn't mean it couldn't last.
The aberrant resurrection of the Rays bats (think: "The Walking Dead" with Louisville Sluggers) aside, Longo alone cannot carry the team offensively. He's hanging out there every night like a man on a high wire. You can almost feel the pressure as he steps into the box: "Somebody's gotta get a big hit. And that somebody is named me."
You can also almost hear his inner child screaming, "Please get me some help!"
And from Durham, NC, home of the Rays AAA Bulls, another voice whispers, "Wil Myers is coming. Soon. Maybe."
Wil Myers. If the actual stingrays swimming in the tank just beyond the center field fence at Tropicana Field have spines, a shiver runs down them every time they hear that name.
Myers has been the exception to the Rays' single-minded focus on pitching. The team gave up local hero and 2011 All-Star James Shields and former starter Wade Davis for a package that included one of baseball's most-coveted hitting prospects (and a couple of promising pitchers, of course).
Yet while Longoria longs for a lone additional bat to take the pressure off (and let him see at least a pitch or two to hit some nights), Myers lingers in AAA limbo.
It's about the money, of course. Maybe. Mostly.
Fire-Hot Myers Was Slow Out of the Gate in Durham
Myers didn't exactly set the world on fire out of the gate at Durham -- he scuffled mightily until mid-May -- but you can see why. Maybe the best hitting prospect in baseball finds out he's packing for Tampa Bay -- Tampa Bay! -- and logically assumes he'll have a chance to come in and make an immediate impact. A letdown would be understandable. Maybe Myers was sad that he had to go to Durham. I would be sad if I had to go to Durham. Maybe he's just tired of bus rides.
Regardless, the 22-year-old outfielder has shaken off his early-season funk and become the player that makes stingrays shiver (probably in fear -- long home runs do wind up in that tank) and Rays fans do the same (in delight and anticipation). Over the last few weeks, a surge that included two homers June 8 raised his numbers to .287/.361/.513 with 12 HR and 52 RBIs through 58 games.
Can Myers bring that same pop to the big leagues? It's reasonable to think so. He's hit at every level; close to 30 HR at every stop, and the dozen so far in 2013 prove that last year's 28 in the ridiculously hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League were no fluke. He has the kind of toolkit and pedigree that propel (some) players down the road towards Cooperstown.
Avoiding the Super Two Tangle
But Myers has lingered in the minors longer than he would like. The Rays say it's not about the money, but keeping Myers down until the latter part of June will give Tampa Bay an extra year of control over his contract. Management is trying to avoid the same Super Two tangle that will likely lead to 2012 Cy Young winner David Price's eventual departure (and has already cost them almost $7 million due to the pitcher's early arbitration status).
There is no hard and fast cutoff date for Super Two status -- it changes year-to-year -- but late June is presumably safe territory. No doubt the Rays front office has already purchased a plane ticket from Durham to Tampa International in Myers' name. When he gets here, which he will, he may not be an immediate impact player. No one's expecting the rebirth of Mike Trout (well, OK, people are, but only in that secret place in fan hearts where words like that are never spoken). But even at his worst, Myers' talent alone will make opposing managers nervous and give pitchers something to think about.
Which probably even sends a shiver down Evan Longoria's spine.
Chip Carter is a 20-year veteran of the national media who has written for hundreds of publications and websites around the world, sometimes covering the Atlanta Braves and Tampa Bay Rays from his home base in Tampa.
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