The Tampa Bay Rays might be one of the unluckiest franchises in Major League Baseball.
I’m saying this because they play in the American League East with two teams that have a payroll four and five times that of the Rays. This isn’t meant to discredit their organization, though. Tampa Bay is a solid team, and they have been for a few years now, but how do they do it? How do they compete with these teams that have seemingly unlimited funds?
Despite playing in a league with two baseball juggernauts, the Rays keep winning. They’ve won the division two out of the last three years, and even made it to the World Series a few years ago. How is this possible? Their highest payroll since 2008 was $71 million, which was still less than half the league.
They’ve been doing it with outstanding defense and solid pitching. You’ll find the Rays near the top of metric defensive categories such as UZR, DRS, and Baseball Prospectuses’ Defensive Efficiency stat. This year, they lead the major leagues with +57 Defensive Runs Saved. The team closest to the Rays in that category is the Rangers at +31. To put it simply, the Rays play great defense, and that has been their MO for several years now.
The Rays make very few mistakes in the field, and it’s almost out of necessity. There aren’t a lot of fearsome bats in this lineup — though Casey Kotchman is having a nice year. They’re riding a career season from Matt Joyce as well. An upgrade at shortstop is desperately needed, but this is not an easy position find a viable replacement.
The Rays opened the second half against the Red Sox, and followed that up with a four game series against the Yankees. Tough draw. However, Tampa Bay has a favorable schedule leading up to their next meeting with the top dogs of the AL East. They get seven games against Oakland and Kansas City, three games with Seattle, and three with Toronto.
If the series with the Yankees is any indication of how the second half will go in the AL East, then we’re in for a great finish. James Shields went toe-to-toe with Yankees ace, C.C. Sabathia, and came away the victor. Sabathia did all he could, tossing a complete game in the loss.
Perhaps the most important bit from last night’s 2-1 victory was Evan Longoria’s box score. Longoria smacked a solo shot in the first inning and finished the game 2-2 with two walks. That’s the type of game that can lead to a breakout. The Rays desperately need offensive production, specifically Longoria’s offensive production. He’s a guy that can carry the Rays if he heats up.
This is the key for the Rays to stay in the playoff hunt. At this point, it’s a wait and see approach on whether or not they will be selling at the break. They have two valuable trade chips in James Shields and B.J. Upton. A trade of B.J. Upton would open a spot for the Rays’ top prospect Desmond Jennings, but I’m not sure if Jennings would be an upgrade over Upton.
Upton’s WAR is a career low 1.6, but putting your faith in an inexperienced prospect, albeit a very good one, is playing with fire. If Upton is traded away, then that would likely be the white flag for Tampa Bay this year.
It’s certainly possible that Tampa Bay can catch the Yankees, but considering the Yankees are in a better position to buy as the trade deadline approaches — it seems more likely that the Yankees will stave off the Rays in the AL East. Baseball Prospectus sure doesn’t like the Rays’ chances to make the playoffs. They’re chances are pegged at 5%, but at least that’s not 0% and whose to say that number can’t change dramatically?
Given the favorable schedule that lies ahead, and the Yankees struggling to score runs, it would not be wise to count out the Rays. They are the defending AL East champion after all.
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