Even With Injuries, Do Not Count Out Rays

The Tampa Bay Rays have a four-game lead in the American League East, having already surpassed their previous season-high of 70 wins. With Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria recently placed on the disabled list, however, the skeptics are surfacing on the airwaves, Internet and in print in full force. The Rays still have enough talent to win the division, says Tyler Hissey.

The Tampa Bay Rays have a four-game lead in the American League East, having already surpassed their previous season-high of 70 wins.

With Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria recently placed on the disabled list, however, the skeptics are surfacing on the airwaves, Internet and in print in full force.

Crawford broke his right wrist, possibly forcing him to miss the remainder of the season.

Longoria fractured his wrist after getting struck with a J.J. Putz pitch this weekend against the Seattle Mariners, forcing him to join his teammate on the DL, retroactive to Friday.

While it is true that the Rays had a tough battled ahead of themselves even before the injury bug struck, do not expect this club to roll over and die. So, hold off on the J.J. bleeping Putz cries for the time being, because Tampa Bay will remain in the hunt down to the end.

Crawford is perhaps the most popular player in the history of the franchise, a two-time All-Star and a perennial threat to swipe 50 bases. Regardless, it will not be difficult to replace his performance offensively, as crazy as it sounds. The speedy left fielder has struggled through one of the worst seasons of his career, batting .273/.319/.400. Although he put together a nifty little 11-game hitting streak before the injury, a .718 OPS just does not cut it at a position, left field, which is not all that demanding defensively.

It will be difficult to replace the speed that Crawford brings to the table, but his poor on-base percentage has not allowed him to take full advantage of it yet. Hence the low—for him, at least—stolen base total. Eric Hinske, Justin Ruggiano, called up in aftermath of the news, or any other option should not be that much of a drop off production wise.

Perhaps this will situation will finally provide a real opportunity for Ruggiano, who is labeled by some scouts as a AAAA player but has put up solid statistics at each level in the minors. He was batting .315/.374/.537 with 11 home runs and 51 RBIs for Triple-A Durham at the time of the promotion.

The real hole created by losing Crawford has more to do with his defense in left field, as he has tremendous range and great instincts. He has registered the best range factor and zone rating at his position in the majors, roaming the gaps in left center with grace. Along with B.J. Upton, who has tremendous range in center field, he has helped steal his fair share of doubles by making highlight-reel plays.

The loss of Longoria hurts a lot more, of course. The rookie third baseman has undoubtedly been the Rays' most valuable position player, posting a line of .278/.352/.533 while playing tremendous defense at the hot corner. He has already broke Jonny Gomes' single-season record for most homers for a rookie by hitting his 22nd bomb before getting hurt, was elected to the All-Star team and is the favorite to win AL Rookie of the Year.

Longoria has also provided enough walk-off hits to make David Ortiz jealous. He truly has helped carry an offense that has had its fair share of struggles.

Thus, the Rays are going to have a difficult time replacing him with a combination of Willy Aybar and Ben Zobrist, who will see the majority of the innings at third base while the star rookie is sidelined (expected to be at least three weeks). Clearly, then, the loss of Longoria came did not come at a great time.

However, Tampa Bay has gotten to this point by relying on its excellent pitching and defense. When a team builds its success on these two pillars, it takes a lot for the house of cards to come piling down. With an improved bullpen, a talented young starting rotation and one of the majors' best team defenses—having converted 71.7 percent of balls put into play into outs, second-best total in baseball—the Rays have been excellent at run prevention.

While the defense will take a hit with the loss of Crawford and Longoria, it will still be an area of strength down the stretch.

Pitching-wise, Andrew Friedman made another nice pick-up on the waiver wire, acquiring ground-ball specialist Chad Bradford from the Baltimore Orioles. Bradford does not strike out a lot hitters, but has posted the premier ground-ball ratio in the league and a 2.34 ERA in 42.1 innings pitched. For a bullpen predominantly consisting of pitchers prone to giving up the long ball, he has helped diversify the Rays' relief corps—which has seen the emergence of Grant Balfour— tremendously.

Not to mention, Tampa Bay has a secret weapon, top prospect David Price, waiting in the wings down in the minors. Price, the number one overall pick out of Vanderbilt University in the 2007 First-Year draft, is 11-0 with a 1.87 ERA and 92-to-23 K/W ratio in 15 starts combined between Single-A Vero Beach and Double-A Montgomery. The 22-year-old southpaw, who has a mid-90s fastball, excellent pitching sense and tremendous command, will make his Triple-A debut on Wednesday night for Durham.

Most likely, Price will come up to fill a relief role, adding a power arm out of the bullpen—reminiscent of Joba Chamberlain for the New York Yankees last summer—while limiting his innings. There is still an outside chance that he may crack the starting rotation upon his debut, moving either Edwin Jackson or Andy Sonnanstine to a new role. Either way, the 22-year-old southpaw will impact the East race somehow, perhaps providing a necessary turbo boost as the Rays near the finish line.

There is void in the lineup for the time being in the absence of Longoria, the team leader in home runs and RBIs who will miss roughly around 80 plate appearances. Still, the Rays rank 10th in the league in runs scored, with several key players having down campaigns with the stick who should pick it up the rest of the way.

Carlos Pena (AP)

The perfect example is Carlos Pena, who hit 46 homers and finished second in the AL with a 1.038 OPS to win Comeback Player of the Year in 2007. Pena, signed to a three-year, $24.125-million contract before spring training, has struggled through an injury-plagued, unproductive campaign. He has been hot of late, though, posting a 1.019 OPS with seven home runs in 80 at-bats since the All-Star break. A Gold Glover-caliber first baseman, he is batting .391/.545/.826 in his past seven games. Look for him to carry the load down the stretch.

Then there is Rocco Baldelli, who looked good in his debut against Seattle on Sunday afternoon. While a rare mitochondrial disorder will limit Baldelli from playing regularly, he has a chance to add a nice boost as well. The former star, who was once compared by a scout to Joe DiMaggio, still has a nice set of skills and will see some innings at DH and in right field.

Baldelli, who went 1-for-4 with an RBI in his debut, posted a .977 OPS in 13 games with Montgomery in the Southern League while on a rehab assignment.

Even if Baldelli does not add any real value, Crawford does miss the remainder of the season and Longoria is out for longer than expected, the Rays are built to last. There is a lot of baseball left to be played, for sure. Plus, Tampa Bay has a tough September schedule, featuring several important division games on the road, where it has struggled.

Regardless, the once-lowly Devil Rays have enough talent to win the division if the pitching holds. Even if Boston does take home the division crown, though, Tampa Bay also has the inside track at the Wild Card, as New York is now eight games back.

The injury bug struck at the wrong time, but the Rays have what it takes to survive the unfortunate circumstances. Do not begin to doubt them now.

To reach Tyler Hissey, send an email to TylerHissey@gmail.com.

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