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The tide is coming in and the Rays are struggling to stay afloat

John Romano | Should the Rays surrender prospects at the trade deadline, or hope to tread water until injured stars can return in September?
The Rays' Rene Pinto reacts after lining out against the Guardians during the second inning of Sunday's game at Tropicana Field.
The Rays' Rene Pinto reacts after lining out against the Guardians during the second inning of Sunday's game at Tropicana Field. [ CHRIS O'MEARA | AP ]
Published Jul. 31

ST. PETERSBURG — Officially, the regular season ends on Oct. 5. The way the Rays are going, it could end much, much sooner.

This team has found itself in a dangerous race against time, attrition and wild-card contenders. The Rays are like a NASCAR team gambling they can reach the checkered flag before running out of gas.

The hopeful outlook is they’ll be fine if they can just survive until September. Manuel Margot should be back by then. Maybe Wander Franco and Harold Ramirez, too. The pitching staff could also get reinforcements from among a half-dozen pitchers rehabbing on the 60-day injured list.

That version of the Rays? That could be a fun team to watch in the postseason.

The problem is the Rays may never get there. Not based on their current trajectory.

Since getting to the All-Star break on a roll at 51-41, the Rays have lost seven of 10 games and three consecutive series. They have been passed in the wild-card standings by the Mariners and Blue Jays and, after losing 5-3 to Cleveland on Sunday, are just 1 ½ games ahead of the Guardians.

It’s not quite a free fall, but it’s got that potential.

And that means the next couple of days could be pivotal in the direction of the season. With the trade deadline looming on Tuesday evening, the Rays have a Solomon-like decision.

Do you stand pat, and hope this lesser version of the team can stay in contention until the injured players start returning? Or do you spend some of your minor-league assets to bring in help?

“There is a reasonable chance that the September version of this club is really good,” general manager Peter Bendix said. “I don’t want to lose sight of that. But I also want to make sure that we don’t fall out of (contention) and be in a position where we have to come back in September.”

New Ray David Peralta celebrates with first base coach Chris Prieto  after his single off Guardians relief pitcher Trevor Stephan during the eighth inning Sunday.
New Ray David Peralta celebrates with first base coach Chris Prieto after his single off Guardians relief pitcher Trevor Stephan during the eighth inning Sunday. [ CHRIS O'MEARA | AP ]

If you’re looking for clues as to which direction the Rays are leaning, the acquisition of David Peralta on Saturday is a pretty good indicator.

That was a trade made entirely with the next two months in mind. Peralta is a free agent at the end of the season, so there are no guarantees he will help Tampa Bay beyond 2022. He was brought in to add an immediate kick in the rear to a lineup that had too many rookies and castoffs in everyday roles.

My guess is the Rays would like to make similar moves to bolster the starting rotation and the bullpen. The problem in this expanded playoff era is that too many teams are contenders, and everyone is looking for pitching. That has driven the price up to uncomfortable levels for the Rays.

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Given the number of injured pitchers they could get back by September — Nick Anderson, J.P. Feyereisen, Matt Wisler, JT Chargois, Yonny Chirinos and maybe even Tyler Glasnow — the Rays are not going to surrender any of their top prospects to bring in a pitcher simply to survive August.

“Pitching is so expensive. So expensive. And we’re not going to do something that we think is selling out,” Bendix said. “It doesn’t mean we’re not going to pay a high price if it comes to that. We traded Joe Ryan for Nelson Cruz (in 2021). We’re not afraid to do that. It just has to be the right deal.”

As rough as the last couple of months have been, it’s important to remember this was a dynamic team when the roster was intact. A bona fide World Series contender.

When both Franco and Brandon Lowe have been in the lineup, the Rays have a .633 winning percentage in 2022. Without one or the other, they have been a .486 team.

And that’s just the double-play combo. That has nothing to do with the injuries to Kevin Kiermaier, Mike Zunino, Margot, Ramirez, Feyereisen, Shane Baz and Andrew Kittredge.

So, yes, there is reason to be optimistic. Even as you watch the Rays get swept in Cincinnati and lose two out of three in Baltimore and three out of four in Kansas City.

Ace Shane McClanahan had an uncharacteristic poor outing Sunday in the loss to Cleveland.
Ace Shane McClanahan had an uncharacteristic poor outing Sunday in the loss to Cleveland. [ CHRIS O'MEARA | AP ]

Even as Shane McClanhan’s ERA went from 1.76 to 2.07 on Sunday and Corey Kluber’s has risen from 3.58 to 4.03 in his last three starts. Even as Randy Arozarena regresses from his rookie season and the bullpen struggles to hold leads.

The Rays have 27 games in August, and 20 are against teams that are currently .500 or below. It’s a survivable stretch of games, but not if the Rays continue playing the way they have the past two weeks.

Could they use some help at the trade deadline? Yes, they could.

Is it worth spending some of their most valuable minor league assets? We’re about to find out.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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