ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays will show us in the second half who they really are.
Contenders or pretenders? The team that sprinted to a 14-4 start and held a majors-best 23-12 mark a week into May, or the one that, through Friday, has gone a rather pedestrian 27-27 since? Confident enough to spend money and prospects for significant upgrades to try to run down the Yankees, or just to make modest improvements to a core they remain confident in to hang on to an AL wild-card spot?
But the first half told us a lot.
About how good their pitching is overall, with a majors-best 3.35 ERA through Friday. How inconsistent they are offensively. How their defense isn’t as good as they require, and their baserunning, at times, is a mess. And how those of us who thought the back end of their bullpen would be a concern were absolutely right.
Also, that between the personalities, performance, management and innovative ideas — such as doubling (and tripling) down on the opener, using two-way players and now pitching a plan to split future seasons between Tampa Bay and Montreal, for example — they are the most interesting team in the majors.
Here is an All-Star break review (all stats through Friday):
Most valuable player
The Rays seem to have spent wisely in signing Charlie Morton to a two-year, $30 million free agent deal and giving infielder Brandon Lowe a six-year, $24 million extension (with $25 million more in 2025-26 options) as they have been their best players. And two of their All-Stars, along with Austin Meadows, who was on the MVP track through May (.356 average, 1.105 OPS) but has been somewhat frigid since (.214, .584).
Outfielder Tommy Pham makes his mistakes, but his overall game (.275, .829) and intensity make him worthy of mention. But this is between Morton and Lowe.
Morton is 9-2 with an AL-best 2.36 ERA and maybe even better in providing leadership off the mound. Lowe leads the team with 16 homers, 49 RBIs and is second with an .862 OPS, though he’s on the injured list with a bruised leg.
Which one is more valuable? Lowe plays pretty much every day, which usually would give him the nod.
But Morton has done so much, including eating innings when the bullpen needed a break and winning five games, and positioning the team to take two others, immediately after team losses. Morton, for another win.
1. Morton. 2. Lowe. 3. Pham. 4. Meadows.
Jose Alvarado and Diego Castillo were supposed to be the dynamic duo handling late-inning, high-leverage situations, good enough that not acquiring a veteran closer was in part about not blocking their paths.
Instead, they’ve teamed for 11 losses, three blown saves and a 4.33 ERA, and both have missed time. Alvarado went home to Venezuela to attend to a family medical matter and was gone nearly a full month; Castillo was sidelined by a shoulder issue that seemed to pop up at a convenient time.
Infielder Daniel Robertson deserves some consideration, plus first baseman Ji-Man Choi and reliever Chaz Roe. (We try not to include players where injury is the primary problem, such as Matt Duffy or even Tyler Glasnow)
Robertson carried the team at times last season but never got going, or looked comfortable, this year, playing his way to the minors (.202 average, .592 OPS). He’s now sidelined due to knee surgery.
Choi was better than expected defensively but worse offensively, with a .774 OPS and 0.6 WAR. Roe can’t get his wicked breaking ball straight, and has a 5.47 ERA, 19 walks to 123 batters, and four blown saves.
Blake Snell has to be mentioned for his 5-7, 4.87 record, but I’m in the camp that says he hasn’t been as bad as those numbers show.
1. Alvarado. 2. Castillo. 3. Robertson. 4. Choi
Most pleasant surprise
Lowe is on this list as well if compiled by fans or media, including a longtime beat writer for a certain daily newspaper who late in spring was still asking if the infielder was likely to make the team.
Rays people, though, were confident he would be a big hit.
Similarly, Rays followers were surprised they gave up Jake Bauers and $5 million to get Yandy Diaz from Cleveland, but he has been a key to the lineup, providing quality at-bats overall (.277 average, .833 OPS), more power than expected (11 homers) and good-enough defense at first and third.
Consider that in wins he is hitting .340/1.018 and in losses .184/.561. Also, given his two stints on the injured list, the Rays are 38-26 with him, 12-13 without.
Until the past couple of days, reliever Emilio Pagan had been one of their most dependable relievers, with zeroes in 27 of his first 30 appearances. His 1.80 ERA remains impressive, especially for a guy acquired from Oakland in a trade where the top piece was an extra draft pick.
Outfielder Avisail Garcia has cooled but also gets a mention for his combo of power, speed and defense, as does Glasnow for his strong start and right-hander Yonny Chirinos for his strong fill-in work.
1. Lowe. 2. Pagan. 3. Diaz. 4. Garcia.
Brendan McKay joined the Angels’ Shohei Ohtani in the very select group of modern-day two-way players when he started on the mound June 29 and at DH on July 1. He also was the sixth player from the 2017 draft to reach the big leagues, and the sixth fastest in Rays history to go from draft to majors.
How about two-city teams?
The biggest news to date was the Rays announcing a plan to split future seasons between Tampa Bay and Montreal. There remain many questions, starting, of course, with whether it has any chance of actually happening, given myriad issues on multiple fronts.
The Rays said they had their reasons for acting on it now, tied to the timing of getting back to St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman with their plans, but in the past they’ve tried to do most (though not all) of their stadium-related business in the offseason.
Granted, many of their current players won’t be here when this might start in 2024, but to some degree, the Rays created a distraction of their own doing.
6 Team-record number of catchers used, and all by mid-May.
10 Consecutive seasons having a pitcher named to All-Star team.
11 Rookies used this season with the arrival of Ian Gibaut on Saturday, six of whom made their debut, including undrafted free agent Mike Brosseau.
14 Losses, of 39 overall, in which go-ahead run was scored in eighth inning or later.
15 Consecutive losses when scoring four or fewer runs, 33 overall in 47 games when doing so.
17 Players who have served 19 stints on the injured list.
24-22 Record at home, vs. 26-17 away.
28 Games started by an opener, with a 17-11 record.
5,786 Franchise-low announced attendance for May 28 game vs. Blue Jays.
The July 31 trade deadline is nearing, and the standings are relevant in two ways: Will Rays execs think they’re close enough to make it worth spending heavily, in money and/or prospects, to make significant upgrades, potentially needing relievers, a bat and maybe a starter? And which teams that have potential upgrades will feel they should sell, such as the Mets, with reliever Edwin Diaz, and, now less-likely, the Nationals, with Sean Doolittle? … Best guess right now on the Rays is an approach similar to 2017, making several modest additions (Steve Cishek, Lucas Duda, Dan Jennings, Sergio Romo) rather than bid for bigger names, such as Will Smith or ex-Ray Kirby Yates. Also a likely no, ex-Ray Alex Colome. For example, they’ve shown interest in Detroit’s Joe Jimenez more so than highly sought-after Shane Greene. … Does Lightning owner Jeff Vinik’s curious decision to take out $102 million in loans and mortgage the Amalie Arena lease as security quiet the chorus of fans who keep wishing aloud he would buy the Rays? … Though players appreciated the energy in the ballpark from the $2 ticket-inflated crowds, Pham said: “This is Major League Baseball; it shouldn’t be $2 to watch a game.’’ … Ex-Ray Wilson Ramos is falling out of favor with the Mets, with top starters Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard both preferring Tomas Nido as their personal catcher.
Contact Marc Topkin at mtopkin@firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.