Major League Baseball will play the mid-summer classic tonight marking the official mid-point of the 2011 Baseball season. Today is a good chance for us to take a moment and look back at the first-half-that-was for the Tampa Bay Rays. There have been ups and downs, we've had surprise performances and downright ugly performances, we've had elation and consternation, and the best part is there are still 72 games remaining to finish writing this story.
Where Do We Stand
AL East Standings
At the All-Star break, the Tampa Bay Rays find themselves at 49-41, eight games above the .500 mark but in quite a hole in the Ameican League East, 6 back of division leading Boston Redsox and 5 back in the wild-card race trailing the New York Yankees.
Despite being one of the top five teams in the AL, the Rays are looking at most likely missing the playoffs this year unless they can make some serious turn aroundsin many areas in the second half. Coming into the season, I think most thought we'd be the third best team in the AL East and that has held true as the big money teams are starting to separate themselves in the division. Returning from the break the Rays host three with Boston and four against New York, if the Rays don't compete in those two series' the season is likely over, however, a sweep here and a series win there and they are right back in serious contention.
Matt Joyce - While maybe not a surprise to many, Matt Joyce's emergence in the seasons early months was remarkable as he lead the league in hitting until a June swoon and nagging shoulder injury dampened his offensive explosion. His .290/.351/.513 slash line is sparkling, even though it includes an awful June where Joyce struggled mightily. The Rays right-fielder is still sitting against some tough lefties but has shown a better approach against southpaws this season and should see his playing time increase against same-handed throwers if the Rays fall out of the race.
Casey Kotchman - This one was easy. Kotchman was signed as Dan Johnson insurance and started the season in Durham playing for the AAA Bulls, and I think most people expected that's where he would still be at the All-Star break. But here we are in July, and if he qualified, Kotchman would be second in the American League in batting average behind only MVP candidate Adrian Gonzalez. Kotchman's .336/.394/.455 line may be fueled by a bit of luck as he is posting a high .369 BABIP (Batting Average Balls In Play) and seems to have the propensity to consistently place groundballsand line drives were the fielders are not, but one can not argue withhis production and combined with his stellar glove at first base, Kotchman easily has defined himself as the early offensive MVP.
James Shields - While many still thought highly of Shields despite his 2010 struggles, I don't think any one predicted he would be quite this dominant in his regression tour 2011. Shields has had some tough luck in the win column, posting a 8-7 record but has managed to produce an American League leading seven complete games, including three shutouts while posting a 2.33 ERA (3.02 FIP). Shields also leads the league with 10 pickoffs while flashing perhaps the games best move for a right-handed pitcher. In just the first half of the season Shields has gone from potential trade bait to practically untouchable as his 7 million dollar 2012 option is an absolute bargain at his current production level.
Honorable Mention: Kyle Farnsworth
Manny Ramirez - A relatively disappointing off-season was salvaged with the late signings of Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez, as general manager Andrew Friedman had pulled an apparent coup getting Ramirez for just 2 million dollars. Ramirez was supposed to add much needed power and be a legitimate homerun threat in the middle of the Rays lineup but in the end played in just 5 games for Tampa Bay. After testing positive for a banned substance, his third such drug testing failure, Ramirez chose retirement over a 100-game suspension and left the Rays suddenly without their DH just one week into the season. An easy choice for the most disappointing moment.
Evan Longoria - It's probably unfair to list someone as a disappointment in a season that they are posting a 2.2 WAR at the All-Star break but that is the expectation level that Evan Longoria has to deal with. The superstar third baseman is the face of the franchise and has yet to live up to that level of expected production in 2011. Missing the first month to an oblique injury certainly hampered Longo's numbers, but he has never really gotten it figured out since returning to the line up either. Nagging injuries have hampered his production, holding him to a .239/.321/.459 slash line while playing defense at a level that appears less than his usual brilliant self. Longoria is the key to the Rays success and without him returning to form int he second half a postseason run is extremely unlikely.
