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Rays have a shot and they better take it
And he’s 23 years old.
A pitcher like that is the reason “untouchable” was introduced to the baseball lexicon.
So, the Rays reported for work on Wednesday with the chance to sweep the season series with Detroit. That would be a franchise first against an American League team.
And on the precipice of history, Dan Johnson was the first man to bat.
Johnson is a terrific citizen and compelling story, having returned to the U.S. after a one-year sabbatical with the Yokohama BayStars of the Japanese Central League. He is gamely trying to fill in for Carlos Peña, who is on the disabled list with a right plantar fascia sprain.
But as Johnson stepped in to face Justin Verlander, the scoreboard at Comerica Park told us that he was hitting .176.
The Rays are known for their exciting brand of baseball. Well, leadoff men who hit .176 with zero career stolen bases don’t bring much pizzazz.
Johnson went 0-for-4. He stranded five baserunners. The Rays lost, 3-2.
Those two players -- one a rookie sensation, the other a journeyman -- tell us plenty about the current state of the Rays.
Tampa Bay looks like a playoff team. Hellickson and the versatile Andy Sonnanstine should enable manager Joe Maddon to get by without sore-shouldered starters Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis for the next couple weeks.
But for the Rays to win the World Series, general manager Andrew Friedman must add a hitter via trade this month.
There is little time left to wait-and-see. The Rays are batting .215 over their last 19 games. That’s long enough for a “trend” to become a “concern.”
A true leadoff man would be helpful. Maddon has used seven different players there this season -- including five in the past week.
Tampa Bay’s production from the top spot has been near the major-league average this season, as judged by OPS. But while the leadoff men have taken a lot of walks, they are hitting around .250.
It is essential that Maddon have someone there capable of walking, hitting and running on chilly October nights. Catcher John Jaso, a recent and surprising addition to the leadoff crew, is having a fine offensive year. But he averaged roughly two stolen bases per season in the minor leagues.
If the leadoff market proves too thin, Friedman could instead strengthen the lineup in another area -- specifically, first base or designated hitter.
Why? Among the six legitimate contenders left in the AL, the Rays have the worst production at DH.
Yes, Peña could return as early as Monday. But there are no guarantees about how his foot injury will respond. He had goofy numbers even before going on the disabled list, batting only .212 while still clobbering a team-best 23 home runs.
What if he can’t drive the ball in September? What if he struggles to move around in the field and is better suited for duty as a designated hitter?
Then it would be a good idea to have a veteran first baseman around -- someone like Toronto’s Lyle Overbay.
Overbay has already cleared trade waivers, according to one major-league source. Like Peña, Overbay is an excellent defender. And he’s hitting .285 since June 1.
As for the money: Overbay will earn a little more than $2 million between now and the end of the season, before becoming a free agent.
Overbay, 33, is the type of player who’s often traded in August. So is Baltimore’s Luke Scott, another possibility for Tampa Bay if he clears waivers.
Friedman, for what it’s worth, has never been one to turn off his cell phone after July 31. He added reliever Chad Bradford in August 2008 and dealt away former ace Scott Kazmir around this time last year.
The good news for Friedman is that both his pitching and defense are October-ready -- as long as Niemann returns on schedule. David Price leads the AL with 15 wins. The Rays have a good closer in Rafael Soriano, and setup man Joaquin Benoit was one of the best low-cost signings in baseball this year.
Could they use another arm for the bullpen? Sure. Just like every other contender.
But Friedman should be more concerned with adding a bat. And not just because his team is a few days removed from the near-no-hitter in Toronto, which would have been their third this year.
The Rays have one more chance to win a World Series with Carl Crawford, before his probable departure to a team that offers two things -- big money and natural grass -- the Rays cannot. And it wouldn’t hurt the franchise’s case for an outdoor stadium to get The Big Trophy while it’s still in reach.
The deficit in the AL East is 1.5 games. The lead in the wildcard standings is 3.5. A little help for the lineup could take this team a long way.
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