Tampa Bay Rays: 5 Reasons Team Can't Stay Atop the AL East
The American League East is quite arguably the toughest and most hard-fought division in MLB, and this season, any one of the five teams could run away with the race, literally.
At a glance, the east looks a bit different than it has at this time over the past 15 years or so. The surging Baltimore Orioles continue to play well and maintain a small lead over the Tampa Bay Rays (22-14), while the usual mainstay, division-leading Boston Red Sox are under .500 in last place.
But, how long can the Birds really last in first place? And, how long will the Sox play out of the gutter before Bobby Valentine whips them into shape? I think there will be many changes of division leaders and many surprises this season.
Although the Rays held first place for a short time already and will probably regain the lead, they will not win the AL East and here is a list why. Check it out and let me know what you think!
1. Evan Longoia out of the Lineup
When the Rays began to rebuild their team in the late 2000s, they needed a face of the organization and superstar-in-the-making third baseman Evan Longoria became the poster boy for the once-bottom-feeders of the AL East.
Longoria was off to a strong start this season as he smashed four home runs and drove in 19 RBI over the first month of the season, while hitting at a .329 batting clip. However, on May 1st, he tore his hamstring on an attempted steal against the Mariners.
He is going to be out about six to eight weeks, and it has only been two so far. The Rays are still afloat, but without him over the next month to month and a half, they have to focus.
The three-time All-Star and former Rookie of the Year in 2008 is a career .276 hitter with 117 home runs and 420 RBI over his short time in the majors.
He debuted with 27 home runs in ’08, and followed up with a career-high 33 home runs in 2009. In 2010, his power dropped off a bit as he finished with just 22 home runs, but still managed to drive in 104 RBI, which was the second straight year of 100+ RBI.
Last season, he crushed 31 home runs, and finished just one RBI shy of 100 for the third consecutive year.
Not only are they going to miss Longoria’s bat and superb defense at third base, but he was the leader of the team; although it does not explicitly states that Longoria is the captain of the Rays, he has taken that responsibility upon himself.
For any other team, their defensive struggles might not constitute a non-first place finish, but for the Rays, in order to win and compete, they have to play superb defense.
Lately, they have struggled to catch and throw properly, which is something Joe Maddon and his team has been known for since he took over in 2006; the other night in Baltimore, the Rays committed five errors in a single game, which is almost unheard of coming from Tampa Bay.
Currently, they rank 26th in the majors with 30 errors already throughout their first 35 contests. The average in the AL is 20 per team, while the National League’s average is a bit higher at 24.
Surprisingly, Longoria actually leads the team with six miscues in the field, so maybe their defense will improve while he is out (however, they would still rather have him in the lineup due to his powerful bat). Sean Rodriguez ranks second on the team with five, and Ben Zobrist rounds out the list with three errors in the field.
Last season, they finished as the best defensive team in all of baseball as they committed just 73 miscues all season. The year before, they ranked seventh with 85 errors. This season, they are on pace for 139 errors, which would most likely rank them near the bottom-half of the league.
Defense might not be as pertinent on other teams, but the Rays need to play strong defense in order to win. Even though Longoria leads to the team in defensive woes, he is a two-time Gold Glove winner, which is another reason the Rays are going to miss him until he returns in late June, early July.
3. Matt Moore's Struggles out of the Rotation
Another main strength besides defense has been their strong starting pitching over the last couple of seasons. Each of their starters have performed well and up-to-standards so far, except for rookie Matt Moore.
Moore (1-3, 5.31 ERA) got a taste of big league action last season after he appeared in three games for the Rays in September. Although his debut against the Orioles was forgettable (two earned runs in 1.1 innings), he is supposed to be one of the future stars of their staff.
On the season, Moore has made seven starts and he has compiled 39 innings; he has allowed 27 earned runs on the year, but has pitched better as of late. In two of his last three outings, he surrendered just one earned run.
However, in the other game of the three, he allowed eight earned runs against the Oakland Athletics. If you forget about that game, and his second start of the year when the Red Sox tagged him for six earned runs, he has pitched well.
He just needs to work on his consistency and his ability to maintain strong starts throughout the rest of the season.
Everyone is familiar with flame-throwing David Price (5-2, 2.98 ERA) and dominant James Shields (6-1, 3.52 ERA), even veteran Jeff Niemann (2-3, 3.43 ERA) has tossed very well for the Rays. Not to mention, former Rookie of the Year, Jeremy Hellickson (3-0, 2.95 ERA) continues to prove why he took home that crown after last season’s impressive debut at the major league level.
As a team, the Rays rank seventh in the AL with a 3.80 ERA, and third in the East. They have a strong bullpen, and if they can get Moore on track and help him figure out the secret to consistency, they will have one of the best rotations around the majors.
4. The Yankees Will Pull Through
Another reason I do not believe the Rays will win the Eastern Division is because the Yankees are, well, the Yankees. Even though they lost one of their most talented stars in Mariano Rivera, I think they will still make a run and win the East.
The Bronx Bombers have that nickname for a reason; they are one of the most prolific hitting teams around the majors, and rank near the top in the major offensive categories.
They sport a .274 team batting average (third in AL), as they have scored 166 runs already (third in AL) and they have crushed 53 home runs on the year (second in AL).
Derek Jeter continues to impress at age 37; currently, he is hitting at a cool .372 on the year with five home runs and 15 RBI. Robinson Cano, although off to a slow start, has rebounded nicely and is batting .299 with three home runs and 14 RBI. Curtis Granderson has emerged as one of the more powerful hitters on the team, as he leads with 11 home runs on the year.
Their problem has been their starting pitching.
C.C. Sabathia (5-0, 3.51 ERA) and Hiroki Kuroda (3-4, 3.56 ERA) have been the only two consistent starters for the Yankees, and they have still managed to win 19 games.
Ivan Nova, who is supposed to be the future of the Yankees rotation, is struggling this season in ERA as he has posted a 5.02 ERA in six outings, but has picked up four victories. Phil Hughes, who put together a superb season last year, is just 3-4 with a 5.50 ERA. Freddy Garcia was actually demoted to the pen after four outings and his ERA sat above nine.
They just added Andy Pettitte back to the rotation, so that should help a bit. In time, I’m sure they will figure out a way to improve their starting pitching, and when they do, they will be the team to reckon with in the East.
5. B.J. Upton Continues to Struggle
I saved B.J. Upton and his struggles for last because he did begin the year on the disabled list due to a back injury, and he has only played in 20 games.
However, with Longoria out for another month at least, Upton is going to need to step up his game because, besides Carlos Pena who is struggling as well, he is the Rays' main power hitter.
So far, Upton has hit just two long balls and driven in 12 RBI while batting at a .257 clip. Last season, he broke out and jolted 23 home runs and drove in 81 RBI (both career highs). They year before, he finished with 18 long balls and 67 RBI.
Over the last three seasons, his home runs total, RBI and slugging percentages have all risen. Upton continues to mature and learn how to be a better hitter at the major league level, and with better hitting, comes more power.
Surprisingly, Matt Joyce and Luke Scott are leading the team with seven home runs each, however, they probably will not at this pace. Joyce only has 51 career home runs (19 of those last season with the Rays) and Scott has always been prone to injuries and will not last the entire season.
If Upton continues to struggle at the dish and not produce power numbers, the Rays are definitely not going to make the playoffs.
Follow me on twitter: @Alex_VanRees