Murphy's Law in effect for Rays in 2014
Injuries to key contributors, bullpen woes led to club's first losing record since 2007
ST. PETERSBURG -- What could go wrong pretty much did for the Rays in 2014, resulting in an early offseason rather than a postseason appearance and the team's first losing record since 2007.
Leaving Port Charlotte, Fla., at the end of Spring Training, the Rays had the swagger of a champion. Particularly the team's starting pitching, which has been its strength since first making the playoffs in 2008. On paper, there seemed to be no holes with David Price heading the rotation followed by Alex Cobb, Matt Moore, Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi -- who stepped in after Jeremy Hellickson had elbow surgery in January. Unfortunately for the Rays, other injuries followed.
Moore made two starts before getting shut down for the season following Tommy John reconstructive left elbow surgery. Further troubles came following Cobb's April 12 start against the Reds when he went on the disabled list with a left oblique strain. At the time, the Rays held a 7-5 record. The Rays went 12-23 in Cobb's absence, pitching to a 4.63 ERA by the time he returned on May 22.
Other first-half injuries saw Ben Zobrist shelved with a dislocated left thumb and Brandon Guyer suffer a left thumb fracture.
By June 10, the Rays had the worst record in baseball -- by four games at 24-42, including a 1-14 stretch -- and nothing seemed to be working. The offense ranked 28th in runs scored per game and the staff ERA ranked 22nd. The weakened condition of the starting rotation had a residual effect on the bullpen, which led the Major Leagues in innings pitched.
From June 11-Aug. 15, the Rays began to click, posting the Majors' best record over that period at 37-19. Complementing that improvement were offensive and pitching improvements, fueling the team's hopes for making the postseason.
Never was that feeling stronger than when the team reached .500 at 61-61 on Aug. 15. Unfortunately, the energy spent to reach the even point could not be maintained.
"You utilize a lot of mental energy as much as anything to get yourself back [in] there," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "And it's not easy to do that. You get back there and you have to maintain this real high level of success on a professional level against professionals. So it's not easy to do. But I really thought we could. I never thought that we could not.
"And all of a sudden we were on the verge of pulling it off. We got back to .500, and since then it's just been teetering back and forth. Just could not get back to that level of play that we had going on for a long time. It's not easy to do. I understand that."
Record: 77-85, fourth place in the American League East
Defining moment: After finding themselves 18 games under .500 on June 10, the Rays embarked on a gritty streak in which they looked like one of the best teams in baseball. On Aug. 15, they defeated the Yankees, 5-0, at Tropicana Field to reach the .500 mark. Unfortunately, that point seemed to signal the moment when the Rays ran out of gas. Four consecutive losses followed and the Rays never seemed to be in contention after that.
What went right: Odorizzi made great strides as a starter, overcoming a slow start to become an effective member of the rotation. ... Price was dealt to the Tigers at the Trade Deadline, with the Rays receiving left-hander Drew Smyly and Minor League infielders Nick Franklin and Willy Adames. What the Rays saw of Smyly brought smiles, as he went 3-1 with a 1.70 ERA in seven starts. ... Kevin Kiermaier made the jump to the Major Leagues, bringing an unparalleled energy to the team and better-than-anticipate offense.
What went wrong: Every team has to deal with injuries, but the early injuries to Moore and Cobb were devastating to a staff that entered the season down a pitcher after Hellickson's elbow surgery. Meanwhile, Wil Myers injured his left hand in the second game and wasn't the same before he went on the disabled list after fracturing his right wrist. Catcher Ryan Hanigan, who was looked upon to become a force behind the plate for the Rays, also spent a good portion of the season on the DL. Bullpen problems plagued the team as well. Grant Balfour lost the closer role and Joel Peralta struggled in the setup spot. Compounding matters further was the fielding. While the numbers suggest a better fielding team, the double plays and exceptional plays of Rays teams past were not made.
Biggest surprise: Brad Boxberger came to the Rays in the deal that sent Alex Torres to the Padres, and the right-hander did not make the club out of Spring Training. However, once he joined the team, he made a huge impact, pitching significant innings at the end of games. Going forward, the Rays will likely head into the 2015 season with Boxberger penciled in as their top setup man.
Hitter of the Year: Evan Longoria. The prevailing opinion where the Rays slugger is concerned deals with health: If Longoria plays, he's going to put up numbers. But that wasn't the case in the early going, as he remained on the field but the numbers were not representative of seasons past. While Longoria struggled for much of the season, he began to click toward the end, reaffirming the fact he remains the Rays' best hitter.
Pitcher of the Year: Cobb. When the 2013 season ended, many thought he was the best pitcher in a rotation that included Price, a former Cy Young Award winner. But after pitching seven scoreless innings against the Reds to claim his first win of the season, Cobb came away with an oblique problem that kept him out of action for much of the first part of the season. Upon returning, he fought his mechanics initially then finished with a bang, showing again why many consider him the top pitcher in a rotation of quality arms.
Rookie of the Year: Odorizzi. After battling to win the fifth-starter spot in Spring Training, the right-hander struggled to start the season, going 2-6 with a 5.31 ERA in his first 12 outings. After that he just seemed to get it, navigating the strike zone with expertise -- generating a lot of swings and misses without an overpowering fastball. In short, he showed he knows how to pitch, and he showed he belongs.