The Tampa Bay Rays find themselves at something of a crossroads in the month of July, thanks to an American League East-heavy schedule and the upcoming trade deadline. Starting tomorrow, they will have 11 straight games against the two teams ahead of them in the division, with eight against the New York Yankees and three against the Wild Card-leading Boston Red Sox. As much as a season can be won or lost on the strength of two weeks, the Rays' direction for the rest of the year may hinge on their performance against their rivals.
Tampa Bay is currently five games back of New York and 3.5 behind Boston. Neither lead is insurmountable, but stumbling against New York in head-to-head match-ups would widen the deficit to a point where it would be difficult to return from. If the Rays earned a split with the Yankees in the two series, they would not have lost or gained any ground, but they would be down eight opportunities to gain direct ground on New York as well. If they lost something like six of eight, they would drop four more games in the standings - a nine game lead can also be overcome, but in this division, it is asking a lot.
That doesn't even include if they lost the series to Boston as well, or if Boston played well during the nights that the Rays and Yanks faced off, gaining ground on Tampa Bay due to New York's success. You can see where things could get out of hand quickly for the Rays.
Of course, that is all assuming the worst. This could also very well be the three series they need to get right back in the thick of things in the east. David didn't have to fend off two Goliaths at once, but if Andrew Friedman had been planning his battle strategy, you would think twice before betting on the pair of giants.
General Manager Friedman will have a series of decisions to make depending on the outcome of these three series. If the Rays close the current gap in the east over the next two weeks, Friedman will have to balance the needs of 2011 with the needs of 2012 at the trade deadline. Losing would make things easier on him, as the Rays, who won't be outright sellers as a competitive team, could do a lot more selling to improve next year's roster. Either way, the team that takes the field on August 1 will likely look different than the one we'll see playing the Yanks and Sox.
Tampa Bay could use an upgrade at first base regardless of whether they win or lose their next three series. If you believe Casey Kotchman will keep up his .336/.393/.454 line in the second half, then there is a Mr. Friedman on the phone for you, and he would like to talk about your prospects. This is the same Kotchman who owns a .254/.316/.378 line from 2008 through 2010, and is with his fifth organization in four years. He wasn't considered this good a hitter when it was thought he would be a decent player, and it wouldn't be a shock to see him hit along the lines of his rest of his season ZiPS projection from here on out (.286/.348/.417). That would put him well below the average at first base, and no one's defense, at the position, no matter how good, can make up for that kind of line.
The other positions are a bit murkier, as they hinge more on how the Rays perform in this all-important stretch. Johnny Damon could be moved at the deadline, according to Ken Davidoff, and his bat would be of use to a few teams. American League left fielders are hitting .244/.305/.373, while Damon is at .279/.323/.423 despite hitting in a park that favors pitchers more than hitters. Damon is closer to average in the NL, and wouldn't be able to pick up at-bats as a DH there, but someone may have a use for him down the stretch, especially since he is only owed the remainder of a one-year, $5.25 million deal.
B.J. Upton could be on the market if things go south as well. He never turned into the superstar that he was expected to be, but don't let that trick you into thinking he hasn't been valuable. He is generally considered a productive defensive player, and has been well above-average offensively for a center fielder in four of his five full seasons in the majors. He also is in just his second year or arbitration, so anyone who acquires him is getting more than just a rental.
These two players could be replaced internally, as the Rays not only have fourth outfielder and standout defensive player Sam Fuld on hand to soak up playing time in left field, but they also have a pair or prospects waiting to get a crack at the majors. Brandon Guyer, acquired in the Matt Garza trade with the Cubs, became a legit prospect last year with a big year at Double-A, and the 25-year-old has followed that up with a productive stint at Triple-A. It's not known yet whether he's a legit corner outfielder or more of a fourth, but if Damon is moved and the Rays are expected to be out of contention, now would be the time to find out.
They also have Desmond Jennings, the top position player prospect in the organization, waiting at Durham. After a tough go of it as a 23-year-old at Triple-A, Jennings has rebounded, hitting .275/.370/.451 in 358 plate appearances. He is also considered a quality defensive center fielder (in no small part thanks to incredible speed), so the Rays would be able to survive the loss of Upton's glove, not just his bat, were Jennings to replace him mid-season.
The changes don't have to stop there, either. Jeff Niemann, the lone Rays veteran starter missing an extension, could be dealt in this pitching-thin July market. He would be replaced by Alex Cobb, a 23-year-old who has already made five starts for the Rays this year and is very obviously finished in Triple-A (9.3 K/9, 4.7 K/BB, 1.52 ERA in 59-1/3 innings there). They could move a reliever to a team in search of one, and plug Brandon Gomes or Jake McGee (another of their top prospects), a pair that has been mostly crowded out in 2011, in that slot.
You could argue that, win or lose over the next two weeks, all of these changes (and a brand new first baseman they could rely on) would make the Rays more formidable not just in 2012, but possibly in 2011 as well. Changes are coming to the club either way, as these next 11 games are going to change the direction of Tampa Bay's season, regardless of the outcome. If there is one GM in the game you can rely on to successfully buy and sell at the same time without compromising his roster, it has to be Friedman, who we will get to see prove just that over the next few weeks.