The Rays have been battling injuries all season long, but their AL East title hopes are still very much alive. Despite having a double-digit amount of players on the disabled list, the Rays have been able to hold their ground in baseball’s toughest division.
The team’s leader, Evan Longoria, has missed almost a month now with a hamstring injury. Incredibly, the Rays have managed to stay atop the division (now tied) and have actually gained a game on the Yankees since Longoria went down on the final day of April. But Longoria was just one of numerous injuries that caused the Rays to play shorthanded throughout the month of May. Leadoff hitter Desmond Jennings, Jeff Keppinger, Brandon Allen, Jeff Niemann and Brandon Guyer (out for the season) have all hit the DL this month, essentially weakening every part of their game to some extent.
Yet somehow the Rays have continued to win ballgames. How role players have stepped up with Longoria on the sidelines is what really tells me that the Rays will be able to fight through their injury issues and prevail with the division. Sean Rodriguez, Elliot Johnson, Jeff Keppinger, Will Rhymes and Drew Sutton have all contributed to replace Longoria at the hot corner. While Longo was hitting .329/.433/.561 with 19 RBI and 168 wRC+ before he hurt his hammy, here’s how the five fared:
Longoria made up for the lack of production from Rodriguez and Johnson, which is why there was obviously a major concern when he was put on the DL and was reported to miss over up to two months. To many’s surprise, the Rays had all five of Longoria’s replacements work together to put up some impressive numbers offensively following the injury:
If these five can keep up the good work for about another month—when Longoria could possibly to return—the Rays will stay on the right track and escape what could’ve been a disastrous fall in the standings. Once Longoria returns, the Rays will only get better, as his defense at third and his big-time power has been dearly missed
Longoria is not the only player that could help the Rays run away with the division once he returns. The Rays have yet to unleash the full potential of their base-running game, as the Rays’ three biggest threats on the bases—Desmond Jennings, Sam Fuld and B.J. Upton—have yet to play a single game together this season. As I said before, the Rays’ injury issues have negatively impacted every part of their game, and base-running has been a big one. Once Jennings returns (likely later this week), the Rays will get an instant boost on the base paths as they get back their talented stolen-base duo of Jennings and Upton.
Barring any more injuries, the Rays will also be bolstered by the return of Jose Lobaton, Jeff Keppinger and Kyle Farnsworth. Jose Lobaton provides the Rays with the switch-hitting catcher they need, as Chris Gimenez has hit just 0.59 off of right-handed pitching this season. Keppinger gives the Rays’ offense a huge boost against left-handed pitching (.417 against lefties this season), as well as some extra depth in the infield. And Farnsworth gives the ‘pen another good righty, which is preferable over the likes of Joel Peralta or Burke Badenhop late in games, considering the terrific job he did last year.
The Rays’s starting rotation, which—besides Matt Moore—is everything hyped up to be, is another reason to believe the Rays have what it takes win the AL East. It is once again the division’s best rotation, and it has continued to carry the Rays through these brutal injuries. Jeff Niemann, who has had a strong start to the season, broke his leg right when he started to heat up and really find his groove at the back end of the rotation. Luckily for the Rays, they happen to have the best starting pitching depth is baseball, and found an effective replacement for Niemann in Alex Cobb. Since being called up, Cobb is 2-0 with a 2.25 ERA through his two starts. I believe with six starters as good as these, the Rays will simply out-pitch their AL East opponents just as they’ve done in the past years.
One more thing to consider when discussing which team is the favorite to win the AL East is the injury problems amongst the Rays’ competition.
Boston currently has seven outfielders on the DL, including stars Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford. Their pitching is their biggest weakness, injuries to three starters (Aaron Cook, John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka) and their closer Andrew Bailey (likely won’t return until August) a big reason why.
The Yankees also have their share of injuries, as pretty much half of their bullpen is on the disabled list, including Mariano Rivera (out for the season), Joba Chamberlain (likely out for the season), and David Robertson. They’re also missing a much-needed solid starter in Michael Pineda, who will miss all of 2012 as well.
