We know what the Rays would prefer to be playing for over the final month of the season: a fifth trip to the playoffs in seven years. But though manager Joe Maddon continues to keep the faith, that seems quite unlikely, barring anything short of their 2011 borderline miraculous comeback and with not just one but several teams ahead of them assuming the role of the choking Red Sox. • More realistically, the Rays have lesser things to play for as they play out the final 26 games:
On the plus side
The Rays haven't had a losing season since 2007, so the chance for a seventh consecutive winning season should have some value. Only the Rays, Cardinals and Yankees have done six in a row. There's also some history in play as the Rays can become the just the third team to follow 10 or more straight losing seasons with seven (or more) winning ones. The A's did it 1925-33 and 1968-76. Also, the Rays became the fourth team in major-league history to make it back to .500 after being 18 or more games under; none of the other three finished the season there.
Consider this amazing number: Since the end of the 2007 season, the Rays have played only 13 games that had no playoff significance. They were eliminated with 11 games remaining in 2009 and two in 2012. So, as they played Game 136 Saturday, there is something to avoiding the x- next to their name for as long as they can. Here in order are their earliest eliminations by game from playoff contention, and final records:
Year Game Date W-L
2002 130 Aug. 25 55-106
2001 134 Aug. 30 62-100
1998 136 Aug. 31 63-99
2003 136 Sept. 2 63-99
2004 138 Sept. 9 70-91
2006 139 Sept. 5 61-101
1999 141 Sept. 12 69-93
2007 142 Sept. 8 66-96
2005 142 Sept. 9 67-95
2000 147 Sept. 15 69-92
2009 151 Sept. 22 84-78
2012 160 Oct. 1 90-72
2008 Lost in WS 97-65
2010 Lost in ALDS 96-66
2011 Lost in ALDS 91-71
2013 Lost in ALDS 92-71
Though contract decisions are theoretically based on the full season's work, play over the final month can sometimes shape the thinking. The Rays don't have a lot of decisions, with no pending free agents and only two players with options. They can, of course, shift payroll with trades or non-tenders. Here's a look at the status of the current group:
Options for 2015
• RHP Joel Peralta $2.5 million, no buyout
• INF/OF Ben Zobrist $7.5 million, 500,000 buyout
Signed for 2015
• 3B Evan Longoria $11 million
• RHP Grant Balfour $7 million
• 1B James Loney $7 million
• OF David DeJesus $5 million
• SS Yunel Escobar $5 million
• C Ryan Hanigan $3.5 million
• LHP Matt Moore $3 million
• C Jose Molina $2.75 million
• RHP Chris Archer $1 million
Arbitration eligible for 2015 (with 2014 salaries)
• OF Matt Joyce ($3.7M)
• RHP Jeremy Hellickson ($3.625M)
• INF/OF Sean Rodriguez ($1.475M)
• LHP Jake McGee ($1.45M)
• LHP Cesar Ramos ($750K)
• LHP Drew Smyly* ($520K)
• OF Desmond Jennings* ($517K)
• RHP Alex Cobb* ($517K)
• INF Logan Forsythe* ($510K)
* first-time eligible
All other current players are under team control at low cost since they are not eligible for arbitration.
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With so many players under control, the key to offseason flexibility might be trades, for which scouting, plotting and planning are often done now. There are a few players the Rays would be eager to deal, such as RHP Grant Balfour and C Jose Molina, but likely can't. Some they will consider dealing based on 2015 salaries vs. their recent production, such as OF Matt Joyce, INF/OF Sean Rodriguez and, maybe, RHP Jeremy Hellickson (though LHP Matt Moore's recovery from Tommy John surgery is part of the equation). And certainly there are a few they could be tempted to deal, such as CF Desmond Jennings and, you wonder, maybe RF Wil Myers.
But there's nobody in that group they could necessarily get a haul for. Here's another thought: Joe Maddon's contract is up after 2015, and the Rays likely will seek to work out a new deal before the season. But what if they decide they want to make a change, or don't want to pay Maddon what he may rightfully seek after working for years at well below what top managers get? Maddon, arguably, could be one of their most valued trade commodities.
