The Tampa Bay Rays are at the decisive point of their season in more ways than one. At 51-47, and hanging within 2 ½ games of a wild-card spot, the Rays have started a nine-game road trip by winning two in Baltimore, with the afternoon getaway game scoreless in the fifth and this article goes online. Up next is consecutive series in Oakland and Los Angeles, the two teams who currently both wild-card spots. Then add in the fact that Tampa is rumored to be shopping starting pitcher James Shields—to the Angels no less—as the July 31 trade deadline approaches. Assume for the moment that Shields stays put or the Rays get major league value in return. Can they turn their disappointing season around?
Evan Longoria’s hamstring holds the most important answer as we evaluate that question. Tampa Bay looked poised to make the AL East their own this season, especially after Mariano Rivera went down in New York. But Longoria has never made it back from the hamstring injury that felled him in May. He starts rehab today and manager Joe Maddon says he’s only need three or four DH appearances in the minors. His bat is desperately needed to juice up an offense currently 10th in the American League in runs scored.
Tampa’s everyday lineup has been marked by disappointments and further injuries up and down. Matt Joyce has swung a good bat when he’s healthy, with a .387/.496 stat line for on-base percentage & slugging percentage, but the rightfielder has done his own share of time on the disabled list. He’s healthy now and can make a potent left-handed complement to Longoria in the middle of that lineup. Carlos Pena’s return to Tampa has been an unmitigated disaster. As much as I like power hitters who take their walks, and as much as I like to see someone produce an OBP around 100 points higher than the batting average, there’s only so much you can do when you hit .191 like Pena is. Luke Scott has been a similar disaster area at DH, and he’s now on the DL. Desmond Jennings, the highly regarded young leftfielder, whose second-half callup last year was so crucial to Tampa’s stunning playoff push, has a meager .309 OBP. B.J. Upton is the same, though at this point I don’t know why anyone expects more of him or still feels he has value. This lineup would be disappointing with a healthy Longoria. Without him, it’s just very poor.
Which is even more disappointing, because the pitching has perhaps been even better than advertised, and it was already very good. Even with Shields having a disappointing 4.39 ERA, that’s still not terrible in the AL East, and the Rays have gotten their usual yeoman’s work from David Price, with 14 wins and a 2.57 ERA at the top of the rotation. Jeremy Hellickson is now off the disabled list and has a 3.42 ERA. Matt Moore’s ERA of 4.23 doesn’t reflect the fact he got off to a terrible start and is pitching his best right now.
And the bullpen has vastly exceeded expectations. A unit considered to be the team’s weak point has closed 83 percent of their save chances, tied with Cleveland for best in the American League. Fernando Rodney has dazzled, with 28 saves and a 0.81 ERA. The setup group in front of him, consisting of Jake McGee, J.P. Howell, Wade Davis, Burke Bradehnop and Joel Peralta doesn’t have one arm that’s spectacular, but there are no weak points and Maddon knows how to put players in situations where they can excel.
The wins over Baltimore (regardless of what happens today) were badly needed, because Tampa had gone 4-5 on a nine-game homestand to open the second half, including series losses to wild-card contenders Boston & Cleveland. But the Red Sox have again faded, and with the problems up in Boston, it seems fair to conclude that Tampa need just focus on passing Cinderella stories Baltimore & Oakland, and modestly surprising Chicago, assuming the White Sox don’t win the AL Central. That’s all well within the realm of possibility, and while I understand the small-budget Rays always have to look ahead, it would be a shame if they cut the rug from under this team at the trade deadline just as their big star is on his way back. And if they get in and survive the one-game wild-card shootout, that pitching can carry them a long way. The disappointing veterans have to see their time for redemption as being at hand.
Elsewhere in the American League…
Prior to the Tampa Bay defeats, Baltimore had won five straight, although New York still holds a comfortable margin in the AL East. Detroit and Chicago remains locked in a dead heat for the AL Central, as both teams have made significant trade deadline moves, with the White Sox adding Brett Myers, as the Tigers pick up Anibal Sanchez. Oakland is the team on the move in the AL West, as they’ve nudged past Los Angeles for second place, at least by percentage points. Both teams are still five back of Texas, who’s likely to make a significant trade themselves, giving Colby Lewis’ season-ending injury and the need for pitching.