Thursday, July 10, 2008

Rays of Hope

If you’re a baseball fan – especially if you’re a follower of an American League east team – one burning question branded in your mind is “Are the Tampa Bay Rays for real?”

Through 90 games of this 2008 MLB season, the answer appears to be yes. The Rays are 55-35, have a dominant 36-14 record in their domed home of Tropicana Field, and lead the defending World Champion Boston Red Sox by two games.

All this sounds nice, but where are these Rays coming from? Who are they? And, do they have what it takes to battle the Red Sox and Yankees for American League East supremacy?

No, it’s not possible. It’s Tampa Bay. These guys are perennial losers. There’s just no way these guys can win more games than Boston or New York, right?

Well, let’s take a closer look.

True, Tampa Bay has been a losing franchise. Since its inception in 1998, the Rays (formerly the Devil Rays) have compiled a miserable 645-972 record – good for an MLB-worst 39.8 winning percentage over those 10 seasons.

Of those 10 seasons, they owned the worst record in the Major Leagues five times and finished dead last in the AL East in all but one of those seasons.

So, how have they been able to turn this around?

Pitching, thus far, has been the main reason. As of July 9th, Tampa Bay ranks ninth in American league defense and seventh in batting; however, the Rays pitching ranks third.

Thus far, the Rays have a team ERA of 3.60. This includes a 36-22 record and 3.67 ERA among its starting rotation. That’s great, but who are these pitchers and can they sustain their pitching prowess?

Since 2005, many faces have changed, but one pitcher has remained strong and reliable for Tampa Bay. Scott Kazmir is this pitcher. The Rays left-handed ace was an All-Star in 2006 and totes a career record of 42-33 with a 3.53 ERA.

Kazmir has been a stalwart for Tampa’s pitching staff through some very tough seasons.

From 2005 through 2007 Tampa Bay posted a 194-292 record. Despite the lack of team success, Kazmir was 33-28 and posted a 3.52 ERA through 537.1 innings pitched. The left-hander also recorded 576 strikeouts during that time-frame – including 239 in 2007.

Complementing Kazmir is Tampa’s current strikeout leader, right-hander James Shields. Through two-plus seasons with the Rays, Shields is 25-21 with a 4.06 ERA.

Thus far, in 2008, Kazmir and Shields have not disappointed. Kazmir is 7-4 with a 2.69 ERA. Shields, meanwhile, leads the team with 96 strikeouts and is 7-5 with a 3.64 ERA.

It’s after these two pitchers where the Rays have some question marks.

Tampa’s three, four, and five starters – Matt Garza, Edwin Jackson and Andy Sonnanstine – have combined for a 22-13 record and 3.93 ERA. These stats look good for now, but we’re talking about three pitchers who – prior to Sonnanstine’s 10 wins this season – had yet to win more than seven games in a season.

Garza had two seasons with Minnesota prior to joining Tampa this season. In these two years, the 24-year-old righty achieved an 8-13 record with a mediocre 4.46 ERA.

Jackson has a bit more experience than Garza, but not much success. The Rays right-hander lost 15 games for the Devil Rays in 2007 and owns an 11-19 record and 5.16 ERA through five seasons of MLB pitching prior to 2008.

Finally, perhaps the Rays greatest overachiever thus far is Sonnanstine. The Rays 25-year-old righty currently leads his team in wins (10), but went 6-10 with a 5.86 ERA last year for Tampa Bay – his only experience as a Major Leaguer thus far.

Besides the lack of success, these pitchers lack experience. Entering the 2008 season, Tampa’s starting five have a combined 14 years of MLB experience entering and they are an average of 24.6 years of age.

These things do not bode well for Tampa Bay down the stretch.

Also, as the Rays recently dropped three straight to the Yankees in New York as Boston swept a sizzling Minnesota Twins team in three games at Fenway.

So, are the Rays finally beginning to sink or will they be able to keep up its heated battled with Boston and New York?

Don’t be surprised if the Rays make a nice run, but playoffs? A winning season will be a step in the right direction for Tampa Bay this year, then, in 2009 or 2010, the Rays can start thinking about earning its first post-season bid.

Of course, you never know, if Kazmir and Shields stay healthy and the other three starters can maintain their 2008 success, get ready folks, Tampa Bay will have a baseball team ripe and ready to root for in October.

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