MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Tampa Bay Rays

The Trop is Calling: Rays Series Preview

Toronto Blue Jays vs. Tampa Bay Rays

Friday, April 29th – Sunday, May 1st

After a disappointing end to a home stand that saw the Blue Jays (10-13) swept at the hands of the Chicago White Sox, the team hits the road momentarily this weekend to take on the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays and Blue Jays last met during opening week, where the teams split a four game series that is likely remembered as one of the first game deciding applications of the Utley Rule. While the Jays appeared to be moments away from tying and breaking open a decisive third game, an interference call against Jose Bautista ended up sealing the win for the Rays and giving them the  daylight  needed to fight back to tie the series. The Jays look to get back on track in Florida before starting another home stand on Monday against the Texas Rangers.

The Rays (10-11) meanwhile, are coming off a midweek series that saw the team take two of three from the division leading Orioles, although it’s almost too early even say division leading without using air quotes. So far this season, it’s been the same old Rays, as the team is fifth in baseball with a team ERA of 3.20, despite an offense that is currently middle of the pack (16th in OPS).

Pitching Matchups

Friday, April 29th – First Pitch 7:10 PM ET

Aaron Sanchez vs. Drew Smyly

Aaron Sanchez opens the series in Tampa on the mound for the Blue Jays looking to rebound from his worst start of the 2016 season. Despite struggling against the A’s last weekend, Sanchez’s move to the rotation has been largely positive; he has posted a 3.33 ERA in his first four turns through the rotation. Sanchez’s performance last weekend against Oakland has been the only start in which the right-hander failed to pitch at least six innings or allow more than one earned run, so it seems like the outlier. Despite his success, when Sanchez has struggled this season, it has often come against left-handed batters, posting a .250/.344/.464 slash line compared to .167/.189/.194 versus right-handed hitters; a continuation of struggles that date well beyond the 24 innings he has thrown in 2016. The Rays will likely start a lineup with 4 lefty hitters against Sanchez this weekend.

The Rays will counter with Drew Smyly in the series opener. Smyly has been the best starting pitcher through the first month of the season for Tampa, posting a 2.51 ERA and 10.4 K/9 in 4 starts. Despite missing over half of the 2015 season with a shoulder trouble, Smyly avoided surgery and has looked every bit as good as he did before the injury. Smyly’s worst start of the season came against the Jays during opening week – throwing 6.2 innings and allowing 5 runs on six hits. If the Jays continue to swing and miss at the rate that has plagued them so far this season, Smyly will give them fits.

Saturday, April 30th – First Pitch 6:10 PM ET

J.A. Happ vs. Chris Archer

J.A. Happ is coming off another strong outing against Oakland, where he allowed three runs in seven innings of work. Like most Blue Jays starters, Happ has pitched well early on this season. Interestingly, Happ has arrived at these results differently than he did last season in Pittsburgh – throwing fewer fastballs than when he was with the Pirates during his second half turnaround last year. BP’s Joshua Howsam noted that Happ’s fastballs are sometimes being replaced with additional curveballs; potentially in order take advantage of the Blue Jays’ stellar infield defense. Happ’s pitch mix and his ability to be successful with whichever he chooses provide interesting things to watch for as the season continues.

In what apparently seems to be rule, Chris Archer will be taking the mound against the Blue Jays. Archer, who was the Rays best pitcher for most of 2015, struggled down the stretch and has seen those issues continue into the early part of the 2016 season. He also had an interesting season debut against the Blue Jays, giving up three runs on five hits and three walks in only five innings, but also racking up twelve strikeouts. He has succeeded as a starter with two primary pitches: a fastball and slider. While there has been much made of his early season problems, if Archer is back to being able to command both his fastball and slider, he should be much closer to the 4.9 WARP pitcher we saw last season.

Sunday, May 1st – First Pitch 1:10 PM ET

Marcus Stroman vs. Jake Odorizzi

Marcus Stroman takes a 3-0 record to the mound on Sunday in the series finale for the Blue Jays. His ERA of 4.37 is somewhat misleading as the bullpen has been less than kind to Toronto’s nominal ace – all seven runners he left on base have come around to score. (and his overall LOB% for the season is 60.1%, which is well below average). Aside from the slightly inflated ERA, Stroman has been Stroman: he is inducing grounders while working quickly and effectively atop the Blue Jays rotation, though is strikeouts are way down. Stroman pitched very effectively against the Rays his first time out, throwing 98 pitchers over 8+ innings, 74 of which were strikes and inducing 14 ground balls. He will look to repeat this performance on Sunday.

