Starting pitching, many baseball pundits will tell you, is the key to winning a World Series. Without a doubt, that is a true. It helps to have at least two dominant arms to win in October. You can’t win if you can’t score; however, and that is what stands in the way of a World Series ring for the Tampa Bay Rays.
Last weekend’s series against the woeful Seattle Mariners was a prime example of why the Rays will not advance far into the post-season, or even get there, unless they trade a starting pitcher for a productive, middle-of-the-order bat.
The Rays needed a walk-off double by Ben Zobrist to squeeze out a 4-3 win in 14 innings on Friday night. A strong outing from the struggling James Shields – who limited Seattle to three runs and four hits with 10 strikeouts and two walks over 7.2 innings – was almost wasted.
On Saturday, Rays right-hander Alex Cobb lasted just two innings since he suffered a lower right leg contusion by an Ichiro Suzuki liner. Tampa Bay’s bullpen logged seven scoreless frames, but the bats mustered one unearned run and seven hits in a 2-1 loss.
Rookie left-hander Matt Moore, who has been inconsistent much of the season, delivered a gem on Sunday, permitting two runs and five hits with seven strikeouts and no walks in eight innings. That was not good enough, though, because the Rays lineup managed one run and five hits, including four against Blake Beaven (who sports a 5.54 ERA).
Tampa Bay’s rotation is built for October, especially with David Price (13-4, 2.64 ERA, 1.17 WHIP. 230 average against) potentially starting three games in a seven-game series. Shields and 2011 American League Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson give the Rays formidable options, too.
The Rays Lineup
The lineup? A glance at that makes you question the off-season thinking of president Andrew Friedman and general manager Matt Silverman.
Their answer to bringing in the big bats included the return of Carlos Pena and the signing of Luke Scott. Neither have made a significant difference for Tampa Bay this season. Pena, who astonishingly remains in the No. 2 slot, has a .191 average, a .669 OPS and has struck out 126 times in 346 at-bats. Scott, who is on the disabled list, has slugged 12 home runs, but he is hitting .225 with a paltry .716 OPS.
The Rays understandably did not foresee third baseman Evan Longoria missing a chunk of the year with a hamstring injury. Even if Longoria returns, his level of offensive production is uncertain.
Matt Joyce has missed time because of a back injury, and his presence helps as he is hitting .277 with 11 home runs and 35 RBI. Aside from Joyce, there is no reason for an opposing major league starting pitcher – especially a frontline arm – to fear Tampa Bay’s lineup.
B.J. Upton is batting .241 with a .693 OPS. The previously mentioned Pena continues to flail away at pitches. Zobrist, who hit in the third spot on Sunday, is batting just .252, though he does have a respectable .834 OPS.
Jeff Keppinger, who is best suited as a super utility player, leads the Rays with a .325 average, but Joe Maddon frequently bats him in the middle of the order, even though has three home runs this season and 35 over parts of eight major league seasons.
Desmond Jennings has tremendous potential for the long term, but this season he has been hampered by injuries and is hitting .235 with a .667 OPS.
It is puzzling why Pena bats second, but overall the look of the lineup is not Maddon’s fault. Because of the injury to Longoria, he has no choice but to play Conrad at third and insert Keppinger in the heart of the order.
What Pitcher Can The Rays Trade
Currently, four regulars in the Rays lineup (Molina, Keppinger, Johnson and Conrad) are ideally suited for backup roles. The Rays desperately need a bat that Maddon can put in the cleanup spot, and they have the trade chips to implement a deal. Friedman and Silverman appear to remain reluctant to part with the team’s surplus of starting pitching.
Price is off limits, as he should be. Likely, the Rays would not deal Hellickson or Moore either. Shields is the most obvious trade candidate since he has value and will soon become more expensive. He has a $9 million club option for 2013 and a $12M club option for 2014.
The Rays could also land a bat with Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis (who has pitched in relief this season but also has value as a starter) or Alex Cobb, but it wouldn’t be a difference-making offensive presence. To give the lineup a jolt, they will need to trade Shields.