Rays' First-Half Hardware

There has been a tremendous overall team effort—there seems to be a new hero every game: see Barlett, Jason, on Wednesday—in St. Petersburg all season, and Tampa Bay has relied on its excellent defense and pitching while the offense has struggled to score runs at times. But for now, here are my first-half awards for the best-in-baseball Rays.

Okay. So the July 4th holiday is here, and the Tampa Bay Rays still have the best record in the majors. Unless you have been living under a rock for the last week, this is not exactly breaking news. After the Rays swept their in-division rival, the Boston Red Sox, last night, the team got more attention from the major sports networks than it received in all of 2007. While that is not exactly true, it is pretty close, as many sports pundits are currently referring to the team's success as the best story in sports. Even Dick Vitale, a lifelong Tampa Bay fan and Sarasota resident, has had a busy week of doing interviews even though college basketball is not exactly on the radar in July. Evan Longoria, apparently, is a diaper dandy, baby.

At 52-32, the Rays are 20 games over .500 for the first time in franchise history, and now have a 3 ½ game lead over the Red Sox in the American League East. So, which player, then, has had the most positive impact on the team?

There has been a tremendous overall team effort—there seems to be a new hero every game: see Bartlett, Jason, on Wednesday—in St. Petersburg all season, and Tampa Bay has relied on its excellent defense and pitching while the offense has struggled to score runs at times. With the second-best defensive efficiency rating—the rate at which balls put into play are converted into outs—the Rays' defense has not garnered enough credit. But for now, let us focus on the best overall individual performances for Tampa Bay, as I hand out my first-half awards for the best-in-baseball Rays.

MVP: Dioner NavarroCarlos Pena, by far the strongest offensive performer for the Rays in 2007, has struggled at the plate and with injuries in the first half. The Rays are in first place despite the lackluster performance of their biggest power threat, Pena. Although he has played excellent defense, the left-hander slugger has not made that much of an impact at the plate, batting .223/.335/.415. Pena's .749 OPS in 63 games is a shell of his 1.000-plus mark from last year.

Surprisingly, Eric Hinske has the highest Equivalent Average—a measure of total offensive value per out—at .302, among Tampa Bay regulars. Hinske, in fact, has been a one of the only players exceeding pre-season expectations, batting .264/.352/.523, for the second-best OPS (.875) on the team. The former AL Rookie of the Year is a defensive liability in right field, but has been productive with his bat, ranking second on the Rays with 13 homers and 41 RBIs.

The Rays' star rookie third baseman, Longoria, has been a monster so far as well. Since getting called up in mid-April, he has played excellent defense at the hot corner while delivering in clutch situations.

Longoria, a first-round pack out of Long Beach State in 2006, is leading the club with 15 homers, has the highest OPS among rookies in the American League and has enough walk-off hits to make David Ortiz jealous. Clearly it is easy to make the case for the young star, who delivered the big blow again in the Rays' comeback win to sweep the Red Sox on Thursday night. Since the club called him up, they have flourished, posting the best record in the majors since his April promotion from Triple-A Durham. While he is the breakaway Rookie of the Year favorite (his 21.1 Value Over Replacement Player is second among major league rookie-eligible players), he is not the team MVP yet. After a 3-for-4 performance he is now batting .275/.348/.528. Odds are, though, he will end up leading the team in every major offensive statistical category, perhaps prompting some consideration for top player honors in the league if the Rays remain in playoff contention.

Dioner Navarro (Associated Press)

Instead, my selection is Dioner Navarro, who is the Rays' most deserving All-Star candidate among position players. Navarro, still only 24 years old, has played exceptional defense behind the plate, emerging as one of the best-throwing catchers in the league. While he has a high batting average on balls in play (pointing towards a second-hald regression to the mean), he is one of the only Tampa Bay hitters enjoying a breakout campaign. Entering Friday's series with the Kansas City Royals, he is among AL leaders with a .312 batting average, and has posted a solid on-base percentage (.366) while slugging .453. At a defense-first position, he has produced for the Rays, who are on pace to win 97 games.

Considering that the catcher position has been such an area of weakness for the Rays over the years, Navarro, who threw out another runner in Thursday's win, gets the nod. Despite his time on the DL and lack of power, the Rays' catching corps—Shawn Riggans is a capable backup, with a .772 OPS—is batting .300/.350/.436, ending the consistent lack of production at the spot for Tampa Bay in the past.

Pitcher of the First Half: Scott KazmirKazmir missed all of April after scaring the front office by sustaining an elbow injury during spring training. Since he returned, on May 4, he has been one of the best starting pitchers in the league. When he is efficient with his pitches and throws strike early in the count, he is practically unhittable. His start on Thursday, in which he allowed four earned runs on seven hits in a no-decision, was less than stellar, but the flamethrowing lefty is 7-3 with a 2.63 ERA and 1.13 WHIP. Kazmir has been dominant at times, posting a 155 ERA +, 75-to-28 K/W ratio and 21.1 VORP while limiting opponents to a .625 OPS. In 72.0 innings pitched, he has held opposing batters to a line of .278/.346/.639, putting himself in a strong position to get elected onto the All-Star team by league manager Terry Francona.

