Is Evan Longoria's Return Enough to Catapult the Rays to Top of the AL East?

Richard ScheuermannCorrespondent IJuly 17, 2012

ARLINGTON, TX - APRIL 28: Evan Longoria #3 of the Tampa Bay Rays warms up prior to the game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Texas Rangers at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington on April 28, 2012 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Rick Yeatts/Getty Images)
Rick Yeatts/Getty Images

There have been several recent reports suggesting that Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Evan Longoria will be unable to return to the field until the month of August.

Longoria was placed on the DL on May 1 with a partially torn left hamstring, and has remained there ever since.

Currently, a division title seems somewhat far-fetched for the Rays.

The New York Yankees have been on an absolute tear in the past month, and appear to have a stronghold on the AL East with an ML-best 55-34 record.

Still, It would be unwise to completely count the Tampa Bay Rays out of the AL East race after the team's incredible comeback last season. The Rays trailed the Boston Red Sox by nine games on September 1, but ultimately captured a Wild Card berth after an unbelievable finale to last year's regular season.

There's no disputing that Tampa Bay has sorely missed both Longoria's bat and glove since the All-Star third baseman went down over two months ago. The two-time Gold Glove winner was batting a solid .329 with four home runs and 19 RBI through 23 games.

The Rays have posted a 30-36 record without Longoria, and have struggled to create consistent offense with the absence of their go-to third batter.

So, will Longoria's expected return next month help boost Tampa to a playoff spot, or will it simply be too little too late?

Currently, the Yankees appear to have total control of the AL East, but beyond that all of the teams in the division are separated by just 1.5 games.

Additionally, the implementation of a second Wild Card team greatly increases the Rays' playoff chances. There are currently five teams within a game of the Detroit Tigers and the second Wild Card slot, including Tampa Bay.

To throw in some more good news, right fielder Matt Joyce is expected to rejoin the club this week, according to the Tampa Bay Times, giving the struggling Tampa Bay offense a much-needed spark.

Joyce is posting a .279 batting average this season to go with 11 homers and 34 RBI, and there's no questioning his value to the Rays' lineup.

Luckily, Tampa Bay's pitching rotation has been the team's strong suit all season, anchored by Cy Young contender, David Price.

The Rays are by no means in the position they'd like to be 90 games into the season, but they still remain afloat in both the AL East and Wild Card picture.

Despite Longoria's late return, there will still be plenty of time left for the former Rookie of the Year to make some substantial contributions to his team.

It seems the AL Wild Card race will go down to the wire, but a late-season offensive boost may be just what the Rays need to push them over the edge and into the playoffs for the fourth time in five years.