Sunshine Success

Following a Memorial Day victory over the Texas Rangers on Monday, the Tampa Bay Rays have the best record in all of Major League Baseball. The Rays' in-state rival, the Florida Marlins, are off to an excellent start as well, currently sitting atop the National League East standings. Which team is more likely to remain in playoff contention throughout the remainder of the season?

Following a Memorial Day victory over the Texas Rangers on Monday, the Tampa Bay Rays have the best record in all of Major League Baseball. Read that sentence again, if you must, but Tampa Bay is 11 games above .500 (31-20) for the first time in its 11-year history.

The Rays' in-state rival, the Florida Marlins, are off to an excellent start as well, currently sitting atop the National League East standings. Victorious over the floundering New York Mets on Monday, Florida improved its record to 30-20 overall, increasing its division lead to 2.5 games. The exceptional baseball being played in the Sunshine State, given each team's low payroll, has been a surprise to many—not too long ago, in fact, several Internet baseball writers even wondered if an All-Florida team (combining the two rosters) could compete in the American League East. While we are not ever in June yet, the state's lock on the East standings has led to one of the most commonly asked baseball-related questions on sports talk radio throughout the young season: Can the Marlins and Rays—or even one of the two teams—maintain their current level of success over a full season, and which team is more likely to do so?

While there are arguments to be made on both sides of the equation, the Marlins are less likely to stay in the division race as the season progresses, in my opinion. In fact, it is safe to say, Florida's original professional baseball team is a pretender at this juncture. Although the organization has two World Series titles under its belt, it is highly unlikely they will get the chance to compete for a third championship this October.

Florida's hitting exploits have been an area of strength through the first six weeks of the season, as the Marlins' offense has posted the third-highest OPS total—.785—of any team in the National League. Florida, second in the league with a team total of 71 home runs—has relied on its offensive firepower to come out victorious in several high-scoring slugfests.

The performance of second baseman Dan Uggla is perhaps the biggest reason why. Uggla, a former Rule V pick, is emerging as one of the best young power hitters in the game, and—even with the recent offensive dominance of Lance Berkman and Chipper Jones—appears to have a lock on National League Player of the Month for May. Overall, he is leading his team in all Triple Crown categories, hitting .319/.400/.698 with 16 home runs—tied with Berkman for most in the majors—and 38 RBIs. As outlandish as it sounds, he is even giving Chase Ultey a run for his money in the battle for the game's most prolific offensive second baseman, registering an OPS of 1.098, the fourth-highest total in all of baseball.

Uggla is locked in at the plate, and his power is for real. In his previous two seasons at this level, however, he has yet to post an on-base percentage above .340, a direct result of his inability to get on base via the walk. Plus, he is also currently among league leaders in another statistic: strikeouts, 53, in 182 at-bats, compared to just 23 walks. Without question, Uggla will end up with some pretty lofty power totals at the end of the season, especially given his position, but expect him to regress a little bit from the high level of performance he has set for himself through May 26.

And then there is Hanley Ramirez, whom the Marlins signed to a long-term contract extension last week, and is undoubtedly one of the most exciting young offensive players in the game today. Despite some recent struggles, Ramirez has produced an .889 OPS, hitting .300/.389/.500 with nine home runs. From the leadoff spot, he has scored 41 runs, putting him well on pace to score 110-plus runs for the third consecutive year. First baseman Mike Jacobs has 11 home runs as well, and sits second on the team with 29 RBIs and a .583 slugging percentage. Jorge Cantu, the former Ray, is off to a decent start in his own right, fulfilling the third spot in Florida's batting order (though his poor defense at third base is a cause for concern).

Also factoring into the team's fast start, a new offensive hero—frequent pinch-hitter Wes Helms has been a great acquisition, solely for this reason—seems to emerge every night in the team's improbable run to the top of the National League.

Hitting is something that comes and goes, though, and with Cantu hitting in the most important spot in the lineup, how long can the Marlins realistically keep it up? The bats, of course, are more likely to cool off, going into a slump, than defense or pitching. Ironically, these areas of the game have factored mightily into the Rays' consistent winning.

