The Yankees Lack Their Own Version of Evan Longoria

New York Yankees at Tampa Bay Rays

Over Easter weekend, the Yankees were lucky to leave Tampa Bay with a series split despite winning the first game in the four-game series. The Yankees lost the second and third games of the series by a combined score 27-6, lost Ivan Nova to Tommy John surgery and had to have Dean Anna pitch. But that’s usually how things go for the Yankees at Tropicana Field.

With the Yankees and Rays playing a three-game series this weekend in the Bronx, Daniel Russell of DRaysBay joined me to talk about what’s been wrong with the Rays after a month, why Erik Bedard is part of the Rays’ rotation and if Rays fans miss Fernando Rodney in the bullpen.

Keefe: After beating up the Yankees on Friday and Saturday of Easter weekend, the Rays dropped six of seven before rebounding to sweep a doubleheader on Thursday in Boston. The Rays seem to have the same problem as the Yankees and Red Sox this season and that is scoring runs and scoring them consistently. For a team that has been built on strong starting pitching and a pesky lineup that will manufacture runs, what has been the Rays’ biggest problem after a month, or what has been your biggest problem with the Rays after a month?

Russell: So far the biggest issue for the Rays has been fielding a strong rotation. The Rays have always been very paranoid that they would suddenly lose all of their pitching depth, and that mindset is being confirmed through the first two months of the season.

The Rays held on to David Price, but injuries have plagued the other three mainstays. Alex Cobb looked poised for a monster year, but strained his oblique while batting in a National League game against the Reds. Jeremy Hellickson had loose bodies in his elbow he needed removed late in the winter, sidelining him until June. And of course, Matt Moore succumbed to Tommy John surgery. On top of that, one key player in the depth was Alex Colome, who was suspended for a veterinarian steroid, possibly used in his own recovery from an elbow injury.

Now the Rays are using a rotation that follows the depth chart as follows:
1. David Price
2. Alex Cobb
3. Matt Moore
4. Chris Archer
5. Jeremy Hellickson
6. Jake Odorizzi
7. Cesar Ramos
8. Erik Bedard
9. Nate Karns
10. Alex Colome

I placed him at the end, but Colome could arguably have been as high as eighth on the list.

Now the team is having trouble fielding a rotation that can make it through five innings per game, including two pitchers (Ramos and Bedard) who were still being stretched out. Each of their last starts were their first on the season without a pitch count limit.

The rotation is in dire straits.

Meanwhile, the positional players seem to be doing just fine. Wil Myers and a few role players like Logan Forsythe and Brandon Guyer are underperforming offensively, but the traditional combo of steady offense and superior defense have given the Rays position players the second-highest WAR in the American League.

Keefe: If you had success at some point in the majors, there’s likely to always be some sort of job for you out there. If you had some success at some point in the majors and you’re left-handed, there will always be a job for you. Erik Bedard is the perfect example of a guy who has been a decent pitcher and who has been plagued by injuries, but keeps finding work at the age of 35 as he is now on his fifth team in the last for years. And no one is a better posterboy for five innings, 100-plus pitches than Erik Bedard is.

Bedard seems like a guy who would have fit in with the pre-Maddon Rays or the Devil Rays era, but with the Rays building their success of the last six-plus seasons off dominant and young starting pitching, it’s weird to see him in the Rays’ rotation, even at just one-year, $1.15 million.

Is it odd that Bedard is taking up a rotation spot on the Rays? What are your expectations for him?

Russell: It certainly is odd, he placed third in the competition for the fifth-starter position during Spring Training and only stuck around on a minor league deal. He’s with the team due to desperation, at this point.

Bedard features heavy fastball use, both four-seam and two-seam, with differing change ups to match, and he can also throw a curve, slider, cutter, and probably an eephus. He’s wildly inconsistent with his control, so what each pitch will become is a mystery. That method can be effective, but it’s a dangerous game to play and personally infuriating to watch.

My expectations are for Bedard to last 100 innings and to do as Hanigan tells him to do.

Keefe: I don’t miss seeing Fernando Rodney pitching in the AL East for the Rays and against the Yankees, but this week I had to see him twice close the Yankees out as they lost both of their games against the Mariners.

