Sunday, May 15, 2011

How Are They Doing It? The Rays Are in First Place

The off season was not friendly to the Tampa Bay Rays, other teams in the league raided Tampa Bay's roster, taking away almost half of their players via trades and free agency. Boston signed star outfielder Carlos Crawford away from the Rays; Detroit signed away Joaquin Benoit and the Yankees took Rafael Soriano. To combat the flood of players exiting Tampa Bay the Rays signed free agents Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez. But less than one month into the season, Ramirez announced his immediate retirement, leaving the Rays once again in roster trouble.

Expectations for the Rays were low to begin the season, analysts harped on the exodus of players from their ranks in the off season placing them to finish in the middle of the pack in the American League East. The Rays lived up to expectations to begin the season, losing their first six games of the year. After dropping to last place in the division, things changed, since the first week of the year the Rays have had the best record in all of baseball.

Behind the arms of their two best starters David Price and James Shields the Rays have been able to rely on pitching ability to overcome the offensive struggles that accompany a shifting roster. With the retirement of Ramirez, Evan Longoria lost his protection in the lineup, leading him to push and ultimately land on the 15-day disabled list. With arguably their best player on the DL the Rays once again had to find a way to win with the cards they had been dealt.

As is the case on teams with uncertain lineups several young players, as well as some previously silent veterans, have stepped into the spotlight for the Rays to help propel them to first place in the division. Outfielder Sam Fuld has taken to his new place on the team, he was brought in to help replace some of the talent that was lost, mainly Crawford, and he has performed impressively.

At first Fuld made his mark with his bat, racking up 13-RBI and a .293 on-base-percentage before the Rays realized what his real calling card was; his glove. To date, Fuld's defensive abilities have saved 9 runs from scoring. Crawford averaged 17 saved runs per season, with the start that Fuld has had he is on pace to well surpass that number.

He was a toss-in piece in the Matt Garza to Chicago trade in the off season, and he has already endeared himself to Rays fans, or at least the ones that show up. As his offensive numbers continue to dip he will have to lean heavily on his defensive skills, and from what he's shown they are more than able to keep him in the majors.

Second baseman Ben Zobrist has stepped up his game this season, putting up great offensive numbers including a 10-RBI day, between both games of a double-header. While racking up eight home runs and 27 RBI's, Zobrist has recorded a .288 batting average on the year.  

With a combination of a strong top of the rotation and contributions from young players like Fuld and veterans like Damon and Ben Zobrist, the Rays are beating all odds and sitting atop the American League East. With one of the smallest payrolls in the majors the Rays are beating out the $300 million New York Yankees for the division title. 

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