Thus, when the Marlins' lineup starts to slump—and, trust me, it will—there are three factors that will prevent the franchise from staying in the playoff hunt.

First and foremost, the competition in their division will not make it any easier for the Marlins over the remainder of the season. If the Atlanta Braves can find a way to win on the road, the Mets, with manager Willie Randolph as their clubhouse leader or not, can get on track and the Philadelphia Phillies continue to play well, the National League East will perhaps end up as the toughest division in baseball.

Making matters worse, Florida has one of the majors' worst infield defenses, which will end up haunting them over the long haul. For all of Uggla's prowess as a hitter, he is a marginal defensive infielder, with average hands and range at second base. In fact, while he sits ninth among big-league second baseman with a 5.07 range factor, his zone rating, .803, is in the bottom half of the latter for players at his position. Cantu, already with 10 errors in 125 chances, is easily one of the league's worst defenders at his position, too, as he has little range (2.51 range factor) as well as a below-average throwing arm. He will have to continue to produce at the plate, in fact, in order to continue to justify his presence in the Marlins' lineup, especially while hitting in the three spot. If one remembers correctly, he set the Tampa Bay single-season record with 117 RBIs in 2005, but did not make break camp with the Rays out of spring training two years later, largely due to his inability to turn the double play and overall inadequacy as a middle infielder.

Obviously, when predicting a team's future success, the effectiveness of its starting rotation is one of the first areas that should be looked at. And when looking into the Marlins' prospects as the summer months turn to fall, it is hard to ignore the club's team ERA of 4.21, which is good for 16th in the majors. Just as damaging, their in-division rivals, the Braves, Phillies and Mets, are all ranked ahead of them in this category as well.

Florida, though, does have an excellent bullpen, which, like the Rays', is one of its biggest areas of strength. It starts at the top with their reliable closer—even if it is one of the most fungible roles on a roster—in Kevin Gregg. Gregg, who came out of nowhere in 2007 to save 32 games, is 10-for-11 in save chances this year.

A questionable starting rotation, on the other hand, is the Marlins' Achilles heel. Starting pitching was expected to be an area of future strength down in Miami during a 2006 season in which Anibal Sanchez became the youngest pitcher to toss a no-hitter in franchise history, but is now filled with question marks.

Let us put it into perspective.

Mark Hendrickson took the ball for Florida on Opening Day.

Johan Santana took the mound for New York on Opening Day.

Enough said? Hardly, but, while Hendrickson has been effective—7-2 record, 1.41 WHIP—he will most likely come back down to earth in the near future. Even with his alleged success, his ERA is plus-4.00 while opponents have produced an OPS of .719 against him. Hendrickson, who once played in the N.B.A., is clearly not an ace, and never will be. When compared to the plethora of talented starters in the division, from Cole Hamels to the up-and-coming Jair Jurrgens, it is not a good sign for a team when someone the like of Hendrickson is at the top of its starting rotation.

Andrew Miller threw the ball well in his last start, shutting out the Arizona Diamondbacks in the Marlins' 4-0 victory on May 22. Miller, whom the Marlins acquired in the blockbuster trade with the Detroit Tigers this offseason, effectively commanded his pitches for one of the first times at this level, striking out nine while scattering only five hits. On display that night was the pure stuff which has pushed him to the top of nearly every minor-league top-prospect list since he was drafted out of the University of North Carolina in 2006. Through his first 10 starts, though, he has an ERA of 5.33 and a WHIP of 1.66, and opposing batters are hitting .312 against him. The Marlins need Miller, whose 40-to-20 K/BB ratio projects improvement, Scott Olsen and Ricky Nolasco to live up to their potential in order to stay in contention when September rolls around. Olsen is 4-2 with a 3.38 ERA while holding opponents to a team-best .687 OPS, but his 29-to-29 K/B ratio raises some red flags.

What separates the Marlins and Rays is depth of starting pitching. The Rays' starting rotation is among the best in the American League, as weird as it sounds. While the Marlins lack a true number one pitcher, a stopper, the Rays, one could argue, have two: Scott Kazmir, 3-1, 1.55 ERA, and James Shields, 4-3, 3.78 ERA.

