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The 30: Radioactive Rays

After a start worthy of its last-place status, Tampa Bay is white-hot and one of the best teams in baseball.

Chris Archer

The hottest team in the league, a division leader hanging on for dear life, the most disappointing team in baseball, and an also-ran hoping to cash in an unexpectedly valuable chip. Time to break out the hose, then dive right in.

It’s Week 16 of The 30.

Many of the stats and facts below are courtesy of the indispensable ESPN Stats & Info.

3. TAMPA BAY RAYS

The hottest team in baseball has won 13 of its past 14 games, 17 of its past 19,1 and 20 of its past 24. It hasn’t lost a series in more than a month. Over the past 30 days, it owns the lowest team ERA in the majors. No Rays middle infielder has committed an error since May 25 (hat tip @GloBlair). The DH who looked destined for the scrap heap is the team’s hottest hitter, with a 13-game hitting streak. It was the worst offensive team in the American League through the first two weeks of the season, and now ranks third among all teams on a park-adjusted basis. It waited and waited and waited on its best prospect, turning its usual trick of honing a young player’s skills until he’s ready for the Show while suppressing his service time, and it’s 22-8 since finally calling him up. The latest rookie starter off its assembly line has given up just three runs in his past four starts … and might not keep his job much longer.


1.

The last American League team to win 17 of 19 regular-season games? Hasn’t happened since the Twins did it back in 2006.

A last-place team as recently as June 22, the Rays now own the second-best record in the American League. The emergence of Chris Archer underscores just how well things are going for hard-charging Tampa Bay. Archer’s first start was a hideous affair in Cleveland, one in which his command was awful and the results just as bad: five runs, seven hits, three walks, two homers, and 94 pitches in just four innings. Easily the most emotionally demonstrative starting pitcher in the big leagues, Archer was jumping around on the mound, but glove-pounding and punim-making didn’t play well when he was getting lit up. Fortunately, the bad times didn’t last long. In his next start, Archer tossed seven innings, giving up just one run and two hits against a powerful Orioles lineup. He went back to struggling in his next two starts, failing to make it through five innings. He has dominated since, putting up a 1.62 ERA over six starts, including a shutout against the Astros right before the break, and a seven-inning, one-run shutdown of Toronto on Sunday. The fist pumps and hugs seem much more appropriate when Archer is putting hitters in that place where … well, you know.

Thing is, Archer is the Rays’ no. 6 starter. The 24-year-old right-hander has been filling in since Alex Cobb went on the disabled list after being hit in the head with a line drive. Cobb is slated to start a rehab assignment on Tuesday, meaning the Rays might have to make a decision fairly soon. They could send Archer back to Triple-A, shift him to the bullpen, or do the same with Roberto Hernandez, the team’s least effective starter for a rotation. The rotation has racked up 15 consecutive quality starts leading into the break, and has David Price and Jeremy Hellickson pitching much better after rough starts to the season.2 The bullpen is also dominant and deep, with Fernando Rodney backing lights-out setup man Joel Peralta, hard-throwing lefty Jake McGee, scrap-heap steal Jamey Wright, and Rookie of the Year candidate Alex Torres. This is a good problem to have.


2.

Hellickson through May 31: 2-2, 5.61 ERA, .787 opponents’ OPS. Since: 7-1, 3.35 ERA, .675 opponents’ OPS (hat tip Jason Collette of Rotowire).

The pitching staff’s strength and depth has been matched by a surprisingly strong offense. James Loney, a $2 million afterthought on the free-agent market, is hitting .314/.365/.463 (and playing excellent defense). Kelly Johnson (one year, $2.45 million) is slugging .474 with 15 home runs. Wil Myers is hitting .310/.336/.460 as he starts to tap into his vast potential. Evan Longoria would be a leading MVP candidate if not for the ludicrous numbers put up by Miguel Cabrera, Chris Davis, and Mike Trout. None of that recognizes the one Rays position player who actually made the All-Star team, the ultra-versatile Ben Zobrist.

Since the Rays pulled off their worst-to-first turnaround in 2008, they’ve acquired only two major leaguers at the trade deadline: Chad Qualls and Ryan Roberts. A cynic would say that the team’s small budget has caused that lack of deadline activity. A critic might argue that the Rays standing pat while AL rivals have gotten better has helped cause Tampa Bay’s playoff shortfalls (see Rangers-Rays, 2010 ALDS, re: Cliff Lee). But if the Rays do little or nothing between now and July 31, they’ll have a good reason: Right now, they have the best collection of healthy talent in the American League, one through 25.

