Reality of the Tampa Bay Rays

Chris ValContributor IJune 24, 2009

ST. PETERSBURG, FL - APRIL 30: Infielder Evan Longoria #3 talks with pitcher Matt Garza  #22 of the Tampa Bay Rays against the Boston Red Sox April 30, 2009 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida.  (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

With only two and a half weeks until the All-Star break, it is safe to wonder where the Rays magic from last season has gone. 

Has it subsided for just the first half of the season? Will it come back, or were the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays a one-time thing?  Being 37-35 and fourth in the Al East leaves the question of whether this team can pull it back together.

One can only assume, but if we look at the clubs strengths and weaknesses it may just give us the answer to the question that we have all been wandering.

First, lets take a good look at what this club does well. 

The Rays have a great manager in Joe Maddon, who has proven to have the ability to improve this ball club in a steadfast manner.  Taking once arguably the worst team in baseball, and tuning them into 2008 AL champs is one of the rarest of feats that one will see in their time. 

Maddon is a true leader in that locker room and is a manager who his players respect and follow.  Not only does he care about his players, but he cares about his players characters and the morale of his ball club.  So definitely look for a push from Maddon to get his players back on track very soon.

On the field you have a nice mix of young leaders in Evan Longoria and B.J. Upton, along with veteran leaders in Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena. 

Longoria is a special player who can change the outcome of a game. He hits for average, he hits for power, he can play defense and all in all, he is a five-tool player.  Being only his second season in the MLB, his first full first-half season of baseball has been exactly what the Rays knew he could do.  

He is hitting .304 with 16 home runs, and is second in the American League with 61 RBI, only trailing the Boston Red Sox' Jason Bay.  Look for big things from Longo for the rest of the season.

B.J. Upton is another one of those special players. Although he has really struggled over the majority of the season so far, he is now really starting to turn it on. B.J. is hitting .400 over his last 10 games with 2 home runs and 9 RBI.  Perhaps the most important stat out of those 10 games are his stolen bases, which stands at 8. 

Even though Upton is only hitting .243 for the season, look for his average to steadily increase before the season's end.  He will be a big factor for this team now that he is back healthy hitting, running, throwing and playing his normal tremendous defense.

Perhaps the biggest surprises out of the Rays offense has been Jason Bartlett and Ben Zobrist. Bartlett, who is known way more for his great defensive play than his bat, is having a career season. 

He is tearing the cover off the ball hitting .372, a career-high seven homeruns with 32 RBI.  Bartlett was sidelined for 19 games from the end of May to the middle of June due to a sprained ankle, but has come back right where he left off.  In his last seven games since coming off the DL, he has hit .370.  Hopefully Bartlett will be able to keep producing, and if he does, he will come up big many times for this club down the stretch. 

Zobrist is the other big surprise of the season in which Joe Maddon needs to keep finding ways of getting him in the line up and playing everyday.  Zobrist is hitting .292 with 15 homers and 42 RBI.  He has really been producing for the Rays ball club and hopefully can do the same in the second half of the season.  If he can put up repeat numbers next half, look for the Rays to make some moves in the off season to free up some space in able to keep Zobrist.

Out of all these big surprises and great potential in this Rays ball club, they are still only in fourth place at 37-35 in the AL East.  A head-scratching problem to most people.

Well, lets look at how their pitching has held up this season.

First, Scott Kazmir has been sidelined with a quad injury since early June, and is expected back sometime either late this week or early next week.  IF Kazmir can come back healthy and be the pitcher the Rays are used to seeing, he will be a huge help for the Rays and will take considerable amount of pressure off Sonnanstine, Nieman and Price. 

The second issue with the Rays pitching is their inability to go deep into ball games.  Young guys like Price and Nieman, between the both of them this month, only twice have they been able to pitch past the fifth inning. 

Another real disappointment has been Sonnanstine, who has so far this season posted a treacherous 6.60 ERA and is 5-7 on the season. 

The Rays rotation needs to start picking each other up on a more consistent basis.  After all, Garza, Shields and Kazmir are all No. 2 guys who have the potential of being No. 1's.  In order for the Rays to make any move to the top of the division the pitching needs to start going deeper into games and being more consistent. 

If Shields has a rough outng one week, it is that much more important for Garza to come out the night after and really pitch through sixth or seventh inning, and vice versa. 

Other real blemishes through the course of the season have been Pat Burrell and Grant Balfour.  Burrell was highly signed and was looked to as the DH guy that would perhaps put their lineup over the top in producing more home runs and more RBI. He has yet to do that. Burrell is hitting only .234 with only one home run and 17 RBI. 

Understandably, Burrell was sidelined for about a month due to a neck injury, but the lack in his production is still very frustrating, and I'm sure makes it hard for manager Joe Maddon to find him a spot in the order. 

Balfour is yet another question mark for the Rays.  Balfour is the Rays' fire-baller and really needs to settle down and start delivering, as he has proved he can last year. It is imperative to come in big in middle innings for the Rays in close games.  If he can get it together, he will be another big key for the Rays ability to get it back together.

The Rays have been down so far this season, but they are far from being counted out.  With many big injuries due to key players such as Scott Kazmir, B.J. Upton, Pat Burrell, Jason Bartlett, Scott Percival, and Akinori Iwamura, who will most likely miss the rest of the season with an ACL tear, are right on track to have a big second half of the season. 

There is a lot of season left and many games for the Rays to really stiffen up, get healthy and make a charge for that No. 1 or wild-card spot in the American League. After all, this team has really held their own with the amount of injuries they have sustained.  On the other hand, perhaps a few changes, or few notable players stepping up will be all these Tampa Bay Rays need to once again open Major League Baseball fans' eyes and let people know, once again, that they are for real.