Kazmir is one of the best lefties in all of baseball. After missing the season's first few weeks it now appears as if the 23-year-old has put to rest any concerns about the left elbow strain he sustained at the end of March, stringing together four consecutive quality starts and wins—including another 10-strikeout performance against Texas last night. His outing on Monday, for example, illustrates his ability to dominate an opposing lineup when he has command over his pitches, as he scattered three hits while allowing just an earned run in seven stellar innings. The American League strikeout champion in 2007, he is now averaging 8.61 strikeouts per nine innings through his first five starts. If he can remain healthy, Kazmir, along with Shields, will provide the Rays with one of the strongest 1-2 pitching tandems in the major leagues.

Shields has pitched better than his record indicates, limiting opponents to a .246 batting average in a team-best 74.2 innings pitched. Dominant at home—much like the Rays, who are 21-8 in the friendly confines of Tropicana Field—his one-hit shutout against the Los Angeles Angles on May 9 is easily the greatest pitching performance in franchise history. Shields' 1.14 WHIP and 52/16 strikeout-to-walk ratio, however, are perhaps the strongest indicators of how effective he has actually been. In addition, he ranks 10th in opponents' OPS (.667) among starters who have pitched at least 60.0 innings.

Matt Garza is starting to pitch better as well, though he needs to limit his walk totals, which have hurt him severely so far this year. When he works ahead of hitters, Garza is a completely different pitcher, though, making the decision to deal troubled outfielder Delmon Young to the Minnesota Twins seem like a no-brainer. Although he has struggled at times, mostly when he falls behind hitters, and has battled through a few injuries, the Marlins would love to be able to run him out on the mound every fifth day. Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year only two years ago, he has the pure ability to make an impact as a starting pitcher at this level for a long time. Still, he needs to improve upon a 19-to-20 K/BB ratio for this to happen in the short term.

Edwin Jackson has lights-out stuff, but has never lived up to his tremendous potential. Although he has received poor run support so far, this is perhaps the year Jackson will turn the corner. Then there is Andy Sonnanstine, who recently became the quickest pitcher to reach the six-win plateau in Rays' history, though his 5.09 ERA is the highest of any Tampa Bay starter.

The Tampa Bay bullpen, one of the best in the game to this point, has played a major factor in the team's unprecedented success as well. Coming off a season in which Rays relievers posted one of the highest bullpen ERAs in the past half-century, relief pitching looked to be an area of concern for Tampa Bay entering spring training. As soon as Troy Percival stepped foot at the Naimoli Complex on the first day of pitchers and catchers in February, however, the sour memories—nightmares, perhaps—resulting from Shawn Camp, Brian Stokes and company's inability to hold onto leads have finally begun to fade away for good.

Percival has been of the game's top closers, registering 14 saves in 16 chances. In addition to serving as a mentor to several of the Rays' younger pitchers, he has posted a 2.61 ERA and staff-best .061 WHIP in 20.2 innings. He also sits third among all closers in opponents' OPS (.477), as batters are only hitting at a .125 clip against him so far this spring.

J.P. Howell and Dan Wheeler have established themselves as reliable weapons for Maddon in the late innings, too. Howell, without an overpowering fastball, has posted a 7.67 strikeout-per-nine-innings ratio, among the highest totals of any long reliever in baseball. The former starter, who appears to have finally found his niche at this level, has struck out 27 in 31.2 innings, opposed to 12 walks allowed, registering a 1.04 WHIP and 2.56 ERA.

And then there is the Rays' team defense, which is among the best in the American League. The Rays, in fact, have the highest defensive efficiency rating--the rate at which balls hit into play are converted into outs--in all of baseball. Evan Longoria looks like a seasoned veteran at the hot corner, blending above-average range with a plus throwing arm. Longoria, perhaps the favorite for American League Rookie of the Year, has struggled at the plate, but has made quite the impression on manager Joe Maddon and his teammates with his outstanding defense. In fact, he has registered the second-highest fielding percentage (.982) for a third baseman in the American League. Equally impressive, his 2.76 range factor and .788 zone rating are also among the top of league leaders at his position.

