The Pop-Tarts Series rolls on with one of two Florida teams, the Tampa Bay Rays.
The Rays have been the AL East equivalent of the Minnesota Twins this year, a young squad not expected to accomplish much that winds up in the thick of the division race. The Rays are 1.5 games out of first place and seemingly don’t have the tools to win the division, but are winning games anyhow. Let’s analyze this puzzling club.
The Rays on offense are a bit of a revolving door every game. There are only a few starters set in stone, and they have held up their end of the bargain. Evan Longoria is having a bounce-back season, batting .266 with stellar defense. His power numbers are down, though. Logan Forsythe won the second base job by default and has not disappointed. Forsythe has batted .264 with slightly higher power numbers than Longoria, an extremely pleasant surprise from the previously light-hitting benchwarmer. David DeJesus, Kevin Kiermaier, and Steven Souza Jr. are plus defenders across the board in the outfield, and have been valuable top-half-of-the-order bats. Souza Jr. has clubbed 12 homers. James Loney has been underwhelming at first, along with Asdrubal Cabrera at shortstop and Rene Rivera at catcher, but their struggles have not cost the Rays in terms of overall offensive output. If the Rays are serious about contending though, they could pursue an upgrade at all three positions. John Jaso and Nick Franklin are on the DL, and offer improvements at catcher and shortstop. While the Rays don’t have one big superstar bat you must avoid at all costs, their overall lineup camaraderie is their biggest offensive attribute; they have an easy flow from 1-9, boasting players that can hurt you up and down the order. While no regulars even have an OPS over .800, only the aforementioned three struggling players have one below .700, with Loney knocking at the door at .698. The Rays could use another bat, but they can at least keep a ballgame interesting.
Arguably the Rays’ biggest strong suit, the starting pitching has been decimated by injury. Season-ending surgeries for Alex Cobb and Drew Smyly leave the club without two of its top starters, but the Rays simply churn out more. Chris Archer is an ace, as his ERA stands at 2.00 and boasts 113 strikeouts in only 90 innings. Most telling though is Archer’s batting average against. Opposing batters hit just .196 off of Archer. The Rays will win most games when he is on the mound. Factor in the rising Jake Odorizzi and the decent Nate Karns and Alex Colome, as well as the return of ex-top prospect Matt Moore in July, and the Rays are still in good shape rotation-wise despite losing such important cogs. The bullpen is another plus for the Rays. Veterans like Grant Balfour and Ernesto Frieri didn’t work out, and promptly were DFA’d. The emergence of Brad Boxberger as closer solidifies the bullpen when they needed one most, and above-average setup men Kevin Jepsen, Jake McGee and Steven Geltz get the job done in the late innings. Xavier Cedeno is a good LOOGY, and Brandon Gomes and Matt Andriese round out the rest of the ‘pen. While more experience in the bullpen would be preferred, the Rays can use all 7 of their relievers to get high-leverage outs, a luxury that few managers can boast. If Moore returns to the rotation with a bang and the late inning crew continues its dominance, the Rays are set pitching-wise.
The Rays are an interesting team to analyze. There really isn’t a star you must watch out for, but all 25 men on the roster know their roles and simply execute them. If the Rays are still in the middle of things come the end of July, some shrewd rental pieces could have the Rays as AL East division favorites. As of now, I feel that regression is imminent due to the lack of star power, but that never stopped the Rays before. Don’t let the Rays sneak up on you anytime soon. They are a contender for a playoff spot in the AL in 2015.