Even the Orioles, who have had a great start to the 2012 season, have been affected by injuries. The big bats of Nolan Reimold, Mark Reynolds and Brian Roberts are all on the DL. Starter Zach Britton—a potential key piece in Baltimore’s rotation—is also hurt.
Although the Rays have been bombarded with injuries right from the get go, their AL East foes by no means have been injury-free either. With the Rays having the benefit of less long-term injuries than than the Sox and Yankees thus far this season, I believe they’ll use that as an advantage down the stretch. As for the Orioles, well, the Rays hope their early-season success is just a fluke and they won’t be in the pennant race once October comes calling.
The Rays are set to kick-off a three-game series in Fenway this weekend, which got me thinking about the rivalry they have built over the past years. Considering the two teams have been playing each other for just the past fourteen years now, the Rays and Red Sox have one of the most intense rivalries in baseball. The Rays and Sox have never liked each other one bit, but now they’re not just enemies; they’re also serious contenders.
Ever since the Rays’ miracle 2008 season, these two clubs have battled it out ’till the end, and have been the spotlight of sports’ biggest playoff races in recent years. The rivalry only seems to be getting stronger, as Boston was victim to one of the worst collapses in baseball history in the midst of the Rays’ historical comeback.
Here are the five most memorable games ever in the history of Major League Baseball’s fastest growing rivalry:
5. August 29, 2000: Pedro Martinez Throws One-Hitter at the Trop, Starts Outing with Bench-Clearing Brawl
Although the Rays-Red Sox rivalry really didn’t start to heat up until the ’08 season, many believe the bad blood began as long ago as the Devil Rays’ awful early years. Back in 2000, then Boston ace Pedro Martinez started what would be a masterful outing with a beanball at outfielder Gerald Williams. Williams charged the mound, and the benches cleared. After the delay, Pedro retired 24 straight and struck out 13 batters, taking a no-hitter into the ninth inning which was ended by a John Flaherty leadoff single. It was one bad day at the Trop that Tuesday night, as eight players and coaches were ejected in the 8-0 loss—many of them resulting from the four hit Boston batters in retaliation for the first-inning incident.
4. 2008 ALCS, Game Two: Rays Walk-Off in Extras to Tie Series
If one thing was for sure, the Rays needed to win Game 2 of the 2008 AL Championship Series if they wanted to keep their pennant hopes alive. They did it in walk-off fashion, beating the Red Sox 9-8 in a six-home run, back-and-forth slugfest in extras. The nearly five-and-a-half-hour marathon was started by Scott Kazmir and Josh Beckett, who both—surprisingly—were hit hard. After a scoreless ninth and 10th, B.J. Upton had a chance to tie the series with the bases loaded and nobody out. He blooped a soft pop-up to short right, which scored the speedy Fernando Perez, who slid home safely, sending the Tropicana Field crowd into a frenzy. The thrilling victory not only kept the Rays very much alive in the series, but it also gave them the momentum they needed going to Boston for Games 3-5.
3. 2008 ALCS, Game 5: Red Sox Comeback at Fenway to Stay Alive
When the Rays were leading 7-0 in the bottom of the seventh inning, it seemed the Rays were going to complete the Beantown sweep, beating the Red Sox in three straight blowouts at Fenway Park to win the pennant. Boston refused to go down without a fight, as the Rays bullpen—which had been dominant all season—saw one of the biggest singe-game playoff collapses in baseball history. The Red Sox tied the game in the eighth inning and then capped off the incredible comeback with a walk-off base hit from J.D. Drew.
