MLB Handicapping: Tampa Bay Rays and AL East Race
by Trevor Whenham - 7/25/2013
After an underwhelming start to their season, the Tampa Bay Rays have really found their stride and are threatening to take over the lead in the American League East. They are a scorching 19-3 in their last 22 and have the second-best record in the AL — just a half game behind the Red Sox. Whenever a team gets hot like this there are obvious questions. Can they keep it up? Are they good enough to do postseason damage? With the Rays those questions are even more compelling than usual because of the experience this team has and their struggles at turning playoff berths into deep runs.
When pondering what is to come with this team the rest of the second half, here are five factors to consider:
The Red Sox are the ultimate mirage team. They are playing well above the realities of their roster, and I just don’t believe that they can sustain the best record in the league — or close to it. Of course, an overachieving team can overachieve all year, but Boston really doesn’t have the feel of a team that is going to. The fact that Boston is the toughest opposition to the Rays at this point is a huge mark in the favor of Tampa Bay. Baltimore is three games back in the division, but in a street fight I would take Tampa over the Orioles without hesitation. The Yankees are a mess, and the Jays are much worse, so this is a division primed for the taking for the Rays. It is a real shift in mindset to think that the AL East is actually a weaker division this year, but compared to the last decade or more that is definitely the case. Even if Boston or Baltimore are surprisingly strong, though, there is an easy path to the postseason via the wild card. The second-place team in the AL West is likely to take one of the spots, but the AL Central is a joke.
It is the rotation that has gotten this team this far, and the rotation will keep carrying them along. Besides the excellent core, there are a couple of reasons for optimism. First, after a rough start and a six-week injury due to a triceps injury, David Price has returned and has been as good as ever in July. His last outing on Wednesday night in Boston was about as good as a pitcher can play. Price in form is very good news for the Rays. In terms of depth, the other good news is that Alex Cobb is working through rehab starts, and he should be ready down the stretch. Having six legitimate starters is a massive luxury for a contender.
After all this optimism, it’s time for some less-positive news. The bullpen for the Rays has always seemed to be a surprising strength. They never really have big names, but they always come through in the clutch. This year, though, the bullpen hasn’t been as reliable and consistent as we have come to expect. Ideally, they would add an arm or two down the stretch to fill some gaps and try to find a winning formula. Watching the performance of the pen will be key to understanding this team and their capabilities down the stretch.
Very weak schedule in this current hot streak
While going 19-3 is impressive regardless of who you are facing, the Rays haven’t exactly overwhelmed the elite of the league. They have played seven games against Houston — and have, somewhat alarmingly, lost two of those games. They have swept the White Sox and the Twins and beat up on the pathetic Jays to start the second half. Two wins against the Tigers and two against the Red Sox in the first three games of the current four-game series are the only truly impressive wins. They get massive credit for making the most of the opportunity that the schedule has afforded them, but it would be a mistake to read too much into all the wins lately until they prove themselves in tougher spots.
Reasonably favorable remaining schedule
The good news is that the remaining schedule doesn’t get as tough as some teams will face, either. Twenty-six of their remaining 60 games are against teams that currently sit below .500. They play nine games against a Yankees team that could easily self-destruct down the stretch and four against an Arizona team that is moving in reverse. A trip to the Dodgers in two weeks could be the battle of red-hot teams, and seven games against Baltimore, four more against Boston, and four against Texas are all going to be very tough games that will be key for this team’s success. All in all, though, there is really no reason why this team shouldn’t be able to shine down the stretch if they are as good as they have the potential to be.
Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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