Boosted by the left-handed arm of Matt Moore in their 7-1 win over Toronto on Thursday, the Tampa Bay Rays are staying in the American League wild card race with stellar starting pitching. They lead the AL with a 3.40 ERA and a 1.22 WHIP, yet questions remain whether the Rays can secure a post-season berth and make a run in October because of one word – offense.
Third baseman Evan Longoria has missed a bulk of the season with a torn hamstring. He is back, and on Thursday he was 3-for-5 with a double and two RBI. This year, when he has been healthy enough to occupy a lineup spot, Longoria is batting .330 (31-for-94) with four home runs and 20 RBI.
Hamstring injuries have a tendency to linger, though, and even if he stays healthy and keeps hitting, the remainder of the Rays lineup is anemic.
While Tampa Bay leads the AL in pitching, it is last in the majors in hitting. With a .230 average and a .679 OPS, it is remarkable that the Rays are still in contention for a wild card spot.
Outfielder Matt Joyce is scuffling over his last 10 games with a .194 average, but overall this season he is batting .270 with 12 home runs, 38 RBI and a .843 OPS. He is one of the few Rays hitters who have been productive in 2012. Jeff Keppinger, who is underrated as a valuable role player, is batting .318, but offense has been so scarce for the Rays that he has hit in the cleanup spot even though he has four home runs, 23 RBI and a .786 OPS.
Longoria and Joyce are among the plethora of Rays who have seen time on the disabled list this season. Desmond Jennings, a highly regarded outfielder in his second Major League season, was sidelined earlier this year and is one of the many Rays hitters with disappointing numbers. The 25-year-old Jennings has a .237 average with eight home runs, 31 RBI and a .671 OPS.
Other regulars in the lineup who have generated unimpressive results at the plate include Ben Zobrist (.252, 12, 43, .813), B.J. Upton (.242, 10, 41, .675), Sean Rodriguez, (.208, 6, 29, .590) and Elliot Johnson (.248, 4, 27 .658).
That Johnson and Rodriguez are starters indicates a lack of offensive talent at the Major League level for the Rays. Both players are versatile and useful, but they are best suited as utility guys.
Rays executives Andrew Friedman and Matt Silverman are often praised for building what is now a perennial contender in a small market with a limited payroll, yet they deserve criticism for failing to use the club’s surplus of superb starting pitching at the Major League and Triple-A levels to acquire one or two difference-making bats.
Their answer to bolstering the lineup last off-season was bringing back Carlos Pena (who has 15 home runs but is batting .195, which is near the .196 average he posted in his last season with the Rays in 2010 before he spent a year with the Cubs). They also signed Luke Scott, who is currently on the DL and carries a .225 average and a .716 OPS with 12 home runs and 45 RBI.
Both left-handed hitters, Pena and Scott are prone to striking out, which doesn’t help a team’s on-base percentage or run production.
With a rotation that includes AL Cy Young Award candidate David Price, James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson and Moore, the Rays have the arms to contend and even grab one of the two wild card spots. With their lineup – even when Longoria and Scott are healthy – chances are remote for them to win a post-season series.
Tampa Bay also features other starters like Jeff Niemann (who is on the DL, Alex Cobb and Wade Davis (who is thriving as a reliever but has tasted success in the rotation) along with top prospects like Chris Archer and Alex Torres. They have enough pitching depth to trade an arm or two to upgrade the lineup.
Friedman and Silverman choose to continue with a dominant rotation and a weak lineup, and that is not a winning combination in October.