I always felt confident when the Yankees had to come back late in a game and Rodney was on the mound as a member of the Tigers and Angels, but that changed when he went to the Rays, or at least for a year it did. Rodney had always been a guy who would men on base and try to escape save opportunities, but in 2012 he was as any closer for one year in history. Then in 2013 he sort of returned to being the pre-2012 Fernando Rodney and this season he has looked like his old self again.

I thought the Rays made the right decision not re-signing him and instead signing Grant Balfour to a two-year deal after he left via free agency a few years ago. But with Balfour’s early-season struggles, do you miss the crooked hat and the arrow-shooting Rodney?

Russell: The Rays were able to reign Rodney’s wild personality in two years ago, disciplining him into a consistent mound position while nurturing his quirky character. It paid dividends when he broke the major league record for reliever ERA, but the Rays knew he had the stuff to be a competent closer.

In 2013, however, he became his wily old self, moving about the mound and missing his spots too often. He sort of lost his poise, and the Rays favor a veteran presence on the mound in the ninth. Moving on from Rodney and his likely payday was understood.

Signing Balfour was no guarantee at the time, and to be honest I’m not sure what the Rays’ plan was before him, but I’m glad to have him back in a Rays uniform. He’s been inconsistent, allowing baserunners here or there, but the man is absolutely crazy and looks ready to murder.

In Game 1 of yesterday’s double header, Joe Maddon asked Balfour to walk David Ortiz with a man on second and two outs, but he just started barking at the skipper, demanding he pitch to Ortiz over and over until Maddon relented. Maddon said of it after the game: “He was so sincerely maniacally crazed and passionate about it that I chose to go ahead and do it. They call it the rage. but it was even a higher level than that.”

When you have a guy like that on the hill, he’ll get the job done. It might not be a 1-2-3 inning, but he’s reliable and crazed enough to make it happen. I’m glad he’s on board.

Keefe: After Miguel Cabrera, the last person I want up in the league against the Yankees is Evan Longoria. Longoria might not put up the numbers that Cabrera does, but against the Yankees, Longoria always seems to get a big hit or the big hit that eventually sends the Yankees to a loss. Manny Ramirez held the title for a long time and since I went to college in Boston, I always asked my friends who are Red Sox fans about which Yankees they feared the most at the plate.

So since I fear Longoria the second-most in the entire league, which Yankees do you fear the most?

Russell: I honestly don’t feel like the Yankees have that singular of a dominant figure in the lineup to have me shaking in my boots right now. It’s more a breadth of talented hitters, that classic collection of expensive bats, but no one really stands head and shoulders in the lineup or compared to the league. There’s certainly quality guys I’d rather not face — respectable hitters like Ellsbury, McCann, Beltran, Suzuki, and the impossible Jeter — but ahead of the series I’m not panicked.

If I had to pick one, I’d say Brett Gardner is the most intimidating guy in the lineup, definitely a difficult out whenever he comes up. It seems like if he isn’t striking out, he’s whipping around the bases. Who exactly Teixeira and Solarte are right now, and how to get them out is also an intriguing thought.

The Yankees just seem to wear you down with decent performances up and down the lineup. That’s why I’m excited to be facing guys like Johnson and Roberts and Ryan.

Keefe: The AL East is a gongshow. And by that, I mean right now all five teams are separated by three games and it seems like it’s going to continue to go that way for the entire season. No one looks ready to make a run or make a move and take a commanding lead in the division and injuries around the division are a big reason why.

Before the start of the season, I picked the Yankees to win the division, but had the Rays right there in it and as a wild-card team since nowadays the Rays are always in it. After a month of baseball, what are your expectations for the Rays and have they changed from how you felt before the season?

Russell: I’m impressed you thought the Yankees had the edge in claiming the division before the season began. The whole lot of teams are rather evenly matched right now, and it really does feel like a coin flip for the division between the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays.

Tampa Bay has some ground to make up in the win column, and Alex Cobb needs added back into the fold before I feel confident about taking the division, but taking both games of the double header in Fenway sure did wonders for the standings. Taking two more in the Bronx this weekend will be fun.

I don’t expect the Rays to leap forward and start leading the division in the coming month, but I do expect the team to stay competitive enough through June before they break away and lead the pack. The first two months are always wacky in this division, though, so who knows what could happen.