Following a Memorial Day victory over the Texas Rangers on Monday, the Tampa Bay Rays have the best record in all of Major League Baseball. Read that sentence again, if you must, but
The Rays' in-state rival, the Florida Marlins, are off to an excellent start as well, currently sitting atop the National League East standings. Victorious over the floundering New York Mets on Monday, Florida improved its record to 30-20 overall, increasing its division lead to 2.5 games. The exceptional baseball being played in the Sunshine State, given each team's low payroll, has been a surprise to many—not too long ago, in fact, several Internet baseball writers even wondered if an All-Florida team (combining the two rosters) could compete in the American League East. While we are not ever in June yet, the state's lock on the East standings has led to one of the most commonly asked baseball-related questions on sports talk radio throughout the young season: Can the Marlins and Rays—or even one of the two teams—maintain their current level of success over a full season, and which team is more likely to do so?
While there are arguments to be made on both sides of the equation, the Marlins are less likely to stay in the division race as the season progresses, in my opinion. In fact, it is safe to say,
The performance of second baseman Dan Uggla is perhaps the biggest reason why. Uggla, a former Rule V pick, is emerging as one of the best young power hitters in the game, and—even with the recent offensive dominance of Lance Berkman and Chipper Jones—appears to have a lock on National League Player of the Month for May. Overall, he is leading his team in all Triple Crown categories, hitting .319/.400/.698 with 16 home runs—tied with Berkman for most in the majors—and 38 RBIs. As outlandish as it sounds, he is even giving Chase Ultey a run for his money in the battle for the game's most prolific offensive second baseman, registering an OPS of 1.098, the fourth-highest total in all of baseball.
Uggla is locked in at the plate, and his power is for real. In his previous two seasons at this level, however, he has yet to post an on-base percentage above .340, a direct result of his inability to get on base via the walk. Plus, he is also currently among league leaders in another statistic: strikeouts, 53, in 182 at-bats, compared to just 23 walks. Without question, Uggla will end up with some pretty lofty power totals at the end of the season, especially given his position, but expect him to regress a little bit from the high level of performance he has set for himself through May 26.
And then there is Hanley Ramirez, whom the Marlins signed to a long-term contract extension last week, and is undoubtedly one of the most exciting young offensive players in the game today. Despite some recent struggles, Ramirez has produced an .889 OPS, hitting .300/.389/.500 with nine home runs. From the leadoff spot, he has scored 41 runs, putting him well on pace to score 110-plus runs for the third consecutive year. First baseman Mike Jacobs has 11 home runs as well, and sits second on the team with 29 RBIs and a .583 slugging percentage. Jorge Cantu, the former Ray, is off to a decent start in his own right, fulfilling the third spot in
Also factoring into the team's fast start, a new offensive hero—frequent pinch-hitter Wes Helms has been a great acquisition, solely for this reason—seems to emerge every night in the team's improbable run to the top of the National League.
Hitting is something that comes and goes, though, and with Cantu hitting in the most important spot in the lineup, how long can the Marlins realistically keep it up? The bats, of course, are more likely to cool off, going into a slump, than defense or pitching. Ironically, these areas of the game have factored mightily into the Rays' consistent winning.
Thus, when the Marlins' lineup starts to slump—and, trust me, it will—there are three factors that will prevent the franchise from staying in the playoff hunt.
First and foremost, the competition in their division will not make it any easier for the Marlins over the remainder of the season. If the Atlanta Braves can find a way to win on the road, the Mets, with manager Willie Randolph as their clubhouse leader or not, can get on track and the Philadelphia Phillies continue to play well, the National League East will perhaps end up as the toughest division in baseball.
Making matters worse,
Obviously, when predicting a team's future success, the effectiveness of its starting rotation is one of the first areas that should be looked at. And when looking into the Marlins' prospects as the summer months turn to fall, it is hard to ignore the club's team ERA of 4.21, which is good for 16th in the majors. Just as damaging, their in-division rivals, the Braves, Phillies and Mets, are all ranked ahead of them in this category as well.
Florida, though, does have an excellent bullpen, which, like the Rays', is one of its biggest areas of strength. It starts at the top with their reliable closer—even if it is one of the most fungible roles on a roster—in Kevin Gregg. Gregg, who came out of nowhere in 2007 to save 32 games, is 10-for-11 in save chances this year.
