ST. PETERSBURG, FL: Infielder Ben Zobrist #18 of the Tampa Bay Rays bats against the Seattle Mariners. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
The Tampa Bay Rays have been muddling around the middle of the AL East with four other teams. Don't expect that to last.
That's a list of the things that have gone better than expected for the 2012 Tampa Bay Rays. Fernando Rodney is having a great year. He's walked five hitters this year. He walked five hitters in his last two appearances for the Angels last season. The Rays are getting far more than they expected out of Fernando Rodney. Jeff Keppinger is hitting .325 and filling in well for Evan Longoria at third.
That's the list. Fernando Rodney and Jeff Keppinger.
That isn't to say everything's going wrong for the Rays. Ben Zobrist is having a very nice season, as is David Price and Matt Joyce. But they were supposed to. When the Rays built their roster for the 2012 season, they were thinking Zobrist, Joyce, and Price were going to be good. Every move the team made started with that foundation. So it hasn't been a total disaster for the organization. Not even close.
But now list the things that have gone worse than expected. Start with the injuries. It's pretty gauche for a team to complain about their injury problems when they play in the same division as the Blue Jays. Dave Stieb is going to undergo Tommy John surgery next week so the Blue Jays can fill up their punch card and get a free surgery. But the Rays lost Longoria, possibly for the year. Every team has to deal with injuries, but few have to deal with them happening to their best player.
Then there's a reasonable shot the front office took that didn't work. Carlos Pena was a good gamble for a team on a budget. He walked 101 times last year and hit 28 home runs. The Rays didn't have any great options at first. Pena has been miserable.
Maybe the biggest problem has been with the players who didn't blossom into good players as soon as the Rays were hoping. After last year's breakout, the Rays gave a decent amount of guaranteed money to Matt Moore, hoping they locked up an ace on the cheap. Instead, they got a young pitcher. Moore has been a stereotype. Wild. Flashes of brilliance. Erratic. Promising. But not a factory-assembled ace. Desmond Jennings was supposed to be Carl Crawford by now. He sort of has been! That's not a good thing.
James Shields is turning in one of those funky high-strikeout-low-walk-high-ERA seasons that he's good for every other year. B.J. Upton is having something of a down year; if he was never going to live up to 2007, at least he could replicate the last two seasons.
There's Fernando Rodney and Jeff Keppinger. There are three guys doing what they're supposed to. And then there's a whole lot of disappointment. But if you're thinking this is a sob story, it's not. The Rays are over .500. They're 2½ games out of the Wild Card. They're still a contender.
Which brings up the thesis here. If you're looking for a team to replicate the late surge of the 2011 Cardinals -- or, and I know this is crazy, the 2011 Rays -- look at the Rays. If Desmond Jennings starts to hit, you'll think, yep, that's what he's supposed to do. If James Shields and Matt Moore start mowing down hitters, you'll think, yep, that's what they're supposed to do. There's more latent, untapped talent on the Rays than any other team in baseball. If everyone lived up to expectations, the Rays would be jockeying with the Yankees right now instead of the Blue Jays.
The Rays went 35-20 over the last two months of the 2011 season to squeak into the playoffs. It could happen again. It's not exactly likely, but of any of the fringe contenders hanging around because of the second Wild Card, the Rays are underperforming their expectations by the most. They should be a lot better. There's still time for them to be.