Sink or Swim Time for the Rays
Jim Prisching / AP
I am beginning to think I will need to bring some Dramamine to the game with me this week. Considering the offensive wave swells the Rays ship the last few weeks it is a common place to feel a hint of motion sickness. The Rays recent offensive rollercoaster is beginning to feel more like an oceanliner stuck out to sea in rough weather than a smooth ride along the Tampa Bay area’s Intercoastal waterways. Change need to begin now to right the balance of the ship before it is too late.
For this team to even visualize a remote boarding pass to the 2009 Playoff islands, it will have to become a more consistent and reliable scoring vessel. People it is past that “Crunchtime” phase. With less than 60 days left in the season it is past the “do not worry yet” phase of the cruise. And it is surely time to make a some changes before the ship begins to take on water (losses) and we are all left watching it sink under the waves.
Not meaning to make it so dramatic that this team is headed for disaster like the HMS Titanic, or even the USS Minnow, but consistent run producing and timely hits are the ballast needed right now to secure this ship’s balance. I know Rays Manager Joe Maddon like to take these games one game at a time, and that is admirable from a deck officer’s standpoint. But right now this team needs a shakedown cruise more than any battleship in the MLB Navy.
They need to re-focus, re-energize and re-evaluate their short term goals right now. The horizon is getting darker by the moment because of their shifting of powers among the other fighting ships in the Rays division. Those “it’s only one loss” optimistic thoughts of the last few months are now biting at our stern to almost push us to a “win at all costs” mentality. But to even go all-head full speed right now, a few subtle and responsive changes need to be made to right the ship and keep all of us sailing into the first days of October.
Maddon spoke last night of going on a long bike ride today around the Tampa waterfront before heading to the ballpark. Hopefully some fans have decided to put posters and suggestions along his bike path to help him along with his thought process. There are a few things that could help this team tremendously in the coming months. Some are right in front of us, but have not been made. Others might take a bit more finesse.
The first measure to undertake is the shifting of power at the Rays Designated Hitter and First Base.
This idea might not go over well at first, but even to use it only a weekly basis then take the data in and then proceeds from there might be the right course of action. I am not making either Pat Burrell or Carlos Pena walk the plank, but might give them some needed time to refocus and find that fighting spirit we saw so much of in 2008.
The Rays have a huge asset in Willy Aybar. He was one of the unsung heroes of 2008 for what he did in his limited roles during the season. But he was consistent and reliable, which is missing right now at DH. I heard it said once when I was in Kuwait that a good leader can make decision on the fly, can make a drawback into a victory with good though processes and though out moves.
Well, here is my devised plan for good or evil to get the Rays ship balanced and ready for the fight. Take Aybar and his ability to play both the DH and first base roles and combine them into a well executed plan. Since Maddon is such a spreadsheet and sabermetrics fan, use those figures pertaining to Pena and Burrell and formulate a plan of using Aybar at either position to utilize his switchhitting bat.
In essence, if Pena has a weak average against a pitcher, let Aybar take the first 6 innings of work at the plat and at first base, then make a defensive change after the opponent’s Bullpen get involved in the game. By using Aybar in three at bats a game where Pena might have shown weakness against that pitcher in the past, you could produce three chances to succeed.
Do the same with Burrell. If Aybar has a good showing against a pitcher in the past, and Burrell is struggling against him, then Aybar should get the nod right now. You can always insert Burrell into the lineup later in the game to still get him at bats. Basically, I am asking Maddon to go with the hot hand right now. Be it a back-up, a starter, or a guy struggling to get out of a rut.
Let’s take tonight’s Red Sox starter Jon Lester as an example. If you take the two games that Lester has faced Burrell and Pena this season you will see the opposite ends of the hitting spectrum. Burrell has gone 2 for 5 (.400) against Lester this season with 2 RBI. But Pena has gone 1 for 6 (.167) with 3 strikeouts, plus a HR and 2 RBIs. Bit to throw a monkey wrench into this one, Aybar has not gone to the plate against Lester in 2009.
But take into account that during the 2008 regular season Aybar did face Lester in 2 games. In those contests he went 2 for 6 (.333) with 2 doubles and a run. So while we are bring up Aybar’s 2008 stats, lets check out Pena’s stats against Lester. Pena went 2 for 7 (.286) with a double and a HR against him. With those facts in mind, it might be a good idea to start Aybar at first base, give him a few at bats, then switch Pena as a defensive move later in the ball game.
Burrell has shown some offensive might against Lester, and it could trigger a nice showing by him tonight. So let’s play Devils Advocate here and check out the statistic for Weds. night Red Sox starter against all three players. Brad Penny did not play for the Red Sox at all in 2008, so Aybar and Pena do not have any data against the right-hander for that season.
But in 2009, The Rays have already faced him twice this season. Burrell has gone 1 for 6 (.167) with a RBI and 2 strikeouts. And in almost a mirror image, Pena has also gone 1 for 6 (.167) against Penny this season with a double an RBI and 2 strikeouts. Again Aybar has not had an at bats against Penny so far in 2009. In this scenario you could use him at DH in the game with the possibility of using Burrell either as a pinchhitter, or put him in at DH after a few innings for Aybar.
The 5 and 6 hole in the lineup right now needs a bit of tweaking. In the opening 3-game set against the Yankees, that the Rays lost two of those games, Burrell and Pena went 2 for 21 in the series. Add onto that the 10 strikeouts and only 1 RBI produced and
you see a dark hole beginning to form in that spot in the lineup.
Now against the Kansas City Royals in their 4 game set the pair did look a bit better, but still below par. In that series the duo went a combined 6 for 23, with 6 RBI and decreased to only 9 strikeouts in the series. But to overshadow both of their days was the fact that Aybar saw action in all three games in which he went 3 for 8 with 3 runs scored and 2 RBI.
What was even more impressive from Aybar was the fact he hit a homer on Monday afternoons game from each side of the plate. So to say that Aybar is not a needed piece right now for this Rays vessel is to have a false sense of security that the ship will right itself with no changes. Aybar getting a chance at the wheel might just be what this team needs right now.
Things happen for a reason. Sometimes they happen for us to adjust out thinking to steer clear of impending dangers. But other times they happen to make the trip more enjoyable and more smooth for everyone involved. So hopefully as Maddon was cruising over the bridge into Davis Island today some kid had a sign that said, “Let Willy Aybar take the Wheel Skipper”. And with that hopefully it can bring about change, a shifting of the ballast, and bring this Rays season back into its natural balance.