Now comes the caveat. Other than taking two out of three against the loaded Tigers, the Rays have built this big run on the backs of patsies like the Astros, Twins, and White Sox, along with two series wins over the disappointing Jays. Tampa Bay starts a four-game series at Fenway tonight, against a Red Sox team with the best record in the league. Time to find out what that talent can really do.

14. ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS

They got away with it for a while. After posting identical 15-12 records in April and May, the Diamondbacks went just 12-15 in June. Fortunately their competition was so bad that none of that mattered. Between June 5 and July 3, Arizona got exactly zero wins from its starting pitchers. When Randall Delgado beat the Mets, 5-3, to end that four-week streak, the D-backs stood exactly where they’d been when that drought started: leading the NL West by 2½ games.

The Diamondbacks’ erratic play has continued, with Sunday’s 3-1 win over the Giants capping a bizarre stretch in which they lost five in a row, won five in a row, lost three in a row, won three in a row, then lost three in a row again. What changed is the health of their rivals — one rival, anyway. While the Giants, Rockies, and Padres continue to wallow below .500, the Dodgers have caught fire, winning 20 of their past 25 games, including a three-game sweep of the Diamondbacks.

Arizona’s problems appear to be numerous. It starts with the starting rotation, where Patrick Corbin has put up terrific numbers but no one else has been a reliable option. Free-agent signee Brandon McCarthy has battled injuries. Last year’s NL Rookie of the Year runner-up, Wade Miley, has felt the sting of regression, giving up homers at nearly twice his 2012 pace. Most troubling has been the performance of the two pitchers expected to lead the rotation. Ian Kennedy owns the fifth-highest ERA of any qualified major league starter, walking batters more frequently than he has since looking like a busted prospect with the Yankees. Trevor Cahill has burned worms at the second-highest rate of any starter in the game, but he’s seen his strikeout rate dip from last year, his walk rate has spiked to near career-worst levels, and he also sits on the disabled list, likely out until early to mid-August.

The bullpen has been the source of even greater anguish, with deposed closers J.J. Putz and Heath Bell, as well as setup man David Hernandez, all posting sub-replacement-level results.3 Brad Ziegler, a sidearmer with the most extreme ground ball rate of any pitcher in the majors (75.5 percent), has saved four games since July 4, but he has always triggered some anxiety attacks because his low strikeout rate and huge ground ball tendencies place him at the mercy of the luck dragons.


3.

Bell has been so bad that every time he enters the game, he gets greeted with the sardonic Twitter hashtag #HeathBellExperience. Even Diamondbacks play-by-play man Steve Berthiaume has at times alerted viewers to pending Experiences, though with slightly less malice.

Then there’s the offense. The D-backs have scored 65 runs in their past 18 games, an average of just 3.6 per contest.4 Adjust the team’s yearlong stats to account for hitter-friendly Chase Field, and Arizona ranks 27th in team offense.


4.

For comparison’s sake, the White Sox are the lowest-scoring team in the American League, scoring fewer runs than any major league club except the impossibly punchless Marlins. Chicago is just scoring more runs this year than Arizona had over the past three-plus weeks, averaging 3.8 runs a game in 2013.

Now here’s the good news: This might be as bad as it gets for the Diamondbacks. As ace beat writer Nick Piecoro wrote, lately the team has struggled mightily in high-leverage offensive situations. But you’ll very rarely see an entire team hit significantly worse in those spots than the rest of the time over a long stretch, since “clutch” hitting (or lack thereof) rarely lasts. The D-backs are getting healthier, with starting center fielder and leadoff hitter Adam Eaton recently returning from a long absence, and McCarthy now out on a rehab assignment. On the pitching side they might have some options, with Tyler Skaggs set to start again today against the Cubs, and Delgado a candidate to fortify the pen once the rotation’s fully healthy. Some early slumpers are starting to pick up the pace, with Martin Prado leading the way at .329/.382/.500 over his past 20 games. And as they did during their NL West–winning 2011 season, the Snakes are again playing elite defense. They’re also getting a huge break this week, with four games against a weak Cubs team and three against the even weaker Padres.

It might only get better from here.

15. WASHINGTON NATIONALS

They’ve lost eight of their past 10 games and just got swept at home by the Dodgers. They’ve just dropped to third place, two games under .500, closer to the lowly Mets than the division-leading Braves. Davey Johnson is coming under increased scrutiny in his final year as the Nationals’ manager, his moves now being questioned with more vigor than ever before. It’s getting ugly in D.C., and it might soon get even uglier.

