July was a good month for the Rays in 2013 and 2014. In 2015, however, the team ended the month with its worst July record since 2007. August has been a little better so far as the Rays have won two of their last three years and have seen their offense come alive. James Loney delivered a clutch hit on Sunday before Grady Sizemore and Mikie Mahtook were the surprising heroes yesterday.
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At this writing, the Rays are only one game under .500 and just two games out of the last Wild card slot in the American League. They have their fate largely in their own hands because two of the teams directly in front of them are the Blue Jays and the Orioles. The Rays still have six games remaining with Toronto and seven with Baltimore to go along with three against the current second Wild Card, the Minnesota Twins. True, the Blue Jays upgraded their team with the additions of Troy Tulowitzki and David Price, but the Rays also expect to upgrade between the call-up of International League home run leader Richie Shaffer and the returns of Drew Smyly and Desmond Jennings from injury.
Manager Kevin Cash recently told the media that “The group of guys we have in here can definitely make a push here at this thing the last 60 days.” Certainly, it would be hard for the Rays to play worse than they did in July, when they went just 9-16, and the hope is to return to their level of play from June, went they went 16-12. In addition, playing well in the last two months of the season could tell us not only about the Rays’ fate for this year, but also for next season.
Bill James developed a series of measurements that indicate whether a team will perform better in the following year. One of the most important indicators was play in the second half of the season–teams that played better in the second half tended to improve the year after. In 2014 the Rays had a losing record, but played .500 ball, 32-32, after the All-Star break. That was one indication that the 2015 Rays would be better than last year’s team. This year, their record is exactly the same through 107 games, but given that this year’s edition has done so without a crazy (and unsustainable) hot streak, they is hope that they can finish with better results this season.
Younger teams also tend improve more from year to year, and the 2015 Rays are certainly younger than last season’s team. With David DeJesus and Kevin Jepsen gone and young players like Shaffer, Andrew Bellatti, and Matt Andriese set to see more time, this team may even get a touch more youthful. Teams with good Triple-A and Double-A teams also have a good chance of finding better results the next year, and prospects like Blake Snell, Brent Honeywell, and Daniel Robertson explain exactly why. Before too long, many of them will be ready to help this team.
When Matt Silverman restructured the Tampa Bay Rays in the offseason, he was aiming to improve the team in 2015 and set it up to contend for years to come. Given that the Rays had a rookie manager and would be playing as many young players as anybody, a record above .500 appeared beyond reach in the eyes of many entering this year. Instead, the Rays have played well enough to give themselves a chance, and a record only a little over .500 could get a team into the playoffs this year. With all of this in mind, it will be interesting to watch how the Rays meet this challenge this year. It will matter for the 2015 Postseason and their 2016 record as well.