Over the next couple weeks, I intend to take a look at some of the teams that are vying for a playoff spot along with the Detroit Tigers. I want to analyze these teams mainly in regards to Detroit’s ability to beat them out of a playoff spot. Or even if they can. Today, I am going to start with the Tampa Rays, who are becoming veterans of the playoff hunt. They won a spot last season with an amazing run in September, coupled with a Boston collapse. This Rays team is shaping up to do much of the same, as they have won 8 of their last 10 games.
Record: 67-54 (Currently leading the wild card chase)
The Rays are loaded in pitching. Of course, we all knew this when the season started, but now the pitching is starting to crank into full gear. The rotation has been anchored all season by ace David Price, who is probably the leading contender for the Cy Young at this point. Price is 16-4 on the season with an ERA of 2.39. Price has been especially good as of late, posting an ERA of 1.50 in his last 5 starts, going 3-0. Price has been joined as of late by rookie Matt Moore in the hot pitcher category as well. Moore, has turned a mediocre rookie campaign into a very good one on the back of a strong second half. Moore has made 7 second half starts, posting a miniscule ERA of 1.64. Along with Moore and Price, Jeremy Hellickson has quietly put together a strong sophomore season. He doesn’t have the same type of strikeout ability, but Hellickson gives a good effort on most nights, and usually keeps teams from scoring more than a couple of runs as evidenced by his season ERA of 3.39. Want more depth? How about James Shields, who also has been strong as of late, pitching to a 3-1 record and 2.75 ERA in his last 5 starts. Alex Cobb holds down the 5th spot now, but Jeff Niemann will return soon, and the Rays still have Wade Davis on the team as well. There is talent and depth, and is quite possibly the best rotation in baseball.
This is a very underrated aspect of the Rays. They never seem to get enough credit for their bullpen, mainly because it is usually pieced together with a cast of rejects. Well, if these guys are rejects, Tampa is soon going to have people following their formula, or someone is going to steal their pitching coach for a lot of money. Closer, and ex-Tiger, Fernando Rodney is the best closer in baseball right now. We’ve all known Rodney has immense talent, but Tampa has done something that neither the Tigers or the Angels could do, and that is get Rodney to throw more strikes. Rodney has saved 38 games this season, and posted a minute ERA of 0.79. Oh, can you believe this? He has walked only 9 batters in 56 innings.
Rodney isn’t the only thing that Tampa has going for it in the bullpen. Their two lefties, J.P. Howell and Jake McGee, both have sub 3 ERA’s, and McGee is striking out 10.7 batters per 9. Wade Davis has posted an ERA of 2.56 in his new role where his stuff has played up a bit. Kyle Farnsworth and Joel Peralta are also solid veterans at the back end of the pen. Another ex-Tiger has in Burke Badenhop has transitioned pretty well to the American League, posting an ERA of 3.40 on the season. To drive the point home of how good their bullpen is, the Rays don’t have one regular bullpen piece that has an ERA of over 4.00.
As good as the Rays are with their pitching, the Rays do have some issues on offense. Though they have been better as of late, the Rays are 9th in the American League in runs scored and only batting .236 as a team. They do run as part of their offensive game, and because the team doesn’t get on base at a good rate and lacks a little power, it is a weapon that has helped them a bit. The Rays have a league leading 105 stolen bases as a team. The Rays just recently welcomed back stud 3rd baseman Evan Longoria, which should help down the stretch, but this is a team that has to live off of the contributions of everyone. Desmond Jennings has been hot the past couple of weeks, hitting .354 during that stretch. Super utility man Ben Zobrist started 2012 terribly in April and May, but since June, Zobrist has been one of the better players in the league. His second half OPS of .853 isn’t eye popping, but it’s a much needed jolt from a player that Tampa needs to do well for it to score runs.
Whatever they are, the Rays seem to have intangibles in spades. When you look at their offense, and some of the players who have been cast-a-ways elsewhere, you wonder how they win. Well, pitching is an obvious plus, but they seem to get the most out of their talent, maybe more than any major league franchise out there. Then, you have the mad scientist that is Joe Maddon. Maddon doesn’t ever appear to be afraid to mix things up, and as a leader, there might not be any better out there. His guys seem to play hard and respond to his style. This team has a tendency towards strong second half’s and they know they are never out of it. I think they have the “me against the world” syndrome, because they have so few fans, and so little money to spend. It works for them.
Tampa stacks up against the Tigers well when it comes to talent, though this isn’t a one on one contest. The Tigers are actually 5-2 against the Rays this season, so head to head, the Tigers certainly can compete, if not present a tough matchup for the Rays. The Rays pitching though has convinced me from the start that they were going to be one of 2012′s playoff teams from the get go. I haven’t changed my mind on that at this point. I think the Rays could actually sneak out the win in the A.L. East division, but if not I think they have one of the wildcards; meaning if the Tigers don’t win the Central there is only one spot left.