The Rays got off to a torrid start this year, jumping out to a division lead on April 22 and eventually extending that to a six-game cushion on May 23. But nineteen games later they fell back into a tie, and since June 20 have been behind the New York Yankees. They recently rattled off six in a row to keep pace, though they didn’t gain a single game during that span. They’re still close, just two games back of the Yankees.
Buy or Sell?
The question isn’t of whether or not the Rays will add a player before the deadline, but of what player and when. They’re in an excellent position to make the playoffs right now, with Baseball Prospectus’s Postseason Odds report giving them a 64.89 percent chance, which trails only New York, Texas, and Atlanta. Yet they trail Boston by a game in third order wins, so they will probably want to add a player or two in order to solidify the lineup and pitching staff.
At third base, left field, and either right field or second base the Rays are set. They need not find upgrades over Evan Longoria, Carl Crawford, or Ben Zobrist. Catcher is probably set, too. While John Jaso has cooled down after his hot debut he’s still hitting well, and with Kelly Shoppach also in place the Rays don’t need to add at the position. At pretty much any other position, however, the Rays could certainly upgrade.
Shortstop presents an odd situation, in which two opposite-handed players, Jason Bartlett and Reid Brignac, have reverse splits in the first half. That will start to correct itself, and that could make the duo a decent platoon option. Again, chances are the Rays won’t look for an upgrade here, where they have players in place. Second base can be in issue, too, but it seems like they’ll be patient with Sean Rodriguez, especially with Zobrist able to take over the position if necessary.
Would the Rays consider a move at first base? Carlos Pena has been their man for the past few years, but he’s had a rough first half, a .326 wOBA. That puts him near the bottom of AL first basemen. Much of that comes from his performance against lefties, a .289 wOBA in about a third of his overall plate appearances. Acquiring a right-handed half of the platoon could work, especially because the Rays have a number of multi-position players.
The Rays could also use another bat in the DH spot. That’s where Corey Hart could fit in. Phil Rogers of the Chicago Tribune says that the Rays are “getting serious” about him, and that the Rays could use their pitching depth to lure the Brewers into a trade. Hart is experiencing a renaissance year, reminiscent of his breakout 2007 season. He’d fit in right field, where the Rays could use an upgrade, and also at DH — he doesn’t rate very well as a fielder but he’s not a butcher. Tommy Rancel of DRays Bay likes the idea, but worries that the Rays could overpay. Looking at their rotation now and in the future, Matt Garza, who will get more and more expensive in each of the next three seasons, could be the target, with Jeremy Hellickson taking his place.
If the Rays want to do someting about B.J. Upton and his poor production against righties, a .280 wOBA, they do have options. They would probably turn internally there, however, with Desmond Jennings getting the call. After a rocky start he’s hitting much better, a .412 OBP in June and a .368 mark so far this month. A righty-righty platoon doesn’t sound ideal, but Jennings handles righties well enough. The only question is of whether the Rays would call him up if he won’t play every day. They could give him the role by trading Upton, but given the patience the team has displayed with them I don’t think that’s particularly likely.
In the rotation there shouldn’t be much of a problem. The Rays have had the particular luxury of having only five pitchers start games in the first half, and for the most part they’ve been effective. They do have the flexibility to move one of them — again, probably Garza — if if would help them out. There is a possible replacement in the bullpen with Andy Sonnanstine, who is having a decent year, and on the farm. The bullpen probably doesn’t need any tweaking, which is an advantage. With nearly every team seeking bullpen help we could see a few overpayments this month. They could probably use a lefty upgrade over Randy Choate, but he’s pitched better lately and in any case it’s a luxury, not a need. Their bullpen, anchored by Joaquin Benoit and Rafael Soriano, and with valuable contributions from Grant Balfour and Dan Wheeler, can stand up against most, if not all, of their competitors.
On the Farm
The two players who could have an impact for the Rays in the second half are Jennings and Hellickson. If the Rays need to deal from the rotation, Hellickson is the obvious fill-in, as he’s crushing AAA as a 23-year-old. Jennings could see time later this year to help strengthen the outfield. Even if they bring in Corey Hart they could benefit from Jennings on defense. Then again, they do have plenty of options in the outfield and might want to give Jennings the rest of the year in AAA.
If they don’t get Hart, Dan Johnson could present another option for the corner spots. He has played at third base at AAA Durham this year, hitting .349/.405/.505 through 292 AB. He’s no great shakes, a .333 career wOBA, but he presents a chance for the Rays to catch lightning in a bottle. Chances are he can’t do much worse than the Rays’ DHs, who have hit a combined .240/.307/.373 this season.
With a slew of young pitchers among their top prospects, the Rays could use one or more of them as trade bait. They’ll want to keep some of them around for the future, of course, but with a rotation whose oldest member is 28 they can afford to trade from the lower levels.
The Rays are always working under tight financial framework, and this year they’ve extended themselves already. The $72.85 million they’re paying their players represents a franchise record. But that won’t stop owner Stu Sternberg from making a deal.
“Money won’t be an object,” Sternberg said. “Players are always an object for us and the money will be an impediment, but we’ll figure it out if it makes all the sense in the world for this team.”
There are practical limits to what the Rays can do, so Sternberg is certainly exaggerating when he says that money isn’t an object. But if it means adding a significant piece, they’ll find the room. That has to be reassuring for Rays fans.
Joe also writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues.