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Five keys to determine where Rays’ season ends up

Rays Tales | Health is a big factor but so are cleaning up their play, making trades and limiting workloads.
The Rays celebrate beating the A's on Manuel Margot's walkoff RBI single in the 10th on April 12.
The Rays celebrate beating the A's on Manuel Margot's walkoff RBI single in the 10th on April 12. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Jul. 9|Updated Jul. 10

CINCINNATI — While Rays players and team officials were pleased with some aspects of how they played in the first 81 games of the season, there seems to be a general acceptance they are going to have to do better the rest of the way if they want to play in the postseason.

“I think that you can probably ask everybody in here and I don’t think we feel like we’ve played our best yet,’’ veteran starter Corey Kluber said. “That being said, I think for not feeling like you’ve played your best, we’re not in a bad spot.’’

The Rays, for the most part, have pitched very well. They have been wildly inconsistent offensively. They have been uncharacteristically sloppy, to put it extremely politely, on defense and even more so on the bases. They have had to deal with an excessive number of injuries that led to extended absences for key players, and their youth showed as the team turned to inexperienced players to fill in.

While they are expecting Brandon Lowe, Pete Fairbanks and JP Feyereisen back after the All-Star break, they on Saturday lost Wander Franco, for potentially six-eight weeks, and Kevin Kiermaier to injury.

“I don’t think that anybody’s just sitting back and waiting and saying, ‘Oh, we’re going to play better,’ ‘’ Kluber said. “I think guys are working at it, grinding away, trying to make improvements. And hopefully getting some big pieces back before too long will assist in that as well.’’

Manager Kevin Cash takes a fairly balanced view of their 44-37 showing through Tuesday, which had them 14 games behind the American League East-leading Yankees but sitting in the middle of the three-team wild-card field between the Red Sox and Blue Jays, though on pace for just 88 wins.

“We’ve got some things that we’ve done really well,’’ he said. “We’ve got some things that we can work on. We’re getting a lot of good reps and experience for some young players. Saying that, we’ll welcome the hurt guys to get healthy and get back.’’

Here are five key factors that will shape the Rays’ path over the remainder of the season:

Medical matters

Rays outfielder Brett Phillps, left, looks on as manager Kevin Cash, right, consoles Manuel Margot after he crashed into the outfield wall chasing ball hit by the Yankees' Aaron Hicks during the ninth inning on June 20.
Rays outfielder Brett Phillps, left, looks on as manager Kevin Cash, right, consoles Manuel Margot after he crashed into the outfield wall chasing ball hit by the Yankees' Aaron Hicks during the ninth inning on June 20. [ STEVE NESIUS | AP ]

The Rays were figuring just simple luck had to be in their favor to stay healthier in the second half, and then Franco and Kiermaier got hurt.

They have played extended periods without their top two sluggers, Brandon Lowe and Mike Zunino, and two of their best all-around players, Manuel Margot and Franco (who had just returned to action from injury June 26). Two other regulars, Ji-Man Choi and Kiermaier, have missed time previously, as has backup catcher Francisco Mejia (COVID-19).

They also have been without three of their top high-leverage relievers — Fairbanks, Feyereisen and Andrew Kittredge — and, at times, four projected members of their rotation: Shane Baz, Luis Patino, Drew Rasmussen and Ryan Yarbrough.

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Lowe, who was hit in the helmet Thursday during his first rehab game, and Fairbanks seem on track to return right after the upcoming All-Star break, and the team hopes to see Feyereisen sometime in August. Patino is due back relatively soon; the other three starters already returned (and Yarbrough was sent to Triple-A Durham.) Margot could be back late-season while Zunino’s return seems uncertain. Kittredge is done for the year.

Cleanup in the Rays’ aisle

The Rays' Randy Arozarena awaits a replay review of his slide into second base against the Red Sox on April 24. He was called out.
The Rays' Randy Arozarena awaits a replay review of his slide into second base against the Red Sox on April 24. He was called out. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

The Rays have been surprisingly bad on defense and baserunning. The net result is a costly loss of outs — not getting ones they should on defense and giving them away on the bases.

Despite some odd occurrences, such as three straight games with an elite outfielder (Kiermaier, Margot, Brett Phillips) dropping fly balls and the reality of 46 errors and 48 unearned runs in the 81 games, the Rays actually have tightened things up in the field, to some degree.