Wade Davis - After giving the right-hander a 4-year contract extension before the season started, the Rays hoped Wade would take the next step forward and elevate himself to the third spot in the rotation. Unfortunately, the opposite has happened as Davis has taken an apparent new lower-velocity, higher-control approach to pitching that has just not worked for him. Davis has seen his strikeouts drop dramatically, posting just 4.08 K/9 down from 6.05 in 2010 while also walking the same amount of batters at 3.30 BB/9. The results are a career high ERA/FIP of 4.25/4.93 and a mid-season spot on the disabled list. Here's hoping that the long break will gave Davis time to find a slider, changeup, or some kind of effective out-pitch for the second half.
Dis-Honorable Mentions: Dan Johnson, Kelly Shoppach, Reid Brignac.
#TheLegendOfSamFuld - After starting the season 1-8 and watching their playoff hopes start to slip away, the Rays needed a spark. An early April trip to Fenway, where the also struggling Boston Red Sox awaited did not seem like the kind of place you find a superhero, but that is precisely what happened on that cold Massachusetts night as Sam Fuldwent from backup outfielder to legend with four swings of the bat. The Rays offense was on fire that evening, but none more so than Fuld. Fuldstarted his night with an unlikely homerun to right, curving it just barely around the Pesky pole. A double and a triple later and Fuldfound himself at bat in the top of the ninthinning witha cycle just a single away. With his family watching, Fuld smacked a linedrive down the left field line and into the corner, ensuring himself a place in the record books... but legends don't settle for singles. Fuld flew into second, sacrificing the cycle but cementing himself into baseball lore. A cycle missed, but a Legend born.
Ben Zobrist Goes Off In Minnesota - On a blistery winter day at the end of April, Ben Zobrist turned into an absolute monster and terrorized the Minnesota Twins for 18 innings as the Rays swept a day-night double header in weather more suited for Football in Lambeau Field than a baseball game. Zobrist set a team record for RBI's in the matinee game, driving in 8 runs in a 15-3 beat down and later added two more RBI's in the nightcap giving him a ridiculous 10 RBI day. Zobristfinished with 7 hits on the day, including two homeruns.
Welcome To The Show - On May 6th, Rays rookie outfielder Brandon Guyer got his first big league call-up and it couldn't of come at a better time for Guyer and his family. The Rays were playing the Baltimore Orioles in Maryland, just an hour or so drive for Guyers family who live in Virginia. As if seeing your son's first major league at-bat wasn't a great moment all by it-self, Guyer demonstrated his penchant for the dramatic as he belted a homerun in his first career at bat off Orioles left-hander Zach Britton, depositing a fastball into the left fieldseatsof Camden Yards. The Rays would go on to win the contest, with the only negative being that Guyer's wife, a sports reporter in Washington DC was still in her car attempting to get to the game when Guyer hit the bomb.
Question Marks Going Forward
The Offense - The Rays have already been shutout 8 times in 2011, while only being shutout 9 times in all of 2010. Will this offense ever get its act together? Will they ever score runs at home consistently? These are things that absolutely have to get corrected if the Rays hope to compete in the second half.
The Rotation - Can Wade Davis and Jeff Neimann return to form? Will Jeremy Hellicksonsurvivethe rigors of a full major league season? Can David Price find some consistency, and can James Shields continue his dominance? The rotation, along with the defense, are the strengths of this team and that will need to continue going forward. More Alex Cobb and less Andy Sonnanstine should see to it that the rotation is in good hands coming out of the break.
The Bullpen - We knew it would be a tall order for general manager Andrew Friedman to completely rebuild a bullpen this past offseason, and for the most part I think he's done a decent job. Kyle Farnsworth has proven himself to be a viable closer and Joel Peralta has done well on the back-end, but outside of those two really no one has excelled and the unit has underperformed all season. A rebound from JP Howell and a recall of a steadier Jake McGee should help but the entire pen needs to improve.