The Blue Jays kick off what could very well be their toughest 12-game stretch until the summer tonight against the Rays, so I brought in Robbie Knopf, editor of FanSided’s great Rays site Rays Colored Glasses, for a couple of questions before tonight’s series opener at Tropicana Field. Make sure to follow him on Twitter, and head on over to RCG if you want to take a look at my answers to the questions he asked me.
Jared Macdonald: Matt Moore came into the season with such high expectations, ranked as the second-best prospect in the game, but he has struggled out of the gate so far in 2012. The home runs and walk rate are what stand out to me, but what’s been the main reason for his performance so far this season?
Robbie Knopf: One word: command. This isn’t a Phil Hughes or Brett Cecil situation here. Moore has just been unable to find his release point and his command has suffered. But has stuck has remained electric. His fastball stays in the mid-90′s except for when he purposely takes something off of it (and even then it’s usually 93 MPH) and his change and curve have mostly moved as dynamically as normal, but he just has not been able to command his pitches. Luckily for the Rays, Moore looked to figure something out in the 4th inning of his last start, tossing 3 perfect innings to end his outing. If he has truly found his release point, the Blue Jays are going to be miserable on Tuesday night. His stuff is just that electric. The big thing holding him back has been his command and control, but if he has found his release point he should be fine. Right now Rays fans are nervously optimistic about Moore, but all the ability is certainly still there and maybe he has turned a corner.
JM: After an impressive first month back with the Rays, Carlos Pena has struggled over the last few weeks. How was the fan reaction to him returning to Tampa Bay, and what’s been so different in May for him than in April?
RK: One of the coolest moments in the short history of the Rays was Pena’s grand slam of CC Sabathia in this first plate appearance in his return to the Rays on Opening Day. Throughout April, we thought that maybe Pena was exhilarated in his return to Tampa Bay and had become if not a vintage 2007-2008 Pena, something of the sort. However, we’re realizing that Pena is what he is. He strikes out, he struggles against lefties. He hits for power, but not nearly as much as he used to. Pena is in a slump right now but the big thing is that he looks lost versus lefties. I wouldn’t be surprised if they start moving Sean Rodriguez and others to first base occasionally to give Pena some days off against tough lefties. One thing he should maybe do a little more is showcase his bunting ability when the shift is played against him and hopefully a few bunt hits will get him going. Overall, Pena needs some time to escape this slump. But at the end of the day he’s probably a .220-.230 hitter with a .350 OBP and 30 homers. The Rays will take that. Expectations following April, though, were much overblown.
JM: Wade Davis‘ numbers look good out of the pen this year, has he found his niche as a reliever?
RK: Davis has not exactly looked as dominant as his ERA (and FIP) and has allowed a whole bunch of inherited runners to score that make his performance seem more shiny than it truly is. That being said, maybe Davis could be an effective reliever moving forward. We have seen an uptick in velocity on his fastball from 92-93 to 94 MPH and his offspeed pitches (curve, slider, changeup) have been more effective. You see moments where Davis looks like the closer that Baseball America once projected him to be. I don’t think Davis is comfortable relieving yet, and I think that that’s one reason that he hasn’t always been sharp. But he has excellent stuff for a reliever and does have a late-inning arsenal if the Rays keep him in the bullpen. Whether that actually materializes if the Rays keep him in the ‘pen is anybody’s guess, but he does have the ability to be an effective reliever moving forward. We’ll never know how he would be pitching if he was starting right now. But his stuff has looked unhittable at times in a relief role and he may just have found his long-term role.
JM: What did you think of the Jose Molina signing at first, and what are your thoughts on him so far this season?
RK: The Jose Molina signing was an interesting move for the Rays from the start because he has never been a starting catcher except on an injury-riddled Yankee team and although he hit well in a small sample as a member of the Jays in 2011, his hitting ability isn’t exactly top-notch. But we know about his ability to work with pitchers and his great arm and he was a good fit to work with the Rays’ young staff. We also have heard volumes about his ability to frame pitches, although there was also reason for concern as Molina’s defense has deteriorated with age. The Molina signing was vintage Rays deal: it was a move that would have baffled any other fanbase (signing Molina as a starting catcher) but we get it because of the Rays’ emphasis on pitching and defense. I didn’t love it, but especially considering the Rays’ current organizational hole at catcher, he was a good fit as stopgap for this team. Molina has been right in line with expectations. It’s frustrating to watch him swing weakly about as often as any non-pitcher in the major leagues, especially with our lineup riddled with injuries. It’s frustrating to see him allow more wild pitches and passed balls because he just can’t move as well as he used to behind the plate. But I have to appreciate his ability to work with the staff and his ability to frame pitches. Is Molina the deal catcher for the Rays? Absolutely no chance. But he does the little things that the Rays and their fanbase appreciate, and I’ll take him for now. I will say that the Rays better come up with a real starting catcher for next season.
RK: Our first collective thought was “what the heck just happened?” Our second thought was Jose Molina’s framing ability. Was that pitch and the pitch before both balls? Most people, even Rays fans, would agree that the answer to that is yes. But Molina framed them perfectly as strikes and got the calls. Jose Molina always seems to be the catcher in cases like this and his framing ability is the reason why. (We saw that also happen with Mike Aviles- although he didn’t throw his helmet- when the Red Sox came to the Trop.) We all laughed at what transpired with Lawrie (maybe the Jays should make the surface behind home plate a little softer) and got to appreciate just how incredible Jose Molina is at his art of framing.