Jake Odorizzi counters on Sunday for Tampa Bay, coming off a start in Baltimore that saw him allow one run in five innings of work and uncharacteristically, strike out only one batter. He appears to have been slightly unlucky in the early going, as his FIP is almost a full run lower than his ERA (2.66 to 3.58). After two bad starts (10 ER in 9.1 IP) and one good one (1 ER in 8 IP) against the Jays in 2015, Odorizzi allowed one run on four hits while striking out ten in his opener against the Blue Jays this year. He’ll throw a lot of offspeed pitches, especially his good changeup, so the Jays will have to wait back and look up the middle if they hope to have any success.

Keep an Eye On

Is Archer Back?

Chris Archer made positive strides earlier this week in Baltimore, throwing 6.2 innings without allowing an earned run. Archer’s ERA still sits at 5.47 for the season, highlighting just how much the ace righty has struggled in the early going. If he has indeed shaken off the early season rust and his problems were nothing more than a blip on the radar, it will go a long way in solidifying the Rays’ rotation and making life difficult for the Blue Jays this weekend. It’s hard to believe that a pitcher as good as Archer will continue to get hit, and he does like pitching against the Blue Jays.

Change in Approach

Josh Donaldson, made it known that he thinks the Blue Jays’ hitters need to change their approach at the plate, suggesting that fastball dependent pitchers like Jose Quintana should not be able to carve up the Jays’ lineup like he did on Thursday night. This series will be the first indication as to whether or not Blue Jay hitters are taking Donaldson’s advice to heart and attacking fastballs the way he thinks they should.

Russell Martin

While the Blue Jays’ offense has teased fans in fits and starts this season, not yet fully running on all cylinders, the offensive performance of Russell Martin remains something to watch as the season moves into May. It is still early, but Martin has posted a strikeout rate of 46% so far this season and this statistic tends to stabilize after 60 or so plate appearances. Complicating matters is the fact that Martin appears to be dealing with some injury issues that could be affecting his performance, as he sat out earlier this week in order to rest a sore neck. Getting Martin back on track (or potentially healthy) would go a long way in helping a Blue Jays offense that has yet to truly take flight.

Additions and Subtractions

If Russell Martin’s neck continues to give him problems, expect to see Josh Thole behind the plate filling in. Despite a spirited debate over who would best fill the the roster spot created with Chris Colabello suspension, the rarely mentioned Matt Dominguez is entrenched for the moment as the additional bat off the bench. Dominguez could see time at third or first this weekend if Josh Donaldson needs to rest his calf or Justin Smoak needs to not hit against Drew Smyly.

On the other side of the field; with Brad Boxberger still working his way back from a core injury, Alex Colome has taken the closer role and ran with it – posting a 9.72 K/9 and a 1.08 ERA over eight appearances this year with five saves.

Probable Lineup

Toronto Blue Jays

Tampa Bay Rays

1 Michael Saunders (LF) 1 Logan Forsythe (2B)
2 Josh Donaldson (3B) 2 Brad Miller (SS)
3 Jose Bautista (RF) 3 Evan Longoria (3B)
4 Edwin Encarnacion (DH) 4 Corey Dickerson (DH)
5 Troy Tulowitzki (DH) 5 Desmond Jennings (LF)
6 Justin Smoak (1B) 6 Logan Morrison (1B)
7 Russell Martin (C) 7 Steven Souza Jr (RF)
8 Kevin Pillar (CF) 8 Kevin Kiermaier (CF)
9 Ryan Goins (2B) 9 Curt Casali (C)

via Roster Resource

Final Thoughts

While panic may be setting in over the Jays’ mediocre start and the poor performances from the offense and bullpen, the season is still incredibly young. No matter what happens at the Trop this weekend, it will still be a long time before we know exactly what this Blue Jays team really is and conversely, can worry about what they are not.

Lead Photo: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports


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