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“Second half” story lines to keep an eye on

Photo by Wayne Masut I The Scrum Sports

The Rays sit at 49-47 at the All Star break – an unprecedented record considering their 4-13 start to the 2018 season, injuries to their pitching staff, and off-season moves. They’re 8.5 games back of the final AL wild card. Only the Oakland A’s and Seattle Mariners are ahead of them. With 66 games remaining for the Rays can they make an even more incredible and miraculous playoff push? Will they be buyers or sellers at the deadline just a couple weeks away? Is Kevin Cash a “Manager of the Year” candidate?

I will tackle these questions and a few more as I give you my key story lines heading into the unofficial “second half” of the MLB season.

A case for Cash

Kevin Cash should be a consideration for AL Manager of the Year. Is he the best manager in the American League? I’m not sure I’d go that far. However, with every obstacle this Rays team has had thrown in front of them since spring training, he’s overcome virtually every one. Before the season even began he had injuries to Jose De Leon, Nathan Eovaldi, and Brent Honeywell. Thus throwing a wrench into the idea of a four-man rotation thought up in the spring. Then came “the opener” on May 19th. A decision to have a reliever “open” a ballgame and give way to either a starter or another three or four arms (sometimes more) out of the bullpen. Chris Archer and Jake Faria also landed on the DL. So did Anthony Banda. Denard Span, Brad Miller, and Alex Colome were traded early in the year. Kevin Kiermaier went on the DL again and has been hitting well under .200 all season. But it was the “opener” that stands out as arguably the best story in all of baseball in 2018.

Diamondbacks pitcher, Zack Greinke, called the Rays “opener” idea a “sideshow” and that it prevented pitchers from getting a payday.

Putting the last four-game series against the Twins aside – the Rays had the best pitching staff in all of baseball in just about every major category since the “opener” began. Looks like this “sideshow” is doing pretty okay.

The Rays were 13.5 games back of a playoff spot on June 16th. Exactly one month later they’ve made up five games. With over two months to play, that feat leads me to my next question…

Can the Rays make an improbably playoff run?

Let’s rewind to that magical 2011 season.

On September 1, 2011, the Rays sat 8.5 games back of the AL wild card. Remember, that was the final year before a second wild card was added. This year, they’re 8.5 games back of the second wild card which is currently held by the slumping Seattle Mariners.

Can magic strike twice?

With the A’s playing well and just three games back of Seattle, the Rays have to get some help. Especially considering those two teams also play in the same division.

The Rays have a key stretch coming up after the break. The Marlins come to town Friday through Sunday. Then the Yankees come to the Trop for three before the Rays head on the road to Baltimore. Tampa has won 11 of their last 12 at Tropicana Field so this six-game home stand against Miami and New York is crucial. The Orioles (28-69) are flat out bad. Where the Rays are at after that four-game set in Baltimore could determine how they position themselves for the final two months of the season. That 10-game stretch after the break could see them gain a couple games in the standings.

The Angels are on their heels and the two teams play three as the calendar turns to August in St. Pete.

So can it be done? Sure it can. But that 10-game stretch I spoke about above will determine how the trade deadline plays out for the Rays. They also have 66 games to make up 8.5 compared to the 26 games they had remaining on September 1, 2011. In case you forgot – the Rays made the playoffs in 2011.

Buyers or Sellers?

When the Rays began a franchise-worst 4-13 in April, no one thought this would be a question. Of course they’d be sellers come July. No doubt they’d clean house and look to the future.

That 4-13 start seems a distant memory as they now sit at 49-47 at the break. So let’s say they’re buyers. Let’s play that game for a minute.

Wilson Ramos is likely heading to the DL after the break. This has to hurt his attractiveness on the trade market considering it’s unknown just how much time he’ll miss. This, in a weird way, could be good news for the Rays. Losing your all-star catcher is never good news. However, it helps the chances that Ramos is around through the end of the year giving the front office more time to figure out how and if they want to try and keep him beyond 2018. What he’s done at the plate and for this pitching staff is priceless. It would be a huge cue if the brass can find a way to keep “The Buffalo,” playoffs or not. Where do they look to replace him becomes the newest question. Is prospect Nick Ciuffo ready for a shot? Is there anyone on the free agent wire who could be a rental? Jesus Sucre, despite a very good performance in the finale against the Twins, isn’t going to be the every day answer.

Eovaldi and shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria are likely gone by month’s end regardless of how the standings look. Both will most likely bring in key pieces or a playoff run this year and/or the future. Beyond that it’s anyone’s guess. Carlos Gomez has been heating up at the plate and could be traded. Possibly one of their young bullpen arms?

Are we finally seeing fatigue from the staff?

The vaunted pitching staff that has taken shape since May 19th had their worst stretch since that time. In the four games against the Twins, the staff gave up 33 runs and the Rays dropped the series three games to one despite their offense scoring 34 runs. Is this that fateful sign the arms are finally getting wore out? Could the “opener” idea be wearing thin?

It’s very likely the pitching staff is starting to feel it. However, with Faria due back by the end of the month, help is on the way. He won’t get a long leash at first, but he will certainly be able to slide back into the rotation and give the relievers some much needed relief. One could also make an argument that the offense is turning things around. That would obviously go hand in hand with how the pitching staff is used going forward. An early lead takes the pressure off the starter. A late lead dictates how the back end of the bullpen is utilized.

How good is Jake Bauers?

He’s real good.

Through just 36 games, Bauers has 5 HR, 18 RBI and a super impressive .864 OPS. An incredible 20 of his 33 hits this season have gone for extra bases (13 doubles, 2 triples, 5 HR). He’s walked 23 times in those games, good for fourth on the team. He’s played both corners of the outfield and first base.

Bauers is good. Real good.

Second half prediction

The Rays win 85 games, best finish under Cash, but miss the playoffs by four games. The future is as bright as it’s ever been. The front office extends the skipper another three years and fans have a lot to look forward to in 2019.

Bookmark this article. Screenshot it. Do whatever you must. But that’s how I see it playing out. No matter how it finishes, this has been a pretty exciting team to watch since mid-May and they truly don’t look like they’ll let up much the rest of the way.

RaysUp fans! Your boys aren’t quitting and neither should you.

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