2. June 5, 2008: Benches Clear in Boston
This bench-clearing brawl from June 2008 is one incident that will never be forgotten by either Tampa or Boston fans. It was the day that everyone in the baseball world realized that the Rays-Red Sox rivalry was for real. After starter James Shields predictably threw at Coco Crisp, he charged the mound, starting what would be one wild fist fight on the diamond. Three were ejected, but a total of eight players from the two teams served suspensions. The Rays have had their share of brawls with the Red Sox in the past, but this one stands atop them all. The best thing that came out of this quarrel during Boston’s 7-1 win was that it made beating the Red Sox later that year in the ALCS even sweeter for the Rays.
1. 2008 ALCS, Game 7: Rays Win the Pennant
October 19, 2008: The greatest night in the history of the Tampa Bay Rays franchise thus far. The Rays shocked Red Sox Nation with a 3-1 pennant-winning victory at the Trop, led by an ace-like performance from Matt Garza. Garza would later win the much-deserved MVP award for the series. Rookie David Price came on to close out the game and send the Rays to their first World Series. He finished off the Sox with a ground ball off the bat of Jed Lowrie to Akinori Iwamura, who stepped on second base to start the biggest celebration ever at Tropicana Field. It was the highlight of their magical season, as their incredible run was ended by the Philadelphia Phillies in the Fall Classic.
The baseball gods must be upset with the Rays this year, as they haven’t been able to avoid injuries at any point so far this season. The Rays have had a total of nine players on the Disabled List this season, including B.J. Upton, Kyle Farnsworth (60-day DL), Sam Fuld (60-day DL), Robinson Chirinos (60-day DL), Jose Lobaton, Evan Longoria, Brandon Allen, Desmond Jennings, and Jeff Niemann. Besides Upton and Chirinos (rehab assignment), all of them are currently on the DL.
After lingering as day-to-day for over a week with a sprained left knee, Jennings was finally placed on the 15-day DL. Not only are the Rays without their biggest offensive producer Evan Longoria, but now they’ll have to manage without their leadoff hitter for some time. With Jennings out the offense—and the defense—takes another huge blow. He’s probably the biggest part of the Rays’ running game, as well as a plus defender in the outfield which can’t be replaced by the likes of Brandon Guyer and Stephen Vogt.
The Rays were hit with yet another big injury last night, as Jeff Niemann—the fifth man in the starting rotation—broke his leg on a hard comebacker against the Blue Jays. X-rays revealed a small fracture above Niemann’s right ankle, which will sideline him for a minimum of 4-6 weeks.
The injury could not come at a much worse time for Niemann and the Rays, as the big right-hander seemed to be on the way up after his best start of the season in Yankee Stadium last Wednesday, where he silenced the New York bats with seven sharp innings of one-run ball. Although he’s in the number five spot in the rotation, Niemann has been a key piece to the Rays’ pitching staff this year. He’s probably been the most consistent starter for the Rays this season, as he hasn’t had a start with more than three earned runs thus far (3.38 ERA on the season). With Matt Moore having some early season struggles in the No. 4 hole, Niemann has been the core of the back end of the rotation, giving his team a chance to win in every single game he pitched this year.
Niemann is no stranger to injuries, however, as they’ve already stifled his chance of becoming a star multiple times in his career. In 2010, it appeared as he was headed towards a breakout season, posting a 2.77 ERA with a 7-2 record through 117 innings pitched in the first half. After getting hurt in August, it all went down hill for him from there as he imploded in a horrific end to the season. In early May of last year, Niemann was placed on the DL with back problems, and it was likely was the only thing that got in the way of a solid year for him. Before the injury, when his back was probably bothering him, Niemann went 1-4 with an ERA of about 6.38. After returning from the injury, he went 10-3 with a 3.94 ERA.
Now the question is who will replace Niemann for the time being. Alex Cobb—who’s already filled in for a Jeff Niemann injury in the past—is definitely a possibility. Cobb gave the Rays a huge boost last year while Niemann was out last year, going 3-2 with a 3.42 ERA in nine starts (his only MLB experience). After eight starts with Triple-A Durham this season, Cobb is 1-4 with a 4.14 ERA.
