Team Profile – Tampa Bay Rays
The Tampa Bay Rays is one team that defies the logic of the small-market team. For most, the team is usually mediocre, recruiting players that have passed their primes and promoting draft picks that aren’t quite ready for the major leagues. The stadium is never full, gimmicks abound, and the bottom of the division is like a second home. But not for the Rays. Since 2008, this team has defied all that logic, playing just the right amount of small ball, combining it with timely power from the best third baseman in the league (among others), and getting leadership from arguably the best manager in the game. After all that, the Rays not only find themselves regularly competing for the division title, but – as with this year – are favorites to wind up with a Wild Card spot.
2012 has seen another great season for Tampa Bay. They got off to a rocky start (which wasn’t aided by the amazing season the Orioles had), but things have turned around. Not only are they holding the top Wild Card spot by two games, but they’re now only two and half games out of first place for the division lead. The Yankees better watch their backs. So what does Tampa have to do to keep rolling?
Ever since the turnaround in 2008, the Rays have prided themselves on having one of the best starting rotations in baseball. They consistently have starters who keep opponents off the board, racking up wins at a frightening rate (if you’re an opposing team). 2012 is no different. David Price is an early Cy Young favorite, entering the final six weeks of the season at 16-4 with a 2.28 ERA and 1.07 WHIP. In a one-game playoff to decide the final team in the ALDS, I’d hate to see David Price on the mound.
The rest of the rotation is pulling its own weight, as well, with last years Rookie-of-the-Year winner Jeremy Hellickson at 8-8 with a 3.28 ERA, Matt Moore at 10-7 with a 3.57 ERA, and James Shields at 12-7 with a 4.01 ERA. The surprising number there is from Shields. He’s definitely one of the elite pitchers in baseball, but his ERA is considerably elevated this year. Obviously, though, he’s getting a fair amount of run support when he’s out on the mound. Together, though, these four are creating a pitching rotation that can’t be beaten by many teams in baseball, and should help to carry the Rays to the postseason again.
Whether he’s on the roster or not, the Rays’ offense is anchored by Evan Longoria. Since coming to the major leagues, Longoria has won gold gloves, silver sluggers, and a Rookie-of-the-Year award, leading to a generally accepted place as the best third baseman in the American League (and, arguably, the majors). His bat is a boon to any team, and it’s going to be a real puzzle for the Rays’ front office when Longoria is a free agent. In the meantime, though, he’ll continue to hit nearly .300 with power. Not even time on the disabled list can slow him down, which is where he found himself earlier this season. But once he healed up, he came back and picked things right up again.
The rest of the offense isn’t doing too bad, either. Jeff Keppinger is hitting .323, while Matt Joyce and Ben Zobrist are both hitting .260 with 14 home runs. Even on what could be considered a “great” team, half of a lineup hitting for decent average with power is going to translate into a lot of wins before the season is over.
It’s always frustrating, as a sports fan, to see a former player from your favorite team be unbearable when he’s with your team, and then a superstar when he goes to another team. Such is the case with Rays’ closer Fernando Rodney. When Rodney was with the Detroit Tigers, he was a big question mark every time he came out of the bullpen. For a couple years, he was the eighth inning setup man, and there was no guarantee the ninth inning would come around with a lead. Then, for a season, he was the Detroit closer, and gave the fanbase a collective heart attack every time he pitched. Now, with the Rays, he’s 39/41 in save opportunities, with a 0.77 ERA and 0.78 WHIP. That’s insanely good, for any pitcher – especially this late in the season. If it weren’t for the years of Price and Jered Weaver, Rodney may be a favorite for the A.L. Cy Young. He’ll probably still get some votes, though.
The rest of the Rays’ bullpen is outstanding as well. The worst regular pitcher in the ‘pen is Kyle Farnsworth, who still has a 3.38 ERA. Think about that – that’s the worst ERA for the players with regular appearances out of the bullpen. Everyone else (and that would be six other players) have lower averages. That’s nearly the entire bullpen. With that kind of production and versatility, any manager would be in heaven as the season winds down.
Keys to Success
The Rays are a championship-caliber team. They just have to get over that hump. That means continuing to put it all together down the stretch. The only real opposition at this point would be the Yankees and Rangers. If the Rays can overcome the Yankees for the division crown, then that’s one foe beaten. So how do they continue to succeed? It would seem that they’ve already figured that out. There will be some head-to-head matchups with New York left this season, and winning those will be crucial to getting to the postseason. With the season winding down, it’s time to make a play for the top.