The Tampa Bay Rays’ success has been one of the surprise stories in Major League Baseball. Tampa Bay, which has never won more than 70 games in a single season, is currently leading the Wild Card race and is in striking distance in the American League East, sitting a 1/2 game behind the Boston Red Sox.
The Rays, however, dropped seven consecutive games before the All-Star break, losing their hold on first place in baseball’s most competitive division. For all of the naysayers out there, the losing stretch is proof that the Rays are a fluke. More than likely, though, it would be unwise to read too much into the skid, as Tampa Bay has struggled to do much of anything offensively since losing to the Kansas City Royals in extra innings on July 7. Over this period, the Rays have scored only 13 runs, going a dreadful 5-for-53 with runners in scoring position.
It is safe to say, the All-Star break came at the perfect time for Tampa Bay.
Regardless of the recent struggles, though, the Rays are still a legitimate contender, backed by their excellent defense.
While the club has made its fair share of errors in the month of July, it still ranks second in the majors in defensive efficiency rating—the rate at which balls put into play are converted into outs. The loss of Jason Bartlett, a strong defender at shortstop and a valuable asset despite his offensive weaknesses, has certainly not helped matters. But even with Bartlett on the disabled list for the time being, the Rays’ defense remains an area of strength.
One of the most underrated aspects of its turnaround, Tampa Bay has made marked improvements defensively as a team. Bartlett, out with a right knee sprain, has been a big reason why, using his excellent range to scoop up balls to his left and right—several of which would get through as base hits in previous seasons.
The key difference has been up the middle, and it begins with Bartlett, who Tampa Bay acquired from the Minnesota Twins this offseason in the Delmon Young deal.
Akinori Iwamura has made a flawless transition to second base, playing a major role as well. Iwamura has quick hands and looks like a seasoned veteran around the bag. His play at second base has helped improve the Tampa Bay infield defense by default, permanently ending B.J. Upton’s days as an infielder.
Then there is rookie third baseman Evan Longoria, who forced Iwamura to move across the diamond. Longoria, the runaway favorite for Rookie of the Year, has certainly made an impact with his bat, but his stellar play at the hot corner has also factored in the improved team defense.
Upton has made a strong impact with his outstanding range in center field to improve the defense up the middle in his own right. With his tremendous range and improving ability to track down fly balls—combined with the play of Carl Crawford in left field—several potential doubles have gone to die in left center at Tropicana Field. Plus, finding a permanent place to call home has helped Upton live up to his tremendous offensive ability, though he did not hit for any power in the first half.
The improvement in the defense has been quite dramatic, as Tampa Bay finished last season ranked 30th in the league in defensive efficiency. The days of Brendan Harris and Josh Wilson taking up innings at such a key position are over, though, and this is arguably one of the ultimate reasons for the Rays’ turnaround.
The excellent defense goes hand-in-hand with the Rays’ improved pitching staff as well. Andrew Friedman realized this when he decided to part ways with the talented Young, as he received a capable defender at shortstop and a legitimate number three starter, Matt Garza, in return to help shore up the starting rotation.
Every Tampa Bay pitcher—from ace Scott Kazmir, the winning pitcher in the All-Star game, to reliever J.P. Howell—has reaped the benefits.
After returning from an April stint on the disabled list, Kazmir set the league on fire by stringing together six wins in seven starts. He has not been efficient with his pitches in his last seven starts, struggling to make it through the sixth inning while posting a 1-4 record—granted, he squared off against several potent lineups. However, when his command is on and he works ahead of hitters, the lefty is as dominant of a pitcher as they come.
Kazmir, the AL strikeout leader in ’07, now also has something working in his favor that has eluded him since the Rays stole him away from the New York Mets—a strong defense and capable bullpen. If he can stay healthy, look for him to play a huge part in Tampa Bay’s push for the postseason. Also, expect him to come out firing in the second half, as the Rays are scheduled to play several teams with sub-.500 records over the next few weeks.
James Shields (AP)
James Shields burst onto the scene last year to emerge as a legitimate number two starter. In the first half of 2008, Shields has pitched a lot better than his 7-6 record indicates, posting a ridiculous 100-to-22 K/W ratio. Some argue that he has been the ace of the Tampa Bay staff for a long time now, and the Rays’ decision to limit his innings in September may pay dividends if can remain effective and durable the rest of the way. He will look to right the ship for the Rays on Friday, when he takes the ball against the Toronto Blue Jays.