Top prospect Chris Archer is also in the conversation. Although he seems to be heating up now, he’s had a rather slow start to the season posting a 4.71 after eight starts with Durham. Wade Davis—who was edged out of a starting role by Niemann—is another possibility to take his place. He’s done well out of the ‘pen so far this season, posting a 2.04 ERA through 17.2 innings pitched. With more experience in the rotation than both Cobb and Archer, he could be the front-runner for the gig, but then again the Rays may want to keep him in the bullpen where he’s had success.
After a little over a month of baseball, the MLB—and MiLB season—is now in full swing. Back in February, I did an evaluation on the Rays’ top prospects on The Rays Rant, and I think it’s about time we check-in how they’re progressing thus far. As you can see from the list, Matt Moore is still technically considered a prospect. However, he’s already pitched nearly 50 innings as a Major Leaguer, so I decided not to include him in this article. Here’s the current status of the Rays’ top five minor league prospects:
It’s been a slow start to the season for 21-year-old shortstop Hak-Ju Lee, who earned a full-season promotion to Double-A Montgomery after a breakout 2011 season. He’s batting .229/.293/.314 as the Biscuits’ leadoff hitter, with 12 RBI and nine stolen bases (caught three times). He hasn’t gone yard yet, but he does have 10 extra basehits including three triples. Lee is not only struggling with the bat, as he hasn’t been sharp defensively either. He hasn’t been smooth at short so far this season, committing seven errors already (.955 fielding percentage). It’s clear that the talented youngster has not yet adjusted to the Double-A level, and seems to still be in the process of getting used to the speed of the game. Hopefully it’s nothing more than a slow start for Lee, as the Rays could really use a shortstop like him as soon as possible on the roster.
The Rays’ top right-handed pitching prospect is probably Chris Archer, who continues to provide the Rays with even more pitching depth down at the farm. After a poor April start to the year, it appears as if Archer is now on the right track. Archer currently owns a record of 3-4 with a 4.71 ERA this season with Triple-A Durham, but he’s had a great start to the month of May. In his three starts this month, Archer has gone 2-0 with an ERA of 2.00, going six innings deep in all three outings. He outdueled Yankees’ top prospect Manny Banuelos on Sunday, shining in the Bulls’ matinee matchup with the Yankees (Scranton/WB) throwing nine strikeouts without allowing an earned run. We know he has good swing-and-miss stuff, but the main concern with Archer is his command. The 23-year-old simply walks too many batters; he’s walked 28 already this season (averaging 3.5 base on balls per start). This is something Archer clearly needs to improve on if he hopes earning a promotion to the big leagues at any point this season.
After a good 2011 season, the former first-overall draft pick has disappointed the Rays once again in 2012. After just 13 games with Triple-A Durham, where he hit .204/.290/.278 four RBI, the 22-year-old shortstop was issued a 50-game suspension from MiLB for his second violation of the league’s drug policy (marijuana). This could not come at a much worse time for Beckham and the Rays, as 2012 was supposed to be a crucial year in his development as he continues to near is MLB debut. The Rays and their fans hope that Beckham won’t become the next Josh Hamilton.
Drafted in the first round of last year’s draft, Mahtook has had a solid start in his first year of full-season ball. He’s put up a .278/.340/.317 line with 13 RBI and nine stolen bases with Class A+ Charlotte in the Florida State League. The only thing that hasn’t come around yet this season is the power, as Mahtook remains homer-less with four extra base-hits after the first 34 games (126 at-bats). He definitely has some pop in his bat, and hopefully it’s only a matter of time before the power arrives.
Also drafted by the Rays in the first round last summer, Guerrieri gives Tampa’s organization another exciting young arm. The 19-year-old is starting the year in extended spring training, and is yet to throw his first pitch as a professional. He’s expected to soon start the season in the Rookie League, with the Princeton Rays. A complete scouting report on the hard-throwing right-hander can be found here.