J.P. Howell has been invaluable to the Rays' bullpen. Flourishing in a relief role, Howell appears to have found his niche at this level. The soft lefty has limited opponents to .592 OPS, working out of several jams unscathed to help the Rays hold onto leads, an uncommon occurrence for this franchise over the years. Joe Maddon is currently campaigning for the former University of Texas star—he shattered Roger Clemens' school record for strikeouts—to get elected to the All-Star game as well. While he is unlikely to get picked as a middle reliever, Maddon's praise says a lot about his value to this team.

Ditto for Troy Percival, who has 21 saves and is the heart and soul of the clubhouse. Percival, recently placed on the disabled list for the second time this month, is an integral part of this team, and Tampa Bay needs his veteran presence down the stretch.

Top Reliever: Troy Percival—J.P. Howell and Dan Wheeler have performed well enough to merit consideration, but Percival gets the nod for his effectiveness on the mound—he has struggled recently—from April to early-June and positive influence in the clubhouse. While I do feel that the importance of team chemistry gets overblown in the media, it is hard to deny how much of a positive impact he has had on the Rays' rising young stars.

Top Rookie: Evan Longoria—No contest here. Longoria, with 15 home runs and 50 RBIs, is enjoying the best season of any rookie in the American League. One of the best young players in the game, he is showing why he was named the best prospect in the minors by numerous pre-season publications. He ranks 14th in the AL in RBIs and 10th with a .528 slugging percentage. It looks like as if that nine-year contract, which he signed after playing less than a week in the big leagues, will end up as quite a bargain for Tampa Bay.

Rays All-Star Picks

Here is how I would rank the most deserving All-Star candidates on the Rays:

1. Kazmir

2. Navarro

3. Longoria

4. Upton

5. Howell

6. Percival

Debate:

Can Tampa Bay sustain its success in the second half? Will the young starting rotation hold up? Will they be serious buyers at the trade deadline?

Those three questions have been asked a lot today, from sports talk radio to PTI to the blogosphere

Well, here is my take.

Boston, even with some bullpen issues, remains the favorite to win the division, but the Rays will undoubtedly stay in East and Wild Card mix come September. The club is relying on its excellent defense. However, the inexperienced starting rotation will be tested, as half of the starting rotation is on pace to reach a career high in innings pitched. Plus, at 26, James Shields is the oldest member of the pitching staff. With that being said, there is a great deal of talent there, as Matt Garza—coming off two dominant starts has the talent to turn into a frontline starter. Garza, who is lights-out when his command is on and he works ahead of hitters, appears to be turning the corner, showing why he was elected USA Today Minor League Player of the Year in 2006.

Then there is the Rays' team defense, which is the second best in baseball to this point. Jason Bartlett, though he had a few clutch hits last night, has primarily made an impact with his play at shortstop. Akinori Iwamura has made a flawless transition to second base as well, which is why Tampa Bay trails only Oakland in defensive efficiency—the rate at which balls hit into play are converted into outs. Defense, of course, is less likely to go into a slump than hitting or pitching.

Also, the offense—which quite frankly has not lived up tot its pre-season projections—will only improve as the second half, as the team actually scored more runs at this point of '07. Carl Crawford, with a .730 OPS, has had a down season offensively. He should pick it up the rest of the way. Carlos Pena, who hit 46 homers and had the second-highest OPS in baseball in '07, was struggling before he went down with an injury. He is back now, and should make more of an impact with his bat down the stretch. Even Upton, who has still been one of the club's better offensive players on the roster and is leading the team in on-base percentage, has not hit for any power so far. It is not like any position players on the club are having career years, outside of perhaps Navarro and Hinske, and even Longoria—though he is the leading AL Rookie of the Year candidate right now—should continue to improve.

While the rotation experience argument holds, and closer Percvial's status is a big question mark as well, this roster has the talent to make a realistic run.

Buyers?

It would be unwise for Tampa Bay to give up any legitimate prospects for a three-month rental in C.C. Sabathia, whom would bolt for free agency after the season; there is no way Tampa Bay can afford to lock him up in the offseason. The club is looking for a right-handed bat at the deadline, though. Andrew Friedman will not do anything that will dramatically deplete their excellent minor league system, however, as the Rays are in position to sustain this success for years. Friedman, one of the most underrated general managers in the game, will keep that in mind before they find the "stones." The Tampa Bay baseball operations group, in fact, is too smart to become myopic at the trade deadline, but perhaps a Jason Bay or Xavier Nady would make sense.

While it is easy for to say the Rays should become "buyers," in regard to acquiring some veteran pitching, the club will most likely look internally rather than giving up any prospects. Seriously, is it worth giving up a solid minor leaguer for Brian Fuentes, who regained his closer's role in Colorado by default? Percival's health status is a question mark, so it will be interesting to see what happens. High profile deals at the deadline hardly ever make that much of an impact, however, and often times teams regret pulling the trigger. Not to mention, top prospect David Price, 6-0 in eight starts down in the minors, waits in the wings. Price, an advanced pitcher with excellent command, is arguably the most promising starting pitching prospect in the sport. The Joba Chamberlain comparisons can wait, but it would not be a surprise to see him pitching at Tropicana Field in September.

Not to mention, Tampa Bay has the Cowbell Kid on its side.

To reach Tyler Hissey, send an email to TylerHissey@gmail.com.

On Saturday, July 12, I will be appearing on Sports Talk 1220 to discuss the All-Star game and the first-place Tampa Bay Rays at 3:20 P.M.

Click here to listen live.

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