Illustrative of why that matters: They were 31-17 when error-free, 13-20 when making at least one.

Their life on the bases, however, remains an adventure.

“We’ve just got to get better,’’ Cash has said repeatedly.

Their 40 outs on the bases — which doesn’t include caught stealings, pickoffs and force plays — were by far the most in the majors. Yandy Diaz had nine, second most of any player; Randy Arozarena eight; and Kiermaier six.

Then you can add in a majors-most 22 caught stealings (including an MLB-high seven by Arozarena), which definitely offsets some benefit of their 56 stolen bases.

It’s all about the positioning

Cubs catcher Willson Contreras yells after hitting a grand slam during the first inning against the Pirates on May 16, 2022, at Wrigley Field.
Cubs catcher Willson Contreras yells after hitting a grand slam during the first inning against the Pirates on May 16, 2022, at Wrigley Field. [ ARMANDO L. SANCHEZ | Chicago Tribune ]

Besides getting better and getting healthier, the Rays can also improve their postseason chances and positioning by getting help.

How active they are leading up to the Aug. 2 trade deadline, and what shelves they are shopping on, will be determined over the next three weeks by the look of the standings and progress of their younger players.

Barring a remarkable collapse by the Yankees, the Rays, nor anyone else, will win the American League East and get the first-round bye that will come with it in the new playoff format.

So that calculus becomes how aggressive to be in the trade market to improve the chances of winning one of the three wild-card spots. And then to be the top wild card (thus a No. 4 seed) and play the entire best-of-three first round at home against the second-best wild card. (The division champ with the worst record is the No. 3 seed and hosts the last wild card in the other first-round matchup.)

Some of this is in the Rays’ control, especially since they are currently jockeying with AL East foes Boston (whom they play 13 more times, including four starting Monday) and Toronto (11 more). But also whether teams such as the Mariners, Indians, White Sox and even Orioles and Rangers stay in the race.

What do the Rays need most?

Adding offense at catcher seems the biggest improvement they could make, as Zunino’s chances to return (much less return to form) don’t seem encouraging.

They made a small move in that direction Saturday, acquiring Oakland backup Christian Bethancourt. Given the upside of only improving their wild-card seeding, the Rays don’t seem likely to give up much to get a frontline catcher and would continue to value defense.

In other words, they will keep talking to the Cubs, but don’t expect to see Willson Contreras walking in the door. A’s starter Sean Murphy might be worth pursuing, or maybe one of the Brewers’ catchers, Victor Caratini or Omar Narvaez.

The play of youngsters such as Josh Lowe, Isaac Paredes, Taylor Walls is also a factor, as the Rays get a better sense whom they can count on down the stretch. The same, too, with Harold Ramirez.

For example, if Lowe continues to struggle at the plate, they might be better off getting a veteran lefty-swinging outfielder such as Andrew Benintendi or David Peralta.

Or maybe they just add a veteran hitter who can rotate into the lineup and provide some leadership. Nelson Cruz, part II? Tommy Pham? Also, given some uncertainty over Feyereisen’s return, adding another reliever with high-leverage experience might be a good idea.

And because they’re the Rays, there is always the chance for a surprise, trading a prospect who seems to have a future role (Vidal Brujan?) or getting a jump on their offseason work and dealing a veteran whose salary is rising. (Yandy Diaz? Choi?)

And while they like to try to preempt the market, this might be a year when they go right up to the deadline in calculating what best to do.

Getting offensive

Ji-Man Choi (26) and Yandy Diaz (2) are congratulated after scoring on a double by Randy Arozarena against the Red Sox on July 6.
Ji-Man Choi (26) and Yandy Diaz (2) are congratulated after scoring on a double by Randy Arozarena against the Red Sox on July 6. [ MARY SCHWALM | AP ]

The offense has shown some spark recently, but the down stretches have been brutal.

Enough so that they had their worst showing through 81 games in franchise history — including some of those bedeviled early teams — in OPS (.680) and their third-worst batting average (.237).

Comparatively, they rank in the bottom six of the AL in most key offensive categories. Their dropoff from 5.29 to 4.11 runs per game was the second largest in the majors (after Oakland), and their fall from 1.37 to 0.94 homers per game the fifth-most.

