The attention in the American League East has centered on front-running Boston, and when it comes to teams who can catch them, the media has either fixated on Toronto’s recent hot streak, New York’s injured players or Baltimore and Chris Davis. But don’t forget about the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays are 47-40, only a half-game behind the Yanks and a full game back of the Orioles coming into Saturday’s games. And now last year’s Cy Young Award winner is healthy.
WILL THE PRICE FINALLY BE RIGHT?
It’s been a rough year for David Price, after the Tampa ace edged out Detroit’s Justin Verlander for the Cy Young Award in the 2012 season. Price was first hit pretty hard, and then he was put on the disabled list. He just came off, and threw seven shutout innings on his return. The ERA is still 4.65 for the year, but perhaps the second half of the season will have better things ahead.
The same needs to be said for most of the Tampa rotation. The starting pitching, normally the heart of this team’s success, is ninth in the American League. Jeremy Hellickson has struggled to a 4.67 ERA and can’t use bad health as a reason. Matt Moore, after a strong start to the season has begun to have problems. Alex Cobb posted a 3.01 ERA in 13 starts, but is now recovering from a concussion.
Roberto Hernandez (formerly Fausto Carmona) has been better than I thought he’d be, with a 4.36 ERA. But that’s more a reflection of how dim my expectations were. The Rays aren’t going to pass serious AL East contenders if Hernandez is their third-best pitcher, which is basically what he’s been for the first part of the season.
LONGORIA GETS HELP
If you’d have told me at the start of the season that Tampa’s starting pitching would be this problematic, contention would have been the last thing on anyone’s mind. But the offense has ginned it up several notches, and the Rays are fourth in the American League in runs scored. While offensive success for this lineup always begins with Evan Longoria—and he’s having a fine year, with a stat line of .371 on-base percentage/.537 slugging percentage—the third baseman has gotten some unexpected help.
My expectations for first baseman James Loney weren’t a lot higher than that of Hernandez, and Loney’s pickup seemed another low-budget move for Tampa. Loney has had a big year though, with a stat line of .378/.478. He’s the biggest reason the Rays have been able to become a genuinely good offense, rather than a merely tolerable one.
Tampa’s gotten strong hitting over the past month from centerfielder Desmond Jennings, who might be finally starting to break out and fulfill his potential. Ben Zobrist, after a slow first half, also is starting to get locked in at the plate. We don’t know how fast rookie rightfielder Will Myers will develop, but he’s a tremendous prospect—the centerpiece of the offseason package received from Kansas City for James Shields. Then throw in Matt Joyce, who’s hitting for power, albeit with a weak OBP.
It all adds up to a lineup that can even get better, or if Loney returns to form, at least maintain their already productive pace.
NO RELIEF IN SIGHT
Tampa’s normally steady relief corps has been subpar, ranking 8th in the American League. And when your closer is struggling that makes the problem seem worse. Fernando Rodney has blown five saves and sits on a 4.29 ERA. Most of the setup team is struggling, save for Joel Peralta. And even Peralta’s 3.58 ERA isn’t going to have teams quaking in their boots.
What Joe Maddon does have is some options to restructure. He’s got one veteran and one kid who have been able to pitch well. Jamey Wright, 38-years-old, has a 2.88 ERA. Alex Torres, a 25-year-old lefty has been razor-sharp in limited duty, with a 0.38 ERA. I have to think Maddon is going to give Torres a greater role in the second half.
WILL THE RAYS SHINE?
I think this team has a strong second half of them. I have little doubt that Price is going to pitch significantly better, and Hellickson will at least be a little bit better. Moore will have his ups and downs as a talented young pitcher, and that means some more ups are going to be on the way. Cobb is a tougher call, but if there no lingering effects from the concussion, his stuff is good enough to be reliable.
What’s more, the reasons to think the offense can continue to hit at, or close to it, their current levels, are all sound. I’m not optimistic the bullpen can become a lockdown unit, but with the changing of roles outlined above, they can be better than what they have been.
Thus, we have a team just outside the playoff picture with a lot of reasons to think better days are on the way. That would add up to at least a wild-card berth.
AROUND THE AL EAST
Boston (54-34): The Red Sox show no signs of slowing down, opening up on a 5 ½ game lead coming into Saturday, thanks to an offense that not only leads the American League in runs scored, but is first in the component parts of on-base percentage and slugging percentage.
Baltimore (48-39): I don’t know what the deal is with closer Jim Johnson. He blew his sixth save of the year Friday night in New York, and if this doesn’t change, it’s either going to keep the Orioles out of the playoffs or be the reason they lose once they get there.
NY Yanks (47-39): Derek Jeter started rehab today.
Toronto (42-44): Remember that ballyhooed surge by the Blue Jays? They’re back to eleven games out.