Over the off-season there was a huge shakeup within the front office of the Tampa Bay Rays that they weren’t quickly expected to recover from. Longtime Rays general manager Andrew Friedman left to become the president of baseball operations for the Los Angeles Dodgers while manager Joe Maddon opted out his contract to become the new skipper of the Chicago Cubs. Under the watch of Friedman and Maddon, the Rays made their only four playoff appearances in franchise history along with two American League Eastern Division Championships and a World Series appearance in 2008. Rays owner Stuart Sternberg replaced Friedman with Matthew Silverman and Maddon with Kevin Cash. Silverman had previously worked under Friedman in the Rays front office while Cash played nine seasons of Major League Baseball as a catcher including one for the then Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 2005. But when Cash was named as the new manager of the Rays, he didn’t have any previous managerial experience. And what Sternberg and the Rays have gotten after the transition in their front office is a very familiar result.
This season the Rays were expected to be at the bottom of the American League East, but nearly halfway through the 2015 MLB season, Tampa Bay is in first place in the division as they continue to be a thorn in the side of other clubs within division with a new cast of characters.
It wasn’t just the departure of Friedman and Maddon that left people skeptical about the Rays chances in 2015 as there was a roster overhaul.
Starting pitcher David Price is the Rays all-time leader in earned run average at 3.18, but he was traded last season to the Detroit Tigers while starting pitcher Jeremy Hellickson was dealt to the Arizona Diamondbacks over the off-season. The Rays would also trade utility man Ben Zobrist who played the second most games in franchise history to the Oakland Athletics. And with the departures in Tampa Bay, this season has been a credit to the system that Sternberg has in place there.
The Rays are currently 40-31 which is remarkable for a team that was expected to flirt with losing 100 games this season. And in the AL East where nobody appears ready to run away with the division, the Rays have a puncher’s chance to win it.
Since beginning this MLB season with a record of 6-8, the Rays have not been under .500 and they have held their own in the American League East where they are 18-14. The Rays have also won eight of their last ten ballgames which was highlighted by them taking three out four games last weekend against the Washington Nationals who are in first place in the National League East.
From the Rays initial turnaround in 2008, the name of the game for them has been pitching. And although some of the names have changed on the back of the jerseys this season for the Rays, they have still been able to bolster a strong starting pitching staff. Tampa Bay’s team earned run average of 3.31 is tops in the American League while they are also first in opponent’s batting average at .236.
2015 is the fourth MLB season for Rays starting pitcher Chris Archer and he appears to be putting it altogether. Archer has been one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball this season with a record of 8-4 and an earned run average of 2.18. Archer has not lost a decision since May 7 against the Texas Rangers and he’s already had a stretch this season where had three consecutive starts where he struck out at least 11 batters as he is well on his way to earning his first nod as an AL All-Star. Archer is also on pace to become the first Rays pitcher since Price in 2012 to strikeout at least 200 batters in a season.
The Rays everyday lineup isn’t full of household names, but they continue to find a way to do just enough to win ball games. Second baseman Logan Forsythe is currently leading the team in batting average .288, on-base percentage (.364), and hits (70) while outfielder Steven Souza Jr., is making a name for himself as he is tops on the club with 14 home runs. Then there is Rays third baseman Evan Longoria who is the unofficial “Mr. Ray”. Longoria was the Rays first round pick in 2006 and he has spent his entire Major League Baseball career in Tampa. Along with being named as the American League’s Rookie of the Year in 2008, Longoria is a four-time AL All-Star and he is also the franchise’s all-time leader in home runs, runs batted in, and slugging percentage. This season Longoria is batting .270 with an on-base percentage of .351 while his 32 runs batted in lead the team.
For a small market team such as the Rays, they have to do things differently as it isn’t within their budget to spend heavily on free agents. Instead the Rays have concentrated on developing players in their system along with paying close attention to sabermetrics which has allowed them to remain competitive in spite off all of the departures that they have endured. Whereas on the surface it will appear that the Rays are set to struggle when they trade “key” players such as Price, Tampa Bay has prepared for those departures for a few years which allows them to cushion the blow. Along with the San Francisco Giants, St. Louis Cardinals, and Oakland Athletics, the Rays have one the best systems in Major League Baseball as far as being consistently competitive and regardless of what anyone outside of their facilities thinks, they don’t waver from their plan.
Now as the MLB is set to embark of the All-Star Game next month, the Rays remain in the conversation to win the muddled American League East while Silverman will be in the converstation to be the AL Executive of the Year and Cash the AL Manager of the Year. And although the folks in West Florida haven’t come out in droves to support the Rays, this club could be ready to hang another banner as AL East Champions in 2015.