In 2016, the Tampa Bay Rays finished 25 games behind the division-winning Boston Red Sox, but as the All-Star break begins, we are looking at a different Rays ball club altogether. The Rays head into the break having taken three of four games from the Red Sox, who sit atop the AL East. The Rays hold a 47-43 record and are 3.5 games back from first in the division. They sit in the second Wild Card spot and are closing the gap fast. A week ago the Rays sat in a three-way tie for the second wild-card spot in the American League, but have clawed their way to sole possession of the second seed for the wild-card race. They have managed to hold off the Royals and Twins for that wild card spot, and have opened up a one-game lead.
The best player on the Rays so far this season has been the team's DH Corey Dickerson. Dickerson seems to have finally figured out the American League pitchers who gave him fits last season. in 2016, Dickerson slashed .245/.293/.469. This year, the lefty slugger is only 30 hits shy of setting a career high and it's only the All-Star break. His numbers are very impressive, impressive enough that he is going to Miami as the Rays representative in the All-Star game this season. He is slashing .312/.356/.547 with 17 homers and 41 RBIs. He has been a dangerous offensive weapon for the Rays, who have had very few players produce to this level in their history. Dickerson has replaced Evan Longoria as the most feared batter in the Rays lineup. His production is comparable to only one player in Rays history. Carl Crawford, in his years in Tampa Bay, became a force at the top of the lineup that made Tampa a playoff team in 2008. Can Dickerson do the same? We shall see, but so far this season he has proved he can carry a ball club.
The weakest player on the Rays is hard to determine. The Rays have a strong lineup but a below average pitching staff. The worst player on the Rays 25-man roster has been hard to determine. Starting pitchers Blake Snell and Erasmo Ramírez are vying for the weakest player on the Tampa squad. Snell failed to perform in his 10 starts at the Major-League level this season. He went 0-5 with a 4.85 ERA in 52 innings in his first ten opportunities to prove himself worthy of a starting role on the big league roster.
The performance of Erasmo Ramirez has been terrible so far this season. He is in the midst of his worst season in his 6 major league campaigns. He has pitched in 23 games for the Rays this season, starting 8 of them. In those games, Ramirez is 4-3 but has posted an ERA of 5.18. The Average pitcher in baseball this season has posted a 4.35 ERA, making Ramirez's ERA almost a full point higher than the average in the league. The two Rays starters have performed worse than expected and it is almost a miracle the Rays are in the hunt for a playoff berth with two starting pitchers who are underperforming.
Predictions for the trade deadline
The underperforming latter half of the rotation aforementioned, one might think the Rays are in the market for starting pitching. It is possible the Rays are indeed in the market for starting pitching, many teams are.
"You can never have too much pitching” is an old baseball adage that every GM in baseball seems to prescribe to in the 21st century. The Rays are in the playoff hunt as we enter the All-Star break, and may be buyers at the deadline if they believe they have a chance to maintain their first-half success. However, the Rays are not known for trading for big names, but rather trading good pitching at the height of their value (David Price) in order to continue to get younger and try to get something in return for players whom they know the cannot afford to pay once they reach either arbitration or free agency. Tampa Bay is a small market club and has not signed a big-name free agent in recent memory. The Rays last made the playoffs in 2013, when they lost to the eventual World Series Champion Boston Red Sox in the American League Division Series. Perhaps Tampa Bay's ownership group wishes to make a playoff run and will, therefore, instruct GM Erik Neander to acquire pitching talent at the deadline, even if it means dealing away prospects.
If the Rays intend to be sellers, they have a variety of assets other teams would be very intent on acquiring in order to help them make a deep playoff run. It is unlikely the Rays franchise mortgages the future of their franchise in order to make one run at the playoffs, and equally unlikely they sell pieces off at the trade deadline come August 1, barring a collapse in the two weeks following the break. It is probable the Rays make no deal before the deadline, but remain stagnant and attempt to compete with the roster they already have in place.
Second half prediction
The Rays have outperformed the projections of every expert already this season. Their offense is carrying the team so far this season, whereas the pitching rotation is average in every way. The Rays bullpen is 20th in the big leagues so far this season, and their lackluster performance so far this season has taxed the Rays staff to the extreme. Over the four-game stretch with the Red Sox that took place this weekend, the Rays staff performed very well, yet their arms must be getting tired due to the lack of reliance on the 'pen.
Yet, the odds are that the Rays will not acquire any major help at the deadline, as there is little chance they can afford the high prices that will no doubt be paid for arms that move before August 1. Arms rumored to be moving at the deadline are highlighted by Johnny Cueto of the Giants, Sonny Gray of the Athletics, and Justin Verlander of the Tigers. Each of these players are worth a king's ransom if they are dealt, and it is a price the Rays can ill-afford to pay with their small market mentality. Therefore, with little in the way of help coming, how will the Rays perform in the second half?
The answer is a simple one. The Rays will go as far as their young bats can carry them so long as the arms in the rotation do not crumble. It is therefore hard to determine how far the Rays will go in the second half. It is improbable the Rays win their division, with difficult competition in the Yankees and Red Sox, who will not hesitate to spend money the Rays do not have, in order to ensure they have a distinct advantage. It is probable the Rays will contend for a wild-card berth come October, and we will all have to hold our breath until then if we wish to find out.