As the Tampa Bay Rays reside in a crowded pack within striking distance of the AL wildcard, many questions linger concerning the final 1/3 of the season. Though tracking down the division-leading New York Yankees seems unlikely, the Rays have ample opportunity to reach the playoffs for the 4th time in 5 years. Here are 5 questions facing the Tampa Bay Rays in that quest.
1.)When Will Evan Longoria Return? No greater issue haunts the Rays than the prospects for Evan Longoria's long-sought return. Tearing his hamstring on April 30, Longoria suffered a series of setbacks in missing the next 3 months. The news is more positive from Longo's latest rehab stint for the Durham Bulls. Going 1 for 3 in his 3rd minor league game, the 26 year-old has been limited to DH duties. It seems doubtful that the Rays would summon Longoria before he was ready to take the field, but reports indicate he nears a return. Longoria enjoyed a torrid April by hitting .329 with 4 home runs and 19 RBI in 23 games. If Tampa Bay receives such production, the team will be very pleased. But what if a lingering injury makes returning to form a slow process? The timing of Longoria's comeback and his ability to resemble a 3-time All-Star may define the Rays' playoff chances.
2.) Can Shields Deliver Big Games? Reaching the non-waiver trade deadline of July 31, it appears James Shields will remain with Tampa Bay. While the team has not aggressively shopped the righty, he is available. However, the pitcher's top suitor disappeared when the Los Angeles Angels acquired Zach Greinke last week. While trading Shields may make long-term sense, the 30 year-old was instrumental in the Rays' playoff berth in 2011. If the veteran can improve his lackluster campaign, in which he owns a mediocre 8-7 record and unacceptable 1.46 WHIP, hanging on to "Big Game James" was brilliant.
3.) Is Ryan Roberts An Impact Player? Despite countless injuries, the Rays have been reluctant to trade. The team executed only its 2nd July trade in 5 years by adding infielder Ryan Roberts from the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Rays obviously liked Roberts' multi-position versatility and hoped he could add pop to an anemic lineup. Indeed, Roberts delivered a homer in his first contest for Tampa Bay. However, the multi-tattooed player has since struggled by going hit-less in 5 consecutive games. Such lack of production sadly matches what Hideki Matsui and Brooks Conrad were already posting. If Roberts' stats instead resemble teammate Jeff Keppinger, he will be a valuable option for manager Joe Maddon. Otherwise, it will be yet another infielder who struggles to get on base.
4.) Hope for Improving Batting Averages? With an average of .231, the Rays dropped past the Seattle Mariners for the worst team hitting in MLB. Though power production is slightly better, it is insufficient for the Rays' to perform so poorly at the plate. Similarly, though the team's pitching remains its bread-and-butter, it cannot be expected to win every game. Longoria's return to the lineup will help, but too many have underachieved regardless of his absence. Particular demerits must be given to Carlos Pena's (.196), B.J. Upton (.243), Desmond Jennings (.236), and Sean Rodriguez (.207). Those players simply must improve their numbers. Meanwhile, fans also hope the additions of Longoria, Roberts, a healthy Sam Fuld, and still-injured Luke Scott can boost the lineup.
5.) Will Bullpen Remain Strong? The quality and depth of Tampa Bay's bullpen has been a pleasant surprise. With Kyle Farnsworth going down in spring training, Fernando Rodney has shockingly become the AL's best closer, with 30 saves in 31 opportunities and miniscule 0.77 ERA. Many smiles have been rendered, as he "shoots the moon" after each save and fires up a fanbase that appreciates his passion. Yet, the rest of the bullpen has been nearly as steady, if not as fiery. Jake McGee, Wade Davis, J.P. Howell, Burke Badenhop, and Joel Peralta have formed a dependable corps of arms. If the bullpen continues its reliability, the Rays may be looking at another exciting September.
Yahoo! Sports, TBO.com, Milb.com.
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