Jason Bartlett has played exceptional defense for the Rays at shortstop, a position which has consistently caused headaches for Rays' fans and pitchers alike over the years. Bartlett, one of many regulars whom have yet to come around at the plate, has shored up the team's defense up the middle, registering the seventh-highest range factor (4.68) in the majors, fifth in the AL.

B.J. Upton adds a whole other dimension in center field to improve team defense up the middle as well, bringing down balls most outfielders cannot even get to. Likewise for Carl Crawford, who covers as much ground as any left fielder in the game. Crawford, in fact, has the highest range factor (2.33) of any corner outfielder while ranking third in zone rating (.916) at his position. And, and as a regular on the "Web Gems" portion of Baseball Tonight, it is a shame he does not get any style points.

Unlike the Marlins, the Rays have yet to score runs at their maximum capability. Carlos Pena, after continuing to kill the Baltimore Orioles this weekend, is finally starting to get on base with as much efficiency and drive the ball as force as much as last season, when he shattered the franchise single-season home run record, blasting 46 balls into the seats.

Every night it has been a different guy leading the offensive attack for Tampa Bay, which has now won 14 of its last 18 games. Eric Hinske, who delivered the big blow with his three-run home run against the Rangers on Monday, is the perfect example of a player stepping up to make an impact. He has posted a .342 OBP and .529 slugging percentage, hitting nine homers and driving in 25 runs along the way.

The Tampa Bay offense—ranked 12th in the majors in team OPS (.741) and runs (237)—is going to heat up as temperatures continue to rise across the country. And, even if the offense remains in the middle of the pack, the Rays will at least be in the Wild Card conversation when September 1 hits, anyway, if the pitching holds up.

Yes, like Florida, Tampa Bay is forced to compete in one of the league's strongest divisions, against the game's financial superpowers. The Boston Red Sox are unquestionably one of the premier clubs in the game, with a diverse offensive attack and an effective pitching staff. Then there are the Toronto Blue Jays, who have one of the deepest rotations in the league as well, with Roy Halladay and Shaun Marcum pitching brilliantly as of late to guide J.P. Riccardi's ball club back on track. The New York Yankees, though currently last in the division at 25-26, are always a threat as well.

Still, I think the Tampa Bay is a legitimate contender, unlike their counterparts down Alligator Alley. The Rays' defense and deep rotation—barring injury, of course—give them the edge, as these facets of the game are less likely to go into a slump. While Tampa Bay has struggled to score runs and the bats have truly yet to come around, the Rays' odds of staying in contention will only continue to rise when Crawford and Pena and Longoria and Upton really get going at the plate. Given the choice of selecting one of the teams, it is fairly simple, in fact. I would take a rotation consisting of Kazmir, Shields and Garza, over Hendrickson and several unproven youngsters any day of the week.

Do you agree? Vote in our message boards.

Rookie of the Year Watch: Longoria, despite his recent struggles at the plate, is perhaps the favorite for to take home top-rookie honors in the American League at this point. Defensive performance aside, he is leading all AL rookies with seven home runs, two of which came in the Rays' win over Baltimore on Saturday, and ranks second among qualified rookies in his league with 27 RBIs. He is also tied for second with Boston center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury with a .791 OPS.

Hamilton Returns To Tampa Bay: Josh Hamilton made his long-awaited debut at Tropicana Field on Monday, nearly nine years to the day the then-Devil Rays selected him with the number one overall pick in the 1999 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Entry Draft. Hamilton, once labeled as the "best prep prospect ever," has provided baseball with one its best stories this season, coming back from years of drug abuse and a number of injuries to emerge as one of the game's top young hitters. The story has been well documented—after years of off-the-field issues, the Rays left him unprotected last winter, paving the way for Hamilton's unexpected debut in the majors with the Cincinnati Reds, for whom he hit 19 home runs in 90 games in an injury-plagued rookie campaign. This offseason, recently fired Reds general manager Wayne Krivsky dealt the then-25-year-old outfielder to the Texas Rangers in exchange for pitching prospect Edinson Volquez, citing a "surplus" of outfielders on the Cincinnati roster at the time. Volquez has more than exceeded expectations in his new city. He currently has the majors' lowest earned run average, 1.31, and is leading all of baseball with 76 punchouts.