It’s always fun to watch who will be the next to have a breakout season in the Rays’ farm system. In an organization teeming with young talent, it’s only a matter of time before someone will transform from an unknown minor leaguer into a well-known top prospect. Last year, we saw both Matt Moore and Hak-Ju Lee enjoy breakout seasons, which changed the future outlook of the club in a way. So, who down at the farm could have a breakout season this year? It’s obviously hard to predict after just a month of baseball, but it’s safe to say there are at least six good legitimate candidates already.
Consistency is the name of the game for 20-year-old Ryan Brett, who’s emerging as one of the organization’s top hitting prospects. The switch-hitting second baseman is an outstanding contact hitter, and also has the ability to make solid contact with the ball. He hit at least .300 in his previous two seasons in the Rookie League, and he’s started off the 2012 in right direction. In his first year of full-season ball (Class A Bowling Green), Brett has posted a .296/.342/.417 line with nine RBI and five stolen bases. At five-foot-nine and 180 pounds, he doesn’t generate much power, but he’s shown a bit a pop thus far with a pair of homers in the first month of the season. As I said before, Brett’s consistent and likely won’t fall into any major slumps this year. If he keeps up the pace he’s at now, he’s bound for a breakout year.
It’s been one hot—and surprising—start for third baseman Tyler Goeddel, who came into the season as somewhat of an overlooked draftee. Picked in the first round of last year’s draft, Goeddel’s making his pro debut with Single-A Bowling Green. Not only is he starting his professional baseball career in full-season ball at the age of 19, but he’s also thriving in it. Although he’s cooled off as of late, Goeddel’s still hitting .294/.341/.471 with 13 RBI and three homers in 85 at-bats. He also has good speed, stealing five bases (caught once) so far this season. Power has really been the main surprise this year for Goeddel. He is six-foot-four, but he weighs only 180 pounds. Once he manages to buff up a little, he could turn into a serious hitting prospect for the Rays.
Power is one thing the Rays’ farm system is lacking, but it clearly can be found in outfielder Kyeong Kang. The 24-year-old hitting .279/.393/.706 with 19 RBI and an impressive home-run total of eight (already only three less than last year’s amount) through 24 games with Double-A Montgomery. Kang is really starting to heat up now, and I think this is the year that his big-time longball ability will finally lead him to a breakout season. Hopefully, his nice start will earn him a promotion to Triple-A Durham sometime soon.
Drafted in the seventh round of last year’s draft, southpaw Ryan Carpenter hasn’t put up any bad number yet in the pros. After posting a 0.76 ERA in 23.2 innings pitched (four starts) last season with short-season Hudson Valley, Carpenter has picked up where he left off with Class A Bowling Green this year. Carpenter is 4-1 with a 2.57 ERA and 27 strikeouts through six starts (seven appearances) thus far. If one things for sure, promotions will come calling soon if Carpenter can keep up the great start.
Drafted in the first round of 2010′s draft (42nd overall), outfielder Drew Vettleson is now making his full-season debut with Bowling Green after spending 61 games with Rookie League Princeton last season. He’s hitting .267/.336/.371 so far this season with 11 RBI, two homers and five stolen bases. Vettleson’s a good all-around ballplayer, with the ability to be a balanced hitter with a pretty good game on the base paths and on the field. He doesn’t have big-time power in his left-handed bat, but he definitely can knock in runs and hit for extra bases. It hasn’t been a good last couple of weeks for Vettleson, but there’s plenty of reasons to believe he’ll make big progress in the minors this year.
Fellow left-handed slugger Josh Sale was Vettleson’s draft mate in 2010, as well as teammate at Rookie League Princeton last year. He made a bad first impression with some disappointing numbers there, but he looks to be headed in the right direction for the 2012 season. The 20-year-old outfielder made his season debut with Bowling Green on Saturday, joining them after starting the year in extended spring training. In two games (six plate appearances), he has one hit through six at-bats. The Rays must of saw good things out of Sale in extended spring training these past months, as they seemed confident putting Sale in full-season ball to start his season.