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Are the 2012 Tampa Bay Rays a good baseball team?

From 2008-2011, the Tampa Bay Rays have been as good as any team in baseball save for just one: the Texas Rangers.  They have made the playoffs three times in the last four years, which is tied for the second highest playoff appearance frequency by any team in that time frame (Philadelphia Phillies).  Prior to the 2011 season, the Rays had lost a great amount of talent to free agency, and it was widely believed that their farm system — which everyone knew was strong — would be at least a year or two away from paying dividends.

So then the Rays erased a 7 game deficit in September and made the playoffs for the third time in four years.

This year, the Rays were hit hard by injuries.  They lost Evan Longoria after just 23 games, and he’s not expected back until the beginning of July.  Jeff Keppinger just came off the DL after getting hurt around the same time as Longoria.  The Rays have been backed into a corner of playing Will Rhymes, Elliott Johnson, and Sean Rodriguez in the infield.

But the more I study this version of the Rays, the less I am convinced that there’s a good baseball team here.  Getting Longoria back is going to be the biggest move of the second half for any team, but this is still a weak infield even with one of the best players in baseball manning third.  I don’t think Carlos Pena’s power is a very good bet to return.  And while you can credit the Rays for getting performance of some level out of Hideki Matsui, this is a lineup that (with Longoria) is just good enough to be considered a non-weakness.

The Rays are going to have to win with their pitching and defense.  And their defense has been average this year according to defensive efficiency.  With their pitching, there is reason for optimism.  James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson, and Matt Moore have all been disappointing this year, but of the three, only Hellickson is hurt and has periphrials out of line with expected performance.  Moore and Shields could get better in the second half of the year.  David Price has been really good.  Furthermore the Rays have a ton of ML quality arms in their organization, and the solutions to any of the underachieving issues of their rotation can be fixed internally.

Here’s the interesting thing about the Rays that leaves me skeptical: splits.  The Rays are 8-8 in 5+ run blowouts (which is a lot of blowouts).  They swept the Angels and the Mariners when neither was playing that well.  They went 5-1 against the hapless Marlins, and those account for 5 of their 8 interleague victories.  They’ve been a .500 team since losing Longoria, and I’m not convinced that getting him back is going to make the Rays a .600 team, which is what they’ll need to play to make the postseason.  The expectations are too high on a single player.  The Rays get the Royals next, then the Tigers, Yankees, Indians, Red Sox, and Indians again as the trade deadline approaches.  Even with Longoria expected back during that stretch, I don’t think anything about the performance of the 2012 Rays suggests they are likely to play sustained, .500 ball between now and the trade deadline.

I think the Rays are a pretty good team with a bright future.  But while everyone around baseball is down on the Blue Jays because of their dire pitching situation, and is down on the Orioles because they are the Orioles, and are down on the Red Sox because Red Sox commentators tend to be loud, I’m not sure the Rays can stay in this until the deadline.  I think they’ll be sellers.

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