Though the past month has delivered substantial frustration, with a 45-41 record at the All-Star Break, the first half of the 2012 season was not a total loss for the Tampa Bay Rays. Despite the disappointment from surrendering 1st place, an honest assessment must concede that their record could have been worse. Not only has the injury bug struck frequently, but it has robbed the Rays of their best player for over 2 months. Though sitting a distant 7.5 games back of the New York Yankees, the club is realistically competitive in the wildcard hunt. Here is a mid-season report card looking at how Tampa Bay has reached this point.
TAMPA BAY RAYS, 45-41, 3rd place AL East.
Team MVP: Fernando Rodney -- One of only 2 Rays in the All Star Game, nobody has been a bigger surprise than the fun-loving closer with his hat to the side and imaginary arrows for shooting the moon. Rodney was signed to add depth to the bullpen, but capably stepped into the 9th inning role when Kyle Farnsworth was not healthy during spring training. With 25 saves in 26 opportunities, the Dominican is finally living up to his high promise with the Detroit Tigers nearly a decade ago. Rodney has yielded only 4 earned runs in 40 appearances and averages a strikeout per inning. For a team struggling to score runs, the 34 year-old has demonstrated that nothing is more important than a dominant closer.
Best Hitter: Matt Joyce -- Perhaps this is better described as the "Someone Has To Win" award. With a torrid April, Evan Longoria was typically on pace to lead the team offensively, but his loss to a torn hamstring has since decimated the Rays' lineup. Joyce himself missed the past 3 weeks with a strained oblique, but is expected back after the break. In 62 games, the lefty batted a respectable .279 with 11 home runs and 34 RBI and 36 runs. Luke Scott and Ben Zobrist each used hot spells to lead the club at times, but both also endured even longer cold stretches. Prior to injury, only Joyce showed the kind of consistency needed on winning clubs.
Best Starter: David Price -- With the 4th best team ERA in the AL, the Rays' deep starting pitching is responsible for keeping the offensively-challenged squad competitive. While the staff has been solid, only its has been exceptional. Earning a 3rd consecutive All-Star bid, Price has started 17 games for an 11-4 record with a 2.82 ERA and 105 strikeouts in 111.2 innings. Most importantly, the former top draft pick is earning victories when the team is struggling most. Since June 1st, with the division lead slipping away, the Rays have struggled to a 16-19 mark. Yet, during this same period, Price impressively triumphed in 5 of 7 starts. The 26 year-old is clearly Tampa Bay's runner-up for MVP.
Best Reliever: Jake McGee -- If making Rodney ineligible due to his prior selection, the 2nd year middle reliever deserves recognition. In 38 appearances, the Nevada native sports an eye-popping 1.86 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, and 9 holds. While frequently used to target lefties, manager Joe Maddon has started using McGee in longer situations. Former starter Wade Davis has been nearly as effective in his adopted role and newly-acquired Burke Badenhop has proven a wise addition as well.
Biggest Surprise: Elliot Johnson -- Again bypassing Rodney, the fact that a light-hitting shortstop, averaging only .275 with 4 HR and 22 RBI, claims this award is not positive. Rays' fans surely wish that players with greater opportunities, such as Jose Molina, Sean Rodriguez, Hideki Matsui, or Alex Cobb, had emerged to earn this distinction. Perhaps others like Jeff Keppinger or Jeff Niemann could have been worthy if healthy. Yet, it is important to recognize the stability Johnson has added to Tampa Bay's infield at shortstop, especially since team defense has been an atypical challenge. The 28 year-old is a versatile switch hitter, who has delivered several timely hits, while leading the squad with 15 stolen bases.
Biggest Disappointment: Carlos Pena, Desmond Jennings (tie) -- Numerous hitters can make cases for this dishonor, but Pena and Jennings sadly stand out as 1st half letdowns. On any given night, the Rays have struggled to find capable hitting at catcher and 3rd base. But such struggles were foreseen, given the histories of those manning the positions. However, Rays' fans rightfully harbored high hopes for what Pena and Jennings could bring in 2012. Though Pena provides power with a team high 13 home runs, his .201 batting average is abysmal. Additionally, a gaudy 110 strikeouts all but cancels out the benefit of his ability to draw walks. As for Jennings' early season, the left-fielder was not been awful, but it has not been the breakout campaign that many hoped. The 25 year-old often looks over-matched and unable to capitalize on his natural power and speed. With a .231 average, Jennings still fails to resemble his predecessor, former Rays' left-fielder Carl Crawford.
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