The latest source of concern for the Nats is Jordan Zimmermann. The right-hander has emerged as the team’s ace, emerging from a rotation that features three starters with no. 1 ability. But Zimmermann got annihilated on Sunday, ceding seven runs and eight hits while lasting two innings before getting yanked. In one sense, he’s in good company, given the carnage the scorching-hot Dodgers have inflicted on other NL starters lately. But Zimmermann has been dealing with a sore neck for more than a month, an injury that prompted him to sit out the All-Star Game. His aggregate stats remained solid despite the injury, with Zimmermann striking out 28 batters against just four walks over his previous five starts, with a 3.03 ERA. Still, there were subtle signs of erosion, with Zimmermann lasting just 5⅓ innings against the Padres on July 6, and more generally starting to allow more hard-hit balls recently. After Sunday’s implosion, he said his neck felt good, so maybe this was just a onetime letdown against a team that’s crushing the league. It better be. Because while the top of the Nats roster still looks like it can hang with most other clubs, several underachievers are dragging the team down.

One of the chief culprits for the Nationals’ struggles? Lousy defense. Pick your metric — Washington ranks 22nd in Ultimate Zone Rating, 16th in Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, and while we don’t usually make a big deal about them given the vagaries of official scorers and how the stat ignores context, ranking fourth in errors doesn’t help either.5 Those numbers are especially striking given how much better the Nats were at catching the ball last year. Other little things jump out at you, too, like the Nats being the worst baserunning team in baseball.


5.

Though his worst struggles came earlier in the season, the fact remains that the only player at any position who has committed more errors than Ryan Zimmerman’s 15 is Pedro Alvarez. Overpaying Adam LaRoche to be one of the least productive first basemen is bad enough. Having LaRoche under contract through next year, thus blocking Zimmerman from playing first, where he probably belongs, makes matters worse.

Even after they’ve fallen under .500, you can imagine the Nats making some moves, such as acquiring a starting pitcher who isn’t terrible for the no. 4 spot (and to provide a bit of Zimmermann insurance, especially with Ross Detwiler’s return still a few weeks away), and landing a bat or two to fortify what has been a terrible bench. But the bigger issue remains getting the team’s current players to start producing. If you figure 90 wins are the buy-in to have a shot at the playoffs this year, the Nationals will need to play 42-22 ball the rest of the way to make it happen. Not impossible, but at this point highly improbable.

23. NEW YORK METS

On Sunday, for the first time all year, the Mets cracked back-to-back home runs. David Wright, the team’s best hitter, was the first to go deep. But the bigger surprise — at least if you haven’t been paying attention — was the man who completed the back-to-back: one Marlon Byrd.

Byrd turns 36 next month. His career high in homers entering this season was 20, in 146 games, while playing half his games in dinger-happy Arlington four years ago. His next-highest total was 12 the year after that. Yet through 82 games, Byrd has clubbed 17 homers, with a career-high .519 slugging average. In the midst of another disappointing season, Byrd is the best non–Matt Harvey story on the team.

He is also intriguing trade bait. The Mets have vowed not to tear down their roster, even as they cruise toward another sub-.500 season. That means that even relief pitchers — the most volatile commodity in the game and thus the one you’d most want to sell high on when things are going well — might not be available. At the very least, closer Bobby Parnell isn’t available, even though he might not put up better numbers in his life than the ones he’s delivering right now, and having two more years of service time would make him attractive to multiple suitors. Byrd, who is eligible for free agency at year’s end, thus becomes the team’s most marketable player, especially since he’s owed less than $300,000 for the rest of this year, prorated from his dirt-cheap $700,000 salary.

How marketable? Consider this: Alex Rios might be the biggest name on the trade market when it comes to position players, and certainly is among outfielders. But …

It’s not quite that simple, of course. Rios is a much better base runner and base stealer than Byrd, propping up his value. Given Byrd’s age and out-of-nowhere power binge this year, Rios seems a better bet to produce offensively going forward. Byrd’s 2012 suspension for PED use also warrants mentioning given MLB’s all-out effort to pursue even suspected users, though Byrd hasn’t been named in the current Biogenesis case nor linked to potential PED use in any way since last year’s 50-game suspension.

Still, the Mets’ tiny investment has already paid off with a big season, and possibly a couple of decent prospects sometime in the next few days. Several teams could sorely use some right-handed pop right now — none more than the Yankees, who’ve bagged just three home runs from right-handed hitters in the past two months. Something to look forward to while waiting for Harvey’s next pitching clinic.