• K-club: Rays pitchers through Friday led the majors with 1,214 strikeouts and were on pace for 1,457, which would break the major-league record of 1,428 by the 2013 Tigers. The Rays team record is 1,383, in 2012. … RHP Brad Boxberger, despite spending the first month in the minors, is three strikeouts shy of LHP J.P. Howell's team reliever record (92). … RHP Jake Odorizzi started Saturday with 156 strikeouts and a shot at LHP Matt Moore's 2012 team rookie record of 175. His average of 10 strikeouts per nine innings puts him in range of the AL rookie mark of 10.40 by Texas' Yu Darvish in 2012.
• Homeboys: The Rays are the only team in the majors with a winning record on the road and a losing mark overall, the product of a 29-37 mark (though Friday) at the once-favorable Trop. They need to win two more to avoid their worst-ever record under the slanted roof, 12 to avoid their first losing record there since 2007.
• Double trouble: The Rays have turned 74 double plays, lowest by far in the majors and on a pace for 89, which would be the fewest in a nonstrike season since the 162-game schedule was fully adopted in 1962. They have hit into 114, fourth most in the majors. The last team to rank last and first in the majors was the 1954 Tigers.
• Powerball: Evan Longoria needs three homers to get to 20 for the season, not only a round number but more than Fred McGriff's 1998 record-low team-leading total of 19. Overall, the Rays need 14 more to surpass the 1998 team's 111. And they need 98 runs to pass those '98ers as the least potent team.
• Awards: No Rays are going to win any of the major postseason awards, but OF Kevin Kiermaier and RHP Jake Odorizzi could get down-ballot votes in the AL rookie of the year race (or at least the amateur division after White Sox 1B Jose Abreu and Yankees RHP Masahiro Tanaka).
• Peace of mind: For the many Rays who had bad seasons, topped by RHP Grant Balfour, OF Wil Myers and C Ryan Hanigan, the final month is a chance to regain some confidence, and eliminate some negativity, heading into the offseason. The same, too, with 3B Evan Longoria, whose post All-Star break performance has been better.
• Trading SS Yunel Escobar or even letting him go to the A's via last week's waiver claim might have been a popular move, including in some corners of the clubhouse. But the Rays had several reasons not to: They are confident he will play next season more like his stellar 2013 and less like this year; don't fear him being an attitude or behavioral problem; didn't feel they have anyone else in house to play short for what they expect to be a contending team (not comfortable that Ben Zobrist could handle it every day in a season he'll turn 34, or that Nick Franklin is good enough defensively, or that either Hak-Ju Lee or Tim Beckham will be ready coming off major knee injuries); and weren't likely to sign or acquire anyone as good for as little as they'll pay Escobar ($5 million).
• Cheering presumably will be allowed when the Rays honor retiring Yankees star SS Derek Jeter Sept. 16 and present him with a parting gift. (Guessing he's okay on stuff for the Tampa house.)
With 14 home games left, the Rays still haven't heard when/if commissioner Bud Selig is coming to the Trop on his farewell tour of supposedly all ballparks. … There's chatter about progress, finally, in the stadium situation with St. Petersburg, and soon. … Was Dewayne Staats having fond flashbacks when he signed off last Friday mentioning Joe Magrane, or just messing with current partner Brian Anderson? … Noting what he felt should have been an error called on LF Brandon Guyer last weekend, manager Joe Maddon said, "We've had a lot of trouble with official scorers at home and on the road." … The 2015 schedule, which includes home-and-home interleague series with the Braves, Marlins and Nationals and a visit by the Mets, will be released Sept. 8. … New Texas A&M QB Kenny Hill is the son of former Rays RHP Ken Hill.
Got a minute? James Loney
Best meal you can make?
Scrambled eggs and French toast.
Homeland right now. Growing up, I liked The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
Karaoke song, if you had to?
Just a Friend, by Biz Markie.
Food you hate?
I don't eat cole slaw for some reason.
Does pitching count? I can pitch. And play saxophone.