A questionable starting rotation, on the other hand, is the Marlins' Achilles heel. Starting pitching was expected to be an area of future strength down in Miami during a 2006 season in which Anibal Sanchez became the youngest pitcher to toss a no-hitter in franchise history, but is now filled with question marks.
Let us put it into perspective.
Mark Hendrickson took the ball for
Johan Santana took the mound for
Enough said? Hardly, but, while Hendrickson has been effective—7-2 record, 1.41 WHIP—he will most likely come back down to earth in the near future. Even with his alleged success, his ERA is plus-4.00 while opponents have produced an OPS of .719 against him. Hendrickson, who once played in the N.B.A., is clearly not an ace, and never will be. When compared to the plethora of talented starters in the division, from Cole Hamels to the up-and-coming Jair Jurrgens, it is not a good sign for a team when someone the like of Hendrickson is at the top of its starting rotation.
Andrew Miller threw the ball well in his last start, shutting out the Arizona Diamondbacks in the Marlins' 4-0 victory on May 22. Miller, whom the Marlins acquired in the blockbuster trade with the Detroit Tigers this offseason, effectively commanded his pitches for one of the first times at this level, striking out nine while scattering only five hits. On display that night was the pure stuff which has pushed him to the top of nearly every minor-league top-prospect list since he was drafted out of the
What separates the Marlins and Rays is depth of starting pitching. The Rays' starting rotation is among the best in the American League, as weird as it sounds. While the Marlins lack a true number one pitcher, a stopper, the Rays, one could argue, have two: Scott Kazmir, 3-1, 1.55 ERA, and James Shields, 4-3, 3.78 ERA.
Kazmir is one of the best lefties in all of baseball. After missing the season's first few weeks it now appears as if the 23-year-old has put to rest any concerns about the left elbow strain he sustained at the end of March, stringing together four consecutive quality starts and wins—including another 10-strikeout performance against Texas last night. His outing on Monday, for example, illustrates his ability to dominate an opposing lineup when he has command over his pitches, as he scattered three hits while allowing just an earned run in seven stellar innings. The American League strikeout champion in 2007, he is now averaging 8.61 strikeouts per nine innings through his first five starts. If he can remain healthy, Kazmir, along with Shields, will provide the Rays with one of the strongest 1-2 pitching tandems in the major leagues.
Shields has pitched better than his record indicates, limiting opponents to a .246 batting average in a team-best 74.2 innings pitched. Dominant at home—much like the Rays, who are 21-8 in the friendly confines of Tropicana Field—his one-hit shutout against the Los Angeles Angles on May 9 is easily the greatest pitching performance in franchise history. Shields' 1.14 WHIP and 52/16 strikeout-to-walk ratio, however, are perhaps the strongest indicators of how effective he has actually been. In addition, he ranks 10th in opponents' OPS (.667) among starters who have pitched at least 60.0 innings.
Matt Garza is starting to pitch better as well, though he needs to limit his walk totals, which have hurt him severely so far this year. When he works ahead of hitters, Garza is a completely different pitcher, though, making the decision to deal troubled outfielder Delmon Young to the Minnesota Twins seem like a no-brainer. Although he has struggled at times, mostly when he falls behind hitters, and has battled through a few injuries, the Marlins would love to be able to run him out on the mound every fifth day. Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year only two years ago, he has the pure ability to make an impact as a starting pitcher at this level for a long time. Still, he needs to improve upon a 19-to-20 K/BB ratio for this to happen in the short term.
Edwin Jackson has lights-out stuff, but has never lived up to his tremendous potential. Although he has received poor run support so far, this is perhaps the year
Percival has been of the game's top closers, registering 14 saves in 16 chances. In addition to serving as a mentor to several of the Rays' younger pitchers, he has posted a 2.61 ERA and staff-best .061 WHIP in 20.2 innings. He also sits third among all closers in opponents' OPS (.477), as batters are only hitting at a .125 clip against him so far this spring.
J.P. Howell and Dan Wheeler have established themselves as reliable weapons for Maddon in the late innings, too. Howell, without an overpowering fastball, has posted a 7.67 strikeout-per-nine-innings ratio, among the highest totals of any long reliever in baseball. The former starter, who appears to have finally found his niche at this level, has struck out 27 in 31.2 innings, opposed to 12 walks allowed, registering a 1.04 WHIP and 2.56 ERA.
