Exactly one year ago, August 8th 2011, the Tampa Bay Rays sat way back in the playoff race, a distant 10 games out of the Wild Card spot, playing solid yet uninspiring, baseball with a .522 win percentage. They finished a mind-boggling 32-17 (.653 win %) to pass Boston on the memorable final day of the season to win the Wild Card. This year’s Tampa Bay team is 57-52 (.523 win %) entering play today, while exhibiting the same good pitch/bad hit tendencies from a year ago. The Rays have also been missing quite a few key bats due to injury this season. Luckily the most important one of those injured hitters, Evan Longoria, is returning to action tonight, and could provide just the spark Tampa Bay needs to come out ahead of a crowded American League Wild Card field that features 7 teams jostling for 2 spots.
Longoria was off to the most impressive start to a season in his young career, hitting .329/.433/.561 (180 OPS+) with 4 homers and 19 RBI in 23 games. He’s also one of the top fielding 3rd basemen in the American League, which greatly increases his value on a team that shifts him around on defense so much. Tampa Bay frequently used Longoria as the lone fielder on one side of the field on overshifts, making him cover half the infield on pull-heavy hitters. He’s easily the most important position player on the Tampa Bay roster, and his absence over the past 85 games has mauled the Tampa Bay offense.
In his absence the Rays have become one of the most anemic offensive teams in baseball, mustering only a .223 team batting average while scoring just 3.9 runs per game. It’s imperative Tampa improves their run scoring output because they may be a legitimate World Series threat if they score more than 4 runs. Tampa is a ridiculous 45-8 (.849 win %) when scoring 4 or more runs, or in simpler words, damn near unbeatable.
Longoria won’t be able to make the full impact however, because he will probably spend most of the season playing the role of DH, which is both good news and bad. The good news is that Tampa Bay’s designated hitters have been miserable this season, so Longoria should constitute as a big improvement. The DH rotation in Tampa has been a revolving door of lousy production featuring Hideki Matsui, Luke Scott, and various utility players who have combined for the 2nd lowest OPS in the AL (.645), batting average (.215), hits (82), and total bases (142). Longoria, even if he’s only 70% will hit at least .250/.350/.500 with 5-8 homers the rest of the way, which would be a gargantuan improvement. And if he is healthy, and if he can return to the his April form, look out AL Wild Card contenders.
The bad news is that Longoria won’t be able to provide his normally stellar 3rd base play. He’s one of the best fielders in the league at coming in on bunts and making the bare-handed play, and his .45 caliber arm on balls hit down the line is a sight to see. But we probably won’t see much of Longoria taking away bunt hits because he’s going to primarily play DH, so he can continue to work on keeping his hamstring healthy.
Fortunately the Rays played it smart at the deadline instead of selling of important pieces (Upton and Shields come to mind) and acquired Ryan Roberts from the Arizona Diamondbacks.Roberts is a solid defensive 3rd baseman and was thought to be an offensive upgrade over Shaun Rodriguez and others. Roberts has struggled to adjust however, and is hitting .094 in his first 40 plate appearances with one extra-base hit, a homerun against the Orioles on July 25th.
Tampa Bay’s GM, Andrew Friedman, is counting on Roberts improving at the plate, or at least improving enough to warrant playing time. Tampa Bay 3rd basemen have been well below average without Longoria, ranking in the lower 3rd of the league in batting average, RBI, homeruns, and OPS among others. Counting on Roberts to play well may be a risky bet for Friedman and Co. because the truth is, Roberts hasn’t played well at all this year (70 OPS+), and even in his breakout 2011 season he was just above league average (105 OPS+ compared to the league average of 99).
Robert’s power has also severely dropped off this year after he hit a career-high 19 homers in 2011, good for 1 every 25.4 at-bats. This year he only has 6, and is really struggling to hit bombs with any frequency, blasting just 1 every 40.6 at-bats. If the power isn’t there then Roberts becomes a strong-armed Sean Rodriguez at 3rd base, not exactly a game-changer.
But the key in Tampa, as it seems to be nearly every year, is pitching, pitching, and more pitching. Tampa Bay allows the 2nd fewest runs per game in the American League and they have the lowest ERA. David Price is living up to all of the hype from 3 years ago, when he was a precocious 22-year-old reliever blowing away hitters in the playoffs. Price is 14-4 with a 2.49 ERA who averages 8.9 Ks/9 innings, despite facing more top-10 offenses than any other pitcher. The rest of the staff has been solid if unspectacular, and the bullpen has been excellent, posting a 3.08 ERA as a group, 3rd lowest in the American League. If Evan Longoria can provide some offense (1-3 with an RBI in his first game back), like he did in Tampa Bay’s 4-1 win last night, the Rays have an excellent shot at a Wild Card, maybe even the American League East crown. Really it’s simple, all it takes is 4 runs.