Coming off their surprise run to the World Series in 2008, the Rays are off to another successful season. They started off sluggish but have turned things around. They have an explosive offense, talented defense, and decent pitching staff.
The question is can they can compete with Boston and New York? The American League East is by far the most competitive and hardest division in baseball. The Rays are not going to sneak up on anybody this year.
Tampa Bay is 6-4 against Boston and 4-4 against New York. To be honest, all three teams are now different than when they faced off before. New York was without Alex Rodriguez. Boston was mired in a start of the season slump as was Tampa Bay.
Let's compare a couple of things. First is strength of schedule:
|Red Sox ||Yankees ||Rays|
|.511 (3rd)||.503 (12th)||.501 (14th)|
After the All-Star break, the Yankees play 15 series against teams with winning records, the Red Sox play 14 series, and the Rays play 15 series. The Rays play the Yankees 10 times and the Red Sox eight times. The only way the Rays can make noise in the division is if they win a majority of those games.
Let's compare the team stats also:
|Stat||Red Sox ||Yankees ||Rays|
|Runs||390 (4th)||411 (2nd)||429 (1st)|
|Hits||677 (9th)||704 (4th)||724 (1st)|
|Home runs||89 (6th)||112 (1st)||100 (4th)|
|RBI||371 (3rd)||389 (2nd)||408 (1st)|
|Batting avg||.269 (9th)||.273 (6th)||.277 (1st)|
|OPS||.802 (3rd)||.824 (1st)||.822 (2nd)|
Each team is top-10 in every category. That just shows you how tough of a grind this division is going to be. The Rays have power and speed, becoming one of a few teams to get to 100 home runs and 100 stolen bases before the All-Star break. So it looks like this division will be determined by pitching:
|Stat||Red Sox ||Yankees ||Rays|
|Starters' ERA||4.67 (23rd)||4.59 (22nd)||4.70 (24th)|
|Bullpen ERA||2.95 (1st)||4.33 (21st)||3.39 (4th)|
|Strikeouts||560 (6th)||567 (3rd)||517 (15th)|
|Bat Avg Against||.262 (17th)||.252 (6th)||.256 (10th)|
|WHIP||1.40 (17th)||1.39 (15th)||1.37 (11th)|
|Saves||21 (6th)||18 (15th)||18 (15th)|
Once again, there's not much difference. The starting rotations have not been great, but they've gotten the job done and offense has carried these teams. They're close in every statistic except one—the bullpen ERA.
The Red Sox and Rays have great bullpens, but the Yankees have had their share of problems. It's a weak spot that the Rays must abuse (like they have with Mariano Rivera) in order to win.
The Rays pitching numbers are also deflated by the injury to Scott Kazmir, the ace. He has come back from his injury, and performed well, albeit against a weak Florida Marlins team. The same could be said about the Yankees stats being deflated by Chien-Ming Wang. However, the Rays have depth in the rotation that the Yankees don't.
We can foresee that the Yankees will likely make some moves and spend big money at the trade deadline. Will the Rays do the same? The only way the Rays will be able to stay up with the Yankees and Red Sox is to watch what they do at the trade deadline and match them.
We all saw what Manny Ramirez and CC Sabathia did for borderline playoff teams last year. The Rays must do the same. The Rays might need just one more big bat (as Burrell has struggled) or an extra reliever to complement a transformed bullpen.