And then there is the Rays' team defense, which is among the best in the American League. The Rays, in fact, have the highest defensive efficiency rating--the rate at which balls hit into play are converted into outs--in all of baseball. Evan Longoria looks like a seasoned veteran at the hot corner, blending above-average range with a plus throwing arm. Longoria, perhaps the favorite for American League Rookie of the Year, has struggled at the plate, but has made quite the impression on manager Joe Maddon and his teammates with his outstanding defense. In fact, he has registered the second-highest fielding percentage (.982) for a third baseman in the American League. Equally impressive, his 2.76 range factor and .788 zone rating are also among the top of league leaders at his position.
Jason Bartlett has played exceptional defense for the Rays at shortstop, a position which has consistently caused headaches for Rays' fans and pitchers alike over the years. Bartlett, one of many regulars whom have yet to come around at the plate, has shored up the team's defense up the middle, registering the seventh-highest range factor (4.68) in the majors, fifth in the
B.J. Upton adds a whole other dimension in center field to improve team defense up the middle as well, bringing down balls most outfielders cannot even get to. Likewise for Carl Crawford, who covers as much ground as any left fielder in the game. Crawford, in fact, has the highest range factor (2.33) of any corner outfielder while ranking third in zone rating (.916) at his position. And, and as a regular on the "Web Gems" portion of Baseball Tonight, it is a shame he does not get any style points.
Unlike the Marlins, the Rays have yet to score runs at their maximum capability. Carlos Pena, after continuing to kill the Baltimore Orioles this weekend, is finally starting to get on base with as much efficiency and drive the ball as force as much as last season, when he shattered the franchise single-season home run record, blasting 46 balls into the seats.
Every night it has been a different guy leading the offensive attack for
Still, I think the
Do you agree? Vote in our message boards.
Rookie of the Year Watch: Longoria, despite his recent struggles at the plate, is perhaps the favorite for to take home top-rookie honors in the American League at this point. Defensive performance aside, he is leading all
Incredibly, though, it appears as if the Rangers got the better end of what looks to be an even deal for both parties involved. In one of the most amazing journeys to stardom baseball has ever seen,
Still, the Rays made the right decision, given the circumstances at the time. If
Hellickson Off To Good Start: Jeremy Hellickson has been dominant for the Vero Beach Devil Rays. Through his latest start on Sunday, Hellickson is 5-0 with a 2.22 ERA in 56.2 innings pitched over nine starts. Before his latest two outings, the 21-year-old right-hander had not allowed more than two earned runs in his first eight appearances. Most impressive, though, is his outstanding K/BB ratio, 64-to-4. No, that is not a typo.
Niemann Gets Second Win: Jeff Niemann picked up his second win in the International League on Monday, allowing one unearned run on four hits in five solid innings in the Durham Bulls' 7-1 victory over
Down on the Farm Notes: Since clearing waivers and reporting to Durham, 1B/OF Dan Johnson has swung the bat well, hitting to the tune of .311/.425/.553 with six home runs and 23 RBIs in 30 games for the Bulls. Johnson, whom the Rays acquired from the Oakland Athletics during the Disney series in April, was designated for assignment on April 23, just a day after he was added to the club's 25-man roster. Justin Ruggiano, another outfielder who spent some time with the big-league squad earlier this spring, is also raking for the Bulls. Ruggiano is hitting .330/.397/.553 with four homers in 28 games. Shortstop Reid Brignac is second on the Bulls with 40 strikeouts, and has only walked eight times while posting a line of .286/.310/.486 over 175 at-bats. Brignac, considered as one of the best defensive infielders in the International League, has hit five homers, though, and is tied for second on the team with 25 RBIs.
Draft Live Blog: Come draft day, I will post frequent updates using the CoverItLive live blog application. Tune in to participate in the conversation.
Radio Appearance May 31: On Saturday, May 31, Rays Digest writer Tyler Hissey will make an appearance on Sarasota Sunny 1220 talk radio to discuss the Tampa Bay Rays' hot start. Hissey will make his case for why the the first-place Rays have a better chance of staying in contention than their in-state counterparts, appearing on Sports Café with Sean Duade at 3:40. Click here to listen live.
To reach Tyler Hissey, send an email to TylerHissey@gmail.com.