The Rays reassembled Thursday for a workout at the Trop in advance of resuming play tonight against the Red Sox. They open a seasonlong 10-game homestand, full of the obligatory optimism about being 45-41 and a half-game off the AL wild-card lead despite a slew of injuries, but also with issues that could impact their short- and long-term future. Here are five major questions:
When is Evan Longoria coming back?
The Rays don't really know. Executive VP Andrew Friedman said Thursday that they are "confident" that their star third baseman will return at some point, but the nature of the injury — a partial tear of his left hamstring — prevents them from putting a definitive timetable on it, unlike a broken bone that heals in a set time. Longoria returns today from a vacation in Cabo and his appearance at the ESPY awards in Los Angeles (assuming he didn't trip on the red carpet) and will resume some baseball activities, though Friedman said the work and treatment being done in the trainers' room is still more important. There is a loose framework that after 7-10 days he will start another rehab assignment, which suggests, with no further setbacks, a return in early to mid August. "Hopefully in the next couple weeks it will be a little more evident of what we can expect," Friedman said.
Who, among the healthy players, needs to step it up the most?
There's a long list, but the answer has got to be among the quartet of Desmond Jennings, Carlos Peña, Luke Scott and B.J. Upton, who have combined for only a .221 average and a .679 on-base plus-slugging percentage. How about Upton, right, who was hot for a while but cooled off and since late May is hitting .205 with a .565 OPS and 52 strikeouts in 38 games? Jennings, who was twice dropped from the leadoff spot, is hitting .200 with a .265 on-base percentage in 32 games since coming off the DL after a left knee sprain? Peña, left, who somewhat expectedly has a .201 average and 110 strikeouts (in 368 plate appearances), but only 13 homers and a .372 slugging percentage (the same as the Indians' Casey Kotchman, whom Peña replaced). And Scott, who was brought in just for his bat and, while leading the team with 42 RBIs, has been injured and inconsistent much of the year, hitting .205 with only a .669 OPS (lower than Kotchman, Boston's Mike Aviles, Seattle's Kyle Seager)?
Can they still make the playoffs?
Amazingly, despite all that has gone wrong thus far, yes. With health, absolutely yes. While the 7½ games between them and the first-place Yankees look sizable, the Rays are only a half-game behind the wild-card-leading Angels and Orioles, who look like they might be finally ready to return to reality, and ahead of a group of other contenders, the Indians, Tigers, A's, Red Sox and Jays, none of whom look particularly threatening.
Will the Rays be buyers or sellers at the trade deadline?
The timing of 3B Evan Longoria's return will be a key in the decisionmaking, as well as that of OF Matt Joyce, right. Executive VP Andrew Friedman said their overall health is "kind of the linchpin" in what they do. Traditionally, the Rays have never been big buyers at the July 31 deadline, so don't expect much. Knowing Longoria will be back sooner would allow them to try to address other concerns (catcher, shortstop). If he will be out longer, they could either seek another interim replacement or more offense at another spot, such as a low-cost pickup like the Cubs' Alfonso Soriano, top left. In a worst-case scenario — Longoria delayed, losing most of the 17 games before the deadline — they could deal potential free agents-to-be such as B.J. Upton, Carlos Peña, Luke Scott and others for talent and/or savings that helps in the future.
Besides health, what's their biggest concern?
It's got to be the defense, which much to their surprise and dismay, has been among the majors' worst (ahead of only Baltimore). That's bad enough, but there's residual impact as well. Their pitchers end up being less effective and more taxed. And their offense, already historically bad as the first team in the DH era (1973) to have a winning record at the break hitting as low as .232, is further challenged.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]