Troubled Rays facing a difficult climb

Ken Rosenthal: MLB on FOX preview of Minnesota Twins at Tampa Bay Rays

Let the Nation fret over the Red Sox. If you want to talk about a team in a hole, let’s talk about the Rays.

The Red Sox are 2-10, but they possess enough high-priced talent to snap out of it and the resources to fix any problems that may linger.

The Rays, 5-8, operate with little margin for error; their $41.9 million Opening Day payroll, the second-lowest in the majors, is barely one-fourth of the Red Sox’s $161.4 million player budget.

Such disparity is nothing new for the Rays, not that it has mattered much recently. Tampa Bay won the AL East in two of the past three seasons and reached the World Series in 2008.

Those were the days.

The Rays, even after winning four straight games, are in a difficult spot as they continue their home series against the Twins (Saturday, MLB on FOX, 4:10 p.m. ET).

The roster underwent a dramatic overhaul during the offseason, when many of the team’s best players left through trades and free agency. Then, less than a week into the season, the Rays lost their initial 3-4 hitters and leading right-handed threats: third baseman Evan Longoria, who is out with an oblique injury, and designated hitter Manny Ramirez, who retired.

Everyone knows that the Rays’ chances of returning to the postseason never were all that great. The fear now is that the club might be buried even before Longoria returns, presumably by the end of the April.

The Tampa Bay schedule through April 28 looks like this: Two more games at home against the Twins, then four against the White Sox, followed by a six-game trip to Toronto and Minnesota. Not easy.

If the Rays are back around .500 by the end of the month, great. Their starting rotation, perhaps the best in the AL East, could keep the team competitive. A trade or two for more offense — something that is not out of the question, even with the Rays’ payroll limitations — might even make Tampa Bay a legitimate contender.

However, rival executives already predict that the Rays could be major sellers. Their rationale: The Rays are too thin in their lineup and bullpen. Veterans such as center fielder B.J. Upton and right-hander James Shields should be attractive to contenders. The Rays, holding 10 of the top 60 picks in the draft, could assemble an even greater bounty of young talent by dealing Upton, Shields and others for prospects.

While that outcome seems logical, perhaps even inevitable, the Rays are not necessarily predictable. Upton is a free agent after the 2012 season, but the team holds club options on Shields in ’12, ’13 and ’14 and virtually every other core player also is under long-term control. The Rays can stay relatively intact and return even stronger next season.

Shields, in particular, offers protection for the rotation as the team awaits the arrivals of its top pitching prospects, Double-A lefty Matt Moore and righty Chris Archer (Triple-A righties Alex Torres and Alex Cobb are closer to the majors, but possess less upside).

Once the Rays get comfortable with their depth, they could make another Matt Garza trade, knowing that Moore, Archer or some other youngster might be the next Jeremy Hellickson, a ready-made replacement. Heck, the team even could trade Hellickson rather than Shields — Hellickson is represented by Scott Boras, who is unlikely to recommend that the right-hander sign the type of club-friendly, long-term extension that the Rays favor.

But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. The season is only 7.4 percent complete.

The Rays didn’t play well during their 1-8 start, but some of their misfortune was attributable to poor luck. Their batting average on balls in play during those first nine games was .192, according to STATS LLC. The Yankees, who had the second-lowest such mark, were more than 60 points higher at .245.

The Rays have since raised their BABIP to .242, but that average is still the lowest in the majors. Not surprisingly, only seven teams are averaging fewer runs per game. Third baseman Felipe Lopez, signed as a minor-league free agent in early February, has batted cleanup the past two games, for goodness’ sake.

Longoria will hit in the middle of the order once he returns, but will opponents even pitch to him? The Rays believe the answer is yes, contending that Longoria had little protection last season, when first baseman Carlos Pena (.196) and others hit behind him. However, the offense was better then — third in the AL in runs despite being 13th in batting average. Who besides Longoria in the current lineup is truly a threat?

The Rays gambled that they could get 20 to 25 homers out of Ramirez for $2 million, but that didn’t work. Upton and Johnny Damon could help carry the load, but what the Rays need now is for some of their unheralded players to exceed expectations. Step right up, Sam Fuld.

The problem is, the 2011 Rays might be no better than an 85-win team even if their players perform at optimal levels, even if their executives again leads the league in creativity. Then again, after losing left fielder Carl Crawford, closer Rafael Soriano and Co., 85 wins would amount to a pretty fair transition year.

The Rays don’t complain. They don’t ask for sympathy. But as Red Sox Nation moans, let no one mistake which team faces the more difficult climb.

A little perspective, please.

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