Rays' will to win overcomes any obstacle in their path

BY Ken Rosenthal • June 19, 2015

They are doing it without manager Joe Maddon, without general manager Andrew Friedman, without super-utility man Ben Zobrist.

They are doing it without injured pitchers Alex Cobb, Matt Moore and Drew Smyly, not to mention injured hitters John Jaso, James Loney and Desmond Jennings.

And heaven knows, seeing as how these are the Tampa Bay Rays, baseball’s little brothers of the poor, they are doing it without money.

But have you checked the AL East standings lately?

The Rays, at 38-30, entered Friday’s play in first place, one game ahead of the Yankees. They are eight games over .500 for the first time since finishing the 2013 season at 92-71. They are, simply put, one of the most fascinating, uplifting stories of the season -- and as usual, hardly anyone is noticing.

Consider that the Rays:

Have used 44 players, most in the majors; 16 rookies, most in the majors and 26 pitchers, a club record -- and it’s only June 19.

• Rank second in the American League with a 3.24 rotation ERA despite getting only three starts combined from Cobb, Moore and Smyly -- and with Jake Odorizzi currently on the disabled list.

• Are getting contributions from a number of players who are largely anonymous to most fans (outfielder Joey Butler, infielder Jake Elmore, right-hander Erasmo Ramirez, etc., etc.)

“They’ve got a bunch of half-players, but they’re able to put all the half-players together and make a 25-man roster that works -- for now,” one scout said.

Right-hander Chris Archer isn’t a half-player, and neither is third baseman Evan Longoria, but the scout isn’t far off.

The Rays roster, though, actually could grow stronger as the team’s injured players return -- even Smyly, who was through to be out for the season with a shoulder injury, is expected back in August.

As Maddon told MLB.com’s Anthony Castrovince, admiring the Rays from afar, “If Cobber and Smyly were there right now, they’d be leading it comfortably.”

Then again, the Rays are only fourth in the AL East in run differential at plus-14, trailing the Blue Jays (plus-83), Orioles (plus-36) and Yankees (plus-18).

And, as usual, the Rays cannot hit, as evidenced by their meager output of 3.76 runs per game, which ranks ahead of only the White Sox and Mariners in the AL.

The point is, Tampa Bay is competing, as Tampa Bay always competes, even as Rays owner Stuart Sternberg describes the team’s current run as “beyond improbable.”

Sternberg, in speaking to reporters, was referring to all of the injuries, all of the rookies. But really, the Rays expected to be good last season, when many of us picked them to win the division, if not reach the World Series. Injuries and poor performance in high-leverage situations -- some of which was attributable to poor luck -- sunk them to 77-85.

Maddon left for the Cubs, Friedman for the Dodgers. The Rays reconfigured their front office, shifting Matt Silverman from team president to president of baseball operations and promoting Chaim Bloom and Erik Neander to VPs. The new group then hired a first-time manager, Kevin Cash, and at some point made the decision that defined their 2014-15 offseason.

They still liked their team.

So, rather than simply acquire future pieces, the Rays also traded for present value -- similar to what Friedman did when he sent David Price to the Tigers and acquired Smyly, infielder Nick Franklin and shortstop prospect Willy Adames.

Jaso came back in the deal that sent Zobrist and Yunel Escobar to the Athletics, a deal in which the Rays also landed shortstop prospect Daniel Robertson and outfield prospect Boog Powell.

More telling, the Rays acquired outfielder Steven Souza from the Nationals for two prospects, shortstop Trea Turner and pitcher Joe Ross, whom they landed as part of the Wil Myers trade.

While the futures of both Turner and Ross are bright, the Rays wanted Souza’s immediate 25-homer potential. Good call -- Souza leads the club with 13 homers, eight stolen bases and 30 walks.

Not every move is proving as fortuitous -- Asdrubal Cabrera, signed to a one-year, $7.5 million free-agent contract, is playing above-average shortstop, but batting only .204 with a .547 OPS. But the Rays’ pro scouting director, Matt Arnold, has helped the team succeed on the margins. Butler, Elmore and reliever Ron Belisario signed as minor-league free agents. Ramirez arrived in a trade from the Mariners for lefty Mike Montgomery.

It’s a team effort at the Trop: Silverman, Bloom, Neander and Arnold all speak to other clubs about trades. Cash, meanwhile, accepts that he needs help as a first-year manager, leading to a similar all-for-one approach among the coaches, one that also filters down to the players.

Oh, and let’s not forget pitching coach Jim Hickey, the common denominator in the Rays’ annual pitching excellence. Hickey, in addition to gaining the pitchers’ respect and trust, has created a culture in which the starters lean on each other for support. The tradition, which began with Price and James Shields, continues with Archer, Cobb and Odorizzi. Cobb, in fact, recently attended one of Moore’s rehab starts.

So, here come baseball’s little brothers of the poor -- again.

The Rays’ bullpen, while overworked, is performing reasonably well, and could benefit from the conversion of a starter once Moore and Odorizzi return. As for trades, much depends upon the returns of the injured players. But if a glaring hole arises, the Rays possess enough mid-level prospects to get what they need.

No Maddon, no Friedman, and the Rays march on.

It’s not beyond improbable. It’s typical Tampa Bay.

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