Incredibly, though, it appears as if the Rangers got the better end of what looks to be an even deal for both parties involved. In one of the most amazing journeys to stardom baseball has ever seen, Hamilton is currently ranked in the top five in the American League in every Triple Crown category. His .327 batting average sits fourth, his 12 home runs rank second and his 53 RBIs are tops in all of Major League Baseball.

While Hamilton is making his debut at the Trop in an opposing uniform, sitting in the third base dugout all those years later, his line of .327/.371/.589 makes it that much more difficult for Tampa Bay fans to come to terms with. Although Eric Hinske has performed better than anyone expected at the start of camp, right field is perhaps the one position—with a mix of Hinske, Jonny Gomes and Gabe Gross—where the Rays could use an upgrade, causing fans to wonder, "what if?" In fact, it is easy—and perhaps painful for many—to imagine an outfield of Carl Crawford in left, B.J. Upton in center and Hamilton in right roaming the gaps of Tropicana Field well into the next decade.

Still, the Rays made the right decision, given the circumstances at the time. If Hamilton was not provided with the opportunity in Cincinnati, he might be attempting to resurrect his career in the Rays' farm system right now, perhaps starting in center field for the Double-A Montgomery Biscuits. You never know. After all, before he was scooped up in the Rule V draft, he had never faced pitching above Single-A, and had gone three years without playing a full season. Regardless, Hamilton's story is hard to root against, even if he is playing on the other team now. By the way, he was hitless in four at-bats in his debut in St. Petersburg.

Hellickson Off To Good Start: Jeremy Hellickson has been dominant for the Vero Beach Devil Rays. Through his latest start on Sunday, Hellickson is 5-0 with a 2.22 ERA in 56.2 innings pitched over nine starts. Before his latest two outings, the 21-year-old right-hander had not allowed more than two earned runs in his first eight appearances. Most impressive, though, is his outstanding K/BB ratio, 64-to-4. No, that is not a typo.

Niemann Gets Second Win: Jeff Niemann picked up his second win in the International League on Monday, allowing one unearned run on four hits in five solid innings in the Durham Bulls' 7-1 victory over Norwich in the first game of a doubleheader. Niemann, limited to 75 pitches, is now 2-1 with a 1.71 ERA in six Triple-A starts.

Down on the Farm Notes: Since clearing waivers and reporting to Durham, 1B/OF Dan Johnson has swung the bat well, hitting to the tune of .311/.425/.553 with six home runs and 23 RBIs in 30 games for the Bulls. Johnson, whom the Rays acquired from the Oakland Athletics during the Disney series in April, was designated for assignment on April 23, just a day after he was added to the club's 25-man roster. Justin Ruggiano, another outfielder who spent some time with the big-league squad earlier this spring, is also raking for the Bulls. Ruggiano is hitting .330/.397/.553 with four homers in 28 games. Shortstop Reid Brignac is second on the Bulls with 40 strikeouts, and has only walked eight times while posting a line of .286/.310/.486 over 175 at-bats. Brignac, considered as one of the best defensive infielders in the International League, has hit five homers, though, and is tied for second on the team with 25 RBIs.

Draft Live Blog: Come draft day, I will post frequent updates using the CoverItLive live blog application. Tune in to participate in the conversation.

Radio Appearance May 31: On Saturday, May 31, Rays Digest writer Tyler Hissey will make an appearance on Sarasota Sunny 1220 talk radio to discuss the Tampa Bay Rays' hot start. Hissey will make his case for why the the first-place Rays have a better chance of staying in contention than their in-state counterparts, appearing on Sports Café with Sean Duade at 3:40. Click here to listen live.

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

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