Carl Crawford just tied the major league record with 6 stolen bases. Matt Garza narrowly missed a no-hitter last week. Carlos Pena leads the majors with 11 HRs. Evan Longoria is on pace for 200 RBIs and light hitting shortstop Jason Bartlett already has three times as many HRs as last season (3). Yet despite all that has gone right for them so far, the Rays still find themselves mired at the bottom of the AL East, trailing surprising Toronto by 7 games.
The darlings of last season went all the way to the 2008 World Series and were expected to do the same this year with continued growth from young pitchers and the addition of powerful bats like Pat Burrell and Matt Joyce. But a month into the season, Tampa Bay has seemingly regressed to it’s 1998-2007 futility with a woeful 12-16 record that has them in the cellar of the division along with the perennial afterthought Baltimore Orioles. So what exactly is going on?
Most of the team’s struggles stem from the young pitching staff that carried the Rays last season. Instead of building on 2008’s success, the majority of the pitching staff has spent the early going taking a major step backwards (4.64 team ERA). Tampa Bays’ starting pitching is putting undue pressure on the bullpen because of their inability to go deep into games; Scott Kazmir is 3-3 with a 6.00 ERA, Andy Sonnastine is 1-3 with a 6.75 ERA and Jeff Niemann is 2-3 with a 5.68 ERA. The bullpen has not been up to the challenge either; Grant Balfour and Dan Wheeler are both sporting 7.00 ERAs, with J.P. Howell and Troy Percival as the only reliable relievers thus far. Matt Garza and James Shields have been solid so far but unless the rest of the staff starts pitching up to their potential, the Rays have a long summer ahead of them.
While there are certainly bright spots on the offensive side of the ball, many key players from last season’s lineup are struggling mightily. Leadoff man BJ Upton tore the cover off the ball last October and was expected to carry that success into 2009. However, the first month of the season has been a nightmare for him, batting .152 with 0 HRs and 2 RBIs. Catcher Dioner Navarro hit .295 last year, but so far is only hitting at a .160 clip with 1 HR and 3 RBIs. Pat “The Bat” Burrell was expected to add some punch to the lineup but only has one HR (the same number as perennial long-ball threat Willy Bloomquist) in 83 ABs. The Rays’ winning last season was predicated upon a lineup that was solid 1-9, but this hasn’t been the case for Tampa Bay in 2009.
Can the Rays turn things around, or is their season already over? After the sensational run by the 2007 Rockies it is hard to ever count a team out of the playoff picture, but Tampa Bay sure has its work cut out for it. They have suffered from some bad luck in the early going, having a losing record despite a positive run differential. Additionally, the track records of players like Kazmir, Burrell and Upton indicate that they are due to a return to form, but will it be too late when they finally put things together? After all, only 10 of the 160 playoff teams since 1982 finished April more than 3 games under .500, and only 28 of the 132 teams that finished first during that same span were more than 2 1/2 games out after the first month (Stark, Jayson. ESPN.com. May 5). So can the Rays get back in the playoff hunt? Sure, but history indicates that they probably won’t. Hey, at least the weather is nice in Florida!