After losing many key players this past offseason, the Tampa Bay Rays had many question marks heading into 2011. So far, the Rays have been one of the surprise teams in Major League Baseball this season.
The team currently holds a record of 44-35, and is only 2.5 games behind the Boston Red Sox for the lead in the American League East.
The Rays are not unfamiliar with winning the American League East. The team won the division title in 2008 and 2010.
Can the underdog Rays keep the mighty New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox at bay for a second straight season?
Here are five things that must happen for the Rays to win the American League East.
It’s really not a matter of if, but rather when the Tampa Bay Rays call up Desmond Jennings from the Durham Bulls.
In 73 games in Durham, Jennings has 33 RBI and 10 home runs.
In Tampa, Justin Ruggiano has been tearing the cover off the ball lately. Since being called up in May, Ruggiano is hitting .305.
On the other hand, assuming the team doesn’t trade B.J. Upton, they will likely have to send down Sam Fuld to keep both Jennings and Ruggiano.
If one is thinking with their head and not their heart, this is the correct move to make.
After a great first month to the season, Fuld has fallen back to earth. After hitting .289 for the month of April, Fuld’s average has dropped to .238.
Depending on who had the hot bat, the Rays could play Jennings or Ruggiano in the outfield with B.J. Upton and Matt Joyce.
Sure, B.J. Upton has had his bouts of laziness and inconsistency, but the Tampa Bay Rays may want to hold on to him.
If the Rays call up Desmond Jennings from the Durham Bulls, it will likely leave the team with Upton, Jennings and Matt Joyce as their everyday outfielders.
The Rays would then have a top-five center fielder anchoring one of the better defensive outfields in baseball.
Unless a can’t miss deal is on the table, the Rays should keep Upton. After all, the Rays know what they are getting with him.
Bringing in someone new could hurt chemistry and familiarity. For a team likely to be fighting for a playoff spot, why potentially make the journey even tougher?
After missing the first part of the season with an oblique injury, Evan Longoria struggled upon returning to the Tampa Bay Rays lineup.
However, it appears as though Longo is starting to hit his stride. In his last seven games, he has drove in 14 runs and hit four homers.
The Rays will need a clean bill of health and consistent play from their franchise player to contend for the division title.
I am certainly not implying David Price is having a bad season. But he is not putting up the Cy Young caliber performance he had did season.
Currently, Price has an 8-6 record, with a 3.51 ERA. Last season when he was selected as the American League’s starting pitcher in the All-Star Game, Price had a 12-4 record, with a 2.42 ERA.
If the Tampa Bay Rays hope to catch the Boston Red Sox atop the American League East, Price will have to raise his game in the second half of the season.
James Shields has arguably been the Tampa Bay Rays’ best pitcher this season. After a disappointing 2010 campaign, where he gave up 34 home runs and had an ERA over five, Shields is proving his worth this season.
Shields has pitched three complete games in a row (He has six for the season) and has the third best ERA average in the American League (2.29).
With Shields pitching well, the Rays have one of the best pitching combinations at the front of their rotation, along with David Price.
If Shields was to backslide in the second half of the season, the Rays would have to rely too much on Price to carry the heavy lifting.
It would be hard to overtake the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees with that kind of formula.