The past week has been encouraging, as they scored 32 runs and rapped 52 hits in the final five games to get to the halfway point, and, they hope, maybe the start of something.

“We’re taking those baby steps to getting back locked in,’’ Kiermaier said. “We’re starting to get our juju back or our swag back, whatever you want to call it. We’re showing up, and I feel like our confidence is raising slowly but surely, and that’s what you need in this game to succeed. One through nine I feel like we’re starting to look like our old selves again, and hopefully we can just continue that trend.’’

Pitching limits

Drew Rasmussen warms up in the bullpen ahead of a game against the Brewers on June 29.
Drew Rasmussen warms up in the bullpen ahead of a game against the Brewers on June 29. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

That the Rays pitched as well as they did in the first half, ranking fourth in the majors with a 3.32 ERA overall and No. 1 since May 11 at 3.01 despite all the injuries, was impressive. A testament to the pitchers, the depth they had with the replacements and the handling of the staff.

But, there might soon be come changes.

As badly as the Rays want to win this season (or any season), they also have to keep an eye on the future, and the health of their starters, which might mean finding ways to limit their workloads, as some are tracking toward recent or career highs. How far they are allowed past those marks is the question.

Drew Rasmussen, who has had two Tommy John surgeries, is probably being watched most closely.

Having missed 2½ weeks with a hamstring injury, he after Saturday’s start has thrown 66⅔ innings; his most in any pro season is 87⅔. A move back to the bullpen is one way to limit his workload.

Jeffrey Springs, whose May move into the rotation has been one of their most pleasant surprises, could be in a similar situation either shut down for stretch or moved to the ‘pen. He has already thrown 64 innings, his most in the majors in any season, and his most since 88⅔ in 2018.

Ace Shane McClanahan and Kluber will be monitored and could be given some extra rest. McClanahan has thrown 104⅓ innings; his career most is 123⅓. Kluber has thrown 82, soon to pass his 2021 total of 88, which was his most since 215 in 2018.

Some of the relievers also will be watched; Colin Poche (26 innings) and Jalen Beeks (35⅓) both returned after missing all of last year and some of 2020; Jason Adam’s 33⅓ innings are his most in the majors in a season, and he soon will have his heftiest workload since 2018.

Rays rumblings

Isaac Paredes celebrates his home run against the Yankees on June 22.
Isaac Paredes celebrates his home run against the Yankees on June 22. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

After Paredes’ three-run homer in the July 2 doubleheader, Toronto TV caught someone around the Rays dugout yelling that the Tigers, who traded him to the Rays, were (adjective) “idiots.” ... Kluber reaches the 10-year service time milestone Wednesday. ... One interesting name on the trade market — 2018 AL Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell, whom the Padres got from the Rays in December 2020. … Cash’s Thursday’s off-day? Catching up on episodes of “The Offer,” a series on the making of “The Godfather” recommended by team president Matt Silverman. … Latest mock drafts from mlb.com and Baseball America have the Rays taking Reno (Nev.) prep lefty Robby Snelling with the No. 29 pick on July 17. ESPN has them selecting South Carolina high school third baseman Tucker Toman. ... Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports and The Athletic wants to see Clayton Kershaw and Shohei Ohtani as All-Star starters, writing but that “would be better TV than the Marlins’ Sandy Alcantara vs. the Rays’ Shane McClanahan or any other matchup of more “deserving” starters.’’ ... Chris Archer, who worked with Jim Hickey and Kyle Snyder in Tampa Bay, called Wes Johnson, who recently left the Twins, “the best pitching coach I’ve ever had, top to bottom.” ... McClanahan was named the first-half Cy Young winner by The Athletic’s Jayson Stark. ... Josh Fleming didn’t just change his look by getting his long hair cut off: “Got a new phone that day, too. I had an iPhone 7 that I was rocking with since 2016.’’ And, channeling “The Office” TV show, he said he wasn’t concerned about bad vibes of trimming his long locks: “I’m not superstitious. Like Michael Scott, I’m a little ‘stitious’ but not crazy.’’ ... Baseball America named Double-A pitcher Taj Bradley the Rays’ midseason minor-league player of the year.

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