Garza, who has strung together some dominant starts, Edwin Jackson and Andy Sonnanstine are solid at the back-end of the Tampa Bay rotation as well.
Jackson has always had tremendous stuff, but has been consistently inconsistent. He is always a candidate to flourish into a star, and it will be interesting to see if he can do so in ’08.
At 10-4, Sonnanstine has the best record among Tampa Bay starters. A control artist who does not leave room for error with his stuff, he has proven why wins and losses can be a misleading tool for judging a pitcher’s effectiveness. The Kent State product has received his fair share of run support, which is why he is among leaders in wins despite an ERA nearing 5.00 and the highest opponents’ OPS (.791) in the Tampa Bay rotation.
Shields is the eldest of the group, at 26 years old. This has caused some writers to pull out the inexperience card, which is definitely a legitimate factor. Perhaps most concerning, though, the majority of Tampa Bay starters are rapidly approaching upon career-high totals in innings pitched. Whether or not the youngsters’ arms can hold up is a huge question mark for Tampa Bay, which saw its lead on the New York Yankees get reduced to 4.5 games during the slide.
If any of the aforementioned pitchers should falter or go down with an injury, the club does have internal reinforcements down on the farm. Jeff Niemann, who made his major league debut in April, is an option. Not to mention, the potential is there for Tampa Bay to call up David Price, the top pitching prospect in the minors. Price, now in Double-A, has been dominant in his first professional season, going 8-0 with a 1.92 ERA and 62-to-17 K/W ratio in 11 combined starts between Single-A Vero Beach and Double-A Montgomery. Selected by Tampa Bay with the number one overall pick out of Vanderbilt University in the '07 draft, the southpaw will perhaps turn into this year's version of Joba Chamberlain.
The Rays’ relief corps has been more effective as well. This rings especially true when compared to the '07 group, featuring the likes of Shawn Camp and Brian Stokes, which posted the highest bullpen ERA in the past half century.
Grant Balfour, after tearing it up in Triple-A Durham, has been a nice addition.
Howell has found his niche in a long relief role, prompting consideration for the All-Star team from manager Joe Maddon. He has registered a 2.68 ERA and an opponents’ OPS of .578 in 57.0 innings pitched.
Dan Wheeler, one of the most effective setup-men in the division, has proven to be a capable option in the eighth inning, posting a 2.38 ERA in 41.2 innings pitched. Friedman is hoping to make strike gold again at the trade deadline in the way in which Tampa Bay acquired Wheeler, who returned to Tampa Bay in exchange for Ty Wigginton last July. A former Tampa Bay prospect, his arrival is viewed by many as a turning point for this organization.
But it all starts with closer Troy Percival, who has 19 saves in 21 chances and has helped institute a culture of winning in the clubhouse. At 38, Percival, who has already been sent to the disabled list twice, is a health risk, and Tampa Bay needs him shutting the door in the ninth when it matters most, in August and September. His injury status is a cause for concern, though, prompting many people to make the case for why the Rays should look for a solid relief arm at the deadline.
Closer Brian Fuentes of the Colorado Rockies has been linked to Tampa Bay in trade rumors. The Rockies, however, are reportedly asking for a deal to include either Wade Davis or Jeremy Hellickson, two of the top pitching prospects in the minors. It would be unwise—and there is no way that Friedman would even consider it—to part with a prospect of that caliber for Fuentes, who lost his role for Colorado in its push to the playoffs a year ago.
Tampa Bay will definitely look to make another move similar to acquiring Wheeler, but only at the right price.
Defense and pitching have gotten the Rays to this point. If both facets of the game hold up, Tampa Bay has a great chance to make the first postseason appearance in its 11-year history.
Consistently scoring runs, on the other hand, has been a problem at times down in St. Petersburg. In fact, the Rays’ +46 run differential (433-387) is a direct result of strong run prevention, thanks to the excellent defense and starting pitching to this point.
Offensively, though, Tampa Bay finds itself in the middle of the pack, ranking 10th in the majors in on-base percentage (.336), 13th in OPS (.745) and 15th in runs scored, batting average (.260) and slugging percentage (.409).
This is why the Rays have staying power down the stretch, as many players should post improved individual statistics in the second half.
Crawford has made far too many outs in the two hole so far, posting a slash stats line of .270/.315/.385. While his .270 batting average is not all that poor, his on-base percentage and .700 OPS rank among the lowest in the league at his position. The speedy outfielder is as talented as they come, so look for him to pick up the slack after the All-Star break.
