Which way are the Tampa Bay Rays going to go in the standings in the second half? Going into the All-Star break, the Rays put together an impressive three-game sweep of the Houston Astros. Their starting pitching, bullpen, situational hitting, and defense were all clicking. However, for three weeks prior to that weekend, they could manage only three wins. Which Rays team will show up for the rest of the season? Let’s take a look at why it might be the winning Rays.
Starting Pitching: Despite numerous injuries, the Rays assembled an impressive starting rotation in the first half and it should be even stronger in the second. Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi lead the way. Nate Karns is having a season that resembles Odorizzi’s rookie year, delivering a few rough starts but generally reliable results that have been getting better over time. Matt Moore is back after Tommy John surgery and is rounding into shape. Finally, Erasmo Ramirez has been a real find although there has to be some concern over whether the magic will last.
Bullpen: One could say that this group is the real reason the Rays are in the hunt for a playoff spot. Brad Boxberger, Jake McGee, and Kevin Jepsen have been lights out in the eighth and ninth innings. The trio has 31 saves on the season. Brandon Gomes and Steve Geltz have been steady in middle relief with Geltz doing everything from starting to closing. Xavier Cedeno has been a much-needed lefty specialist and is fine if you don’t expose him to too many right-handed hitters. All six have earned run averages under 4.00.
Beyond this group, the Rays have also have depth. Alex Colome had some excellent games as a starter and is just getting his feet wet in the bullpen. With time, his mid-90’s fastball could make him another late-inning arm or an effective multiple-inning pitcher. Drew Smyly will also come off the DL in August and, as long as they don’t overwork him, he will be valuable as a reliever or a starter.
Offense: This is where you have to keep your fingers crossed. The Houston series was perfect example of how clutch hitting can win games for the often offensively impaired Rays and you can only hope that the team has the players to make it continue.
The Rays’ outfielders have generally been good offensive contributors. David DeJesus has had a rebound year and has combined with Brandon Guyer for a nice platoon in left field. Kevin Kiermaier has been OK at the plate, but you would like to see him get on-base more. Steven Souza Jr. has supplied most of the team’s power but struck out way too much before hitting the DL. We can only hope that Kiermaier and Souza Jr. continue to improve their games.
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The infielders have been the stars of the show with Evan Longoria, Logan Forsythe, and James Loney (when healthy) providing the most consistent offensive performances on the team. You would like to see more power out of Longoria, but I’ll settle for a few more RBI’s. Asdrubal Cabrera has been the weak link, but he was starting to pick up the pace before his injury and will hopefully continue that once he returns. Like Longoria, you would like to see more power but an improved batting average and lots of doubles will work. The utility infield spot is still a work-in-progress and it looks like Tim Beckham is the next to get the call. Like Souza Jr., he has good (if not quite Souza-esque) power but strikes out too much.
Catcher has been an offensive black hole for the team with the position hitting under the Mendoza line all year long. However. Rene Rivera seems to have found his stroke in the past two weeks and has raised his average twenty points. Look for him to be a better hitter in the second half of the season. Curt Casali has also been a solid bat as his backup.
The designated hitter has been a moving target for the Rays all season, but with the return of John Jaso and the success of Joey Butler, it should be solidified. Jaso has been a strong hitter against right-handed pitching for years now, and hopefully Butler can get past his recent slump to at least hit lefty arms. If that happens, they can be an ideal platoon at the top of the order. Lack of speed is their only weakness, but it is not as though you ask your designated hitters for stolen bases.
Defense: With the return of Loney, the Rays have solid defense at all eight positions. Kevin Kiermaier is arguably the best centerfielder in baseball while Cabrera has been a pleasant surprise at shortstop. Forsythe has shined at second base while Evan Longoria continues to impress at the hot corner. Then there is Rivera, who has made up for much of his offense ineptitude with spectacular work behind the plate. Souza Jr. still needs to polish his game, but even he has been a positive defender according to some sources because of his strong throwing arm.
And finally, there is always a chance for a midyear trade. The Rays could use a offensive minded backup catcher (no offense to Casali) and, if Beckham or Nick Franklin don’t work out, a versatile utility infielder who can hit would be nice. You can dream about the return of Ben Zobrist, but the truth is the Rays rarely make a “rent a player” deal. In addition, they will likely target another bullpen arm, as will almost every other contender
The pieces are certainly in place for the Tampa Bay Rays to make a run at a playoff spot in the struggling AL East. As usual, their pitching and defense are hard to beat. However, their offense must also do its part and the baseball gods must look kindly upon the Rays for this season to end in success.