State of the Rays: We Need Reyes

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As we finish up June, the Rays are definitely contenders. They currently sit third in the AL East, but they right behind Boston for the Wild Card lead. It’s time to look at the roster to see where the Rays are at the half point of the year. Where are the strengths? What are some of the needs that need to be addressed if this team is going to continue to contend? Should the Rays be aggressive at the trade deadline? Check out my assessment of the roster after the jump.

Catchers: John Jaso and Kelly Shoppach have done a terrific job behind the plate from all appearances. At the plate, not so much. Shoppach has started to hit a little bit more, but he’s still hitting way below .200 and he still doesn’t make enough contact. Jaso is hitting a bit better (.223/.291./.337) but still way below what you would want in an every day player. Simply stated, the Rays are banking on their catching abilities to save runs because they are simply not getting it done at the plate.

Corner Infield: There are no complaints at first base. Casey Kotchman continues to wow with the glove and while he doesn’t have a ton of power (just three homers and 22 RBI) he is getting on base at a near .400 clip. Evan Longoria looks like he is finally getting his swing back. It looked like a lost season for Longo for the first two and a half months. He’s hit four homers in just the last week alone. Hopefully we’ll see an MVP-like second half.

Middle Infield: Shortstop has continued to be a problem all year. Reid Brignac has disappeared at the plate and somehow has only three extra base hits (two doubles and a homer) in 160 at bats, but his glove and lack of other options are at least keeping him in the mix against right-handed pitching. The lack of other options include Elliot Johnson, who was hurt at the beginning of the month and hasn’t hit and Sean Rodriguez, who has also done little with the bat. More alarmingly, he has already made five errors at short and is fielding a dreadful .857. He is not the answer at shortstop against lefties. The normal second baseman is Ben Zobrist who has been just fine wherever he plays. He’s been a doubles machine this year and gets on base even if his power has deserted him in June.

Outfield: This has been an interesting year so far in the outfield. Sam Fuld got the playing time when Manny Ramirez retired and was red-hot. Nobody thought that it was going to last and it hasn’t. His playing time has dwindled as Justin Ruggiano suddenly caught fire. Maddon has batted Ruggiano anywhere from third to eighth in his lineup but he has produced three homers and 10 RBI. Matthew Joyce disappeared much of June at the plate after a red-hot May that saw him hit .414 with seven homers and 21 RBI. In June he hit just .173 with just a measly homer. Now we come to the enigma that is B.J. Upton. He has the worst batting average at home of any player in the majors (.156), but on the road he is hitting a respectable .280. He obviously has terrific range in center and adds speed to the offense (20 of 24 stolen bases), but he has to figure out Tropicana Field to avoid becoming another Corey Patterson. The Rays have been waiting for him to become a middle of the order force, but they aren’t yet ready to give up on him now.

Designated Hitter: Johnny Damon has been the most pleasant surprise on the Rays this year and you could consider him the offensive MVP even though his .273/.320/.421 line is not all that impressive. His clubhouse leadership has been invaluable and he has been able to get the hits when they matter. He is the lead-off hitter that the Rays were searching for for the first two months. It’s been a pleasure to watch Damon every day. And the funny thing is, there really isn’t a better option out there. Damon is one of the better designated hitters in the American League and it would make little sense for the Rays to add a guy like Michael Young (even though he’s most likely not available at this point).

Starting Pitching: This group of five (and sometimes six) is the reason why the Rays will probably have to live with Shoppach and Jaso as their catchers. The starters have been what has kept the Rays in contention and will be the reason that they make the postseason. James Shields has been their MVP. David Price has been a bit inconsistent but on any given night he can dominate and often has. Jeremy Hellickson has been unlucky but also very good. The two question marks are Wade Davis, who has certainly gotten better his last two starts and Jeff Niemann, one good start and one bad start since coming off the disabled list. The Rays won’t trade for a starter at the deadline. If they need someone, Alex Cobb has show he can do the job in a pinch.

Bullpen: This is an area where the Rays should consider getting some help. Jake McGee was a fan favorite to take over the closing role before the beginning of the year. He’s now buried in the minors as Kyle (don’t call me the closer) Farnsworth has done a great job in that role. However, the rest of the bullpen had a terrible June. Joel Peralta and Cesar Ramos have been very shaky. It’s time for Maddon to try something different, say give the more high leverage innings to Juan Cruz and Adam Russell. It’s also time to get another middle reliever for cheap on the trade market. Andy Sonnanstine is the long man/last man out of the bullpen. That’s exactly where he should stay.

If the Rays are going to get in the postseason, they need to upgrade at shortstop. That is the one glaring hole that management can’t just hope will improve as the season goes along. Even the bullpen, who is going through a bit of slump, should improve even if another arm would be useful. Who would be the logical choice at short? If the Rays want to go for it all, they should target Jose Reyes. He would instantly help out their offensive and defensive woes at the position and create a more balanced lineup against both right-handers and left-handers. Yes, he would only be a rental, but the Rays could certainly afford to give up some of their prospects for a chance right now. It’s time for the Rays to go for it all in 2011.

Check out my thoughts on the Rays @Jonathan_Bohall and make sure to like us on Facebook.