Then there is Carlos Pena, who posted a 1.038 OPS and set a single-season team record with 46 homers in 2007. Pena missed some time due to injuries in the first half, but appears to be fully healthy. The odds of him ever reaching his totals from last year are fairly slim, but he has intrigued scouts with his power ever since his days as standout at Northeastern University. The slugging first baseman, also an underrated defender, is the Rays’ highest-paid player and needs to improve upon his .778 OPS. If Pena can regain his power stroke from ’07, however, the Rays will certainly score runs more frequently than they have to this point.
Upton enjoyed a breakout campaign in ’07 after finding a place to call home at long last, hitting .300/.386/.508 while joining the 20-homer, 20-stolen base club. This year, though, he has hit only six home runs in 333 at-bats. Although he has still been a valuable asset in the Rays’ lineup—his 66 walks and .384 on-base percentage rank among team and league leaders—he is a candidate to turn it around, especially power-wise, down the stretch.
Longoria, who had a key run-scoring double in the All-Star game, has played a major part in the Rays’ surge to relevance in the AL East. He has delivered enough walk-off hits to make David Ortiz jealous, emerging as the top rookie position player in the league. He is batting .281/.354/.525 with 16 home runs and 53 RBIs, numbers which rank among league leaders at his position in the AL.
Eric Hinske and All-Star Dioner Navarro, enjoying fine campaigns, are perhaps the most likely candidates for regression.
Hinske has been a nice addition, posting the highest OPS (.873) on his team in the first half while hitting 14 home runs. With a line of .267/.356/.517, he is enjoying his strongest year since he brought home the 2002 AL Rookie of the Year while playing for the Blue Jays.
Navarro, still only 24, earned his first invitation to the All-Star game after a strong first half. He suffered through a horrendous run before the All-Star break in ’07, struggling to stay above the Mendoza line while allowing numerous passed balls. Since then, however, he has added real value behind the dish for the Rays, emerging as one of the strongest throwing catchers in the league while making several adjustments offensively.
Navarro, one of three Tampa Bay All-Stars, is batting .310/.361/.424, for an OPS of .785. He has missed a great deal of time with injuries, it is unlikely that he will be able to maintain the high batting average the remainder of the season and it remains to be seen if his first All-Star appearance will be his last. For now, though, the Rays’ catching corps—with a capable backup in Shawn Riggans—is an area of strength, an unusual occurrence for the franchise in the past decade. He has also done a fine job working with the Rays’ young pitching staff.
Outside of Hinske and Navarro, the majority of position players on the roster have not lived up to pre-season expectations. It would not be a surprise to see several of these players—including Longoria, who has been great and will likely end up as the team leader in nearly every offensive statistical category—come around to improve in the second half.
Regardless, Friedman and his staff are currently looking to acquire a right-handed bat at the deadline. The depth in the Rays’ minor league system provides him with the luxury of being able to strike any deal. Friedman, though, is all about value, buying low and selling high. With a strong young nucleus under long-term team control—Kazmir, Garza, Longoria, Upton and Shields—and several great prospects on the way, Tampa Bay is in position to sustain its success. As a small-market franchise, locking up talented young players is the most viable strategy for competing in the AL East.
Thus, the organization will not mortgage its future by giving up a prospect like Davis or Price to acquire someone like Matt Holliday, whose name has also been linked to the Rays. Holliday, similar to Mark Teixeira in ’07, is a Scott Boras client eligible for free agency following the 2009 season. Tampa Bay does not have the financial resources to lock him up long term, making it unrealistic that that the team will part with any prospects for one-and-a-half seasons of Holliday, whose numbers have been inflated by the thin air in Denver. His numbers, while still strong, are not as impressive when he is playing away from Coors Field.
Friedman will look to make a few tweaks here and there—perhaps Jonny Gomes will be designated for assignment—but do not expect another Garza/Young blockbuster. Regardless, the Rays have enough talent already, assuming the pitching can hold up, to make a run. Boston is still the favorite in the division, but Tampa Bay has a deep enough roster to stay in the Wild Card hunt.
To reach Tyler Hissey, send an email to TylerHissey@gmail.com.
Radio Appearance: On July 22, Rays Digest writer Tyler Hissey will be appearing on Happy Hour With JP On CBS Sports Radio in Tampa to discuss the Rays' chances of remaining in the AL East race. Hissey will come on at 3:30 P.M.
Click here to listen live.