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Series Preview: New York Mets vs. Tampa Bay Rays

The refurbished Mets lineup will be put to a serious test in St. Petersburg this weekend.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

They may be part of different leagues and have fan bases of different sizes, but the Mets and Rays have a lot in common these days. Whether we like it or not, both teams have payrolls governed by a pretty strict budget, and that has forced both teams to get creative via trades and free agency to build a balanced roster.

When the Mets and Rays clash this weekend in St. Petersburg, it won't just be about the Mets looking to extended their lead in the National League East or the Rays trying to stay in the Wild Card hunt. It will be about two low-payrolll organizations surviving in a world that allows the Dodgers and Yankees to take on salaries like there's no tomorrow.

Also, it will be about female fans receiving a free DJ Kitty Face Bag as part of Tampa Bay's promotional schedule. Seriously, check this thing out. How does this team not draw more fans?

How the Rays get by

While both the Mets and the Rays have lineups built around franchise third baseman (and New York might have its back fairly soon), the teams' recent success is built around young and talented pitching staffs. The difference between the fate of both franchises this year has been the health of those staffs.

The Mets have remained mostly healthy with Jacob deGrom proving that his rookie campaign was no fluke and Noah Syndergaard proving that deGrom's rookie campaign could have gone even better if he had just been more Thor-like. Matt Harvey has had his struggles in his first season back from Tommy John surgery, but recently he's been fantastic as well.

The Rays, on the other hand, are missing two of their most talented hurlers for a long period of time. Alex Cobb, who was considered the leader of the rotation in spring training, had a Tommy John surgery of his own back in March. Drew Smyly, the top piece obtained when Tampa Bay traded David Price to Detroit, is on the 60-day disabled list with a torn labrum (shoulder).

Still this team has hung in the postseason race thanks to the brilliance of Chris Archer (more on him later) and Tampa Bay's usual lineup of misfit toys. Just look at Logan Forsythe. The guy was a part-time player for the freaking Padres for his whole career before being acquired (along with other pieces) in a trade for Alex Torres and Jesse Hahn. Now in his second year with the Rays, Forsythe has raised his walk rate, lowered his strikeout rate, boosted his power, and would you look at that: He's one of the top second basemen in the game.

With solid defense and a 133 wRC+, it's fair to say that San Diego would rather have Forsythe than all of the high-profile guys they acquired this winter. Fortunately, it's also fair to say that the Mets didn't make the worst Alex Torres trade ever, right?

Surrounding Forsythe and Evan Longoria are a lot of moving parts, especially now that young outfielder Steven Souza is out with a broken hand. Grady Sizemore wasn't even good enough for the Phillies, but now he's sharing time in the outfield with old Ray turned new Ray John Jaso, leadoff man Brandon Guyer, and Joey Butler's amazing BABIP.

To further add to the shuffle, Daniel Nava was grabbed off waivers from Boston and could see some time as a designated hitter or corner outfielder against right-handed pitching. Over at D Rays Bay, they're hoping to see Nava fill the void left by David DeJesus after the veteran was dealt to the Angels.

The one constant is Kevin Kiermaier, whose awesome defense is center field makes him an everyday player despite the fact that he's not hitting as well as he did in 2014. That season, his 117 wRC+ made him a four-win player and one of the finest outfielders that many fans had never heard of.

Tampa loves defense

Kiermaier's presence is a symbol for what defense has meant to Tampa Bay over the years. With an inconsistent lineup and an injured pitching staff, the Rays depend a lot on catching the ball, and that makes them different from some other teams. This year we've seen the Padres try to play Wil Myers in center field, and now the Mets are going without Juan Lagares in an effort to produce more runs (so far, it's working!). Even the wise Billy Bean is watching Marcus Semien play shortstop every day to try to squeeze a few more runs out of his rebuilding Athletics.

Defense is still really important, though. We know this from the way teams like the American League champion Royals and the Rays operate. Instead of trying to fit Jaso back into his catcher's gear, Tampa Bay uses more stout backstops like Rene Rivera and Curt Casali, neither of whom is much fun with the bat. This team in the past was content to stick with Jose Molina behind the plate even when he provided very little on offense.

It's clear the Mets have a different philosophy with the way they put Curtis Granderson in center field and choose to demote Anthony Recker instead of Kevin Plawecki. That's not to say that one side is right and one side is wrong. There's still a lot we don't know about how to value defense (although perhaps some clubs know more than others). Plus, what the Mets are doing is working so far, so there's got to be a "if it ain't broke..." mentality that is going to keep the lineup the way it is until the other shoe drops.

Sometimes everything just works out. Lagares got a huge hit to drive in a pair of runs during his only start since the trade deadline. For Tampa, Asdrubal Cabrera was likely picked up this winter for his middle infield defense, but his offense has been shining recently. The former National is hitting .515/.556/.879 on his current nine-game hitting streak.

Awesome, awesome Archer

Due to the injuries we mentioned above, Tampa Bay doesn't have the deepest rotation in baseball these days, but the three guys that the Mets get to see this weekend are pretty darn good. Tonight's matchup in particular should be very fun to watch with deGrom taking the hill opposite Jake Odorizzi. The Tampa Bay right-hander is having his best ever season at age 25 in spite of an oblique injury that kept him out for most of June. Odorizzi isn't striking out as many batters as he did in 2014, but his increased ground ball rate (30 percent last year, 42 percent this year) has helped him lower his ERA from 4.13 to 2.86 (and his FIP from 3.75 to 3.29). deGrom has allowed zero runs in every other start dating back to June 25, and he allowed a pair of runs in his last outing, so this should be a good one.

Date Time Television Mets Probable Starter Rays Probable Starter
August 7, 2015 7:10 PM SNY Jacob deGrom Jake Odorizzi
August 8, 2015 6:10 PM PIX 11 Noah Syndergaard Nathan Karns
August 9, 2015 1:10 PM SNY Bartolo Colon Chris Archer

The combination of fastball location and filthy stuff that Syndergaard has put on display during his rookie campaign has been quite impressive. However, Tampa Bay's Nate Karns is having an impressive rookie season of his own thanks to a changeup that he uses to miss bats as well as induce ground balls. It will be interesting to see how New York's lefty-heavy lineup manages against the pitch that has helped Karns allow fewer than three runs in all but one of his last nine starts.

Archer's strong performances in 2013 and 2014 showed us that this kid was going to have a sold big league career, but they didn't prepare us for what was coming this year. Improved control and a vicious slider that leaves even the most disciplined hitters looking befuddled have led to a 2.54 ERA and 2.56 FIP for the 26-year-old. That slider, which veteran lefty David Price calls the best pitch in baseball, is the source of nearly 11 strikeouts per nine innings for Archer and perhaps a future Cy Young Award.

It's been a while since Bartolo Colon had two good outings in a row, but he'll have to shoot for that if the Mets are to come away with a win against Archer. In theory, New York's left-handedness should help against the right-handed ace, but thanks to some deceptive backdoor action, Archer has been just as effective against lefties as he is against righties this season.

Prediction: Mets win two out of three.

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