For the Tampa Bay Rays, 2017 was expected to be a rebuilding year. Playoffs were nothing more than a pipe dream during Spring Training. Winning the American League East was something nobody outside the Rays clubhouse thought or even talked about.
Yet here the Rays are, beginning the post All-Star break schedule with another victory Friday night, improving to 48-43. That gave them a slight lead over the New York Yankees. Moreover, they find themselves inching closer to the division-leading Boston Red Sox.
So this begs the question, why are they, despite battling numerous injuries, exceeding all expectations here in 2017?
There are a few reasons behind this surprising season. One of which would be All-Star worthy performances out of Corey Dickerson and Logan Morrison. Dickerson was deservedly voted in as the starting designated hitter, sporting a .312 average with a slugging percentage over .500. Morrison, meanwhile, fell victim to the popularity contest the Mid Summer Classic can be despite a career high 24 home runs.
It’s not just those two performing above expectations, however. There have been contributions from nearly everyone in the Rays lineup. Offseason acquisition Mallex Smith admirably filled in for the injured Colby Rasmus to begin the season. Then, following a stint back at Triple-A Durham, he has performed well in the absence of two-time Gold Glove center fielder Kevin Kiermaier. His 40 hits in 35 games are average at best, but the speed he brings can give opposing pitchers nightmares. It should come as no surprise then that he leads the team with 11 stolen bases thus far.
Pitching wise, three of the five starters have winning records. Ace Chris Archer continues to give the team lengthy quality starts, with a team-high 123 innings pitched. His 147 strikeouts far and away lead all Rays pitchers as well. Despite a shaky start, Alex Cobb has righted himself to the point where people forget he’s less than a year removed from completing rehab from Tommy John surgery. Then there’s rookie Jacob Faria. Given an extended opportunity due to Matt Andriese’s injury woes, the young righty is quietly putting together a Rookie of the Year type of campaign (although Aaron Judge will be hard to catch as the hands down favorite for the award). He’s 4-0 with 37 strikeouts, albeit it in limited big league time (six starts).
The bullpen continues to be a question mark, but that was to be expected. Chase Whitley has proven to be effective for the most part, while Brad Boxberger has performed well in his appearances since coming off the disabled list prior to the All-Star break. While he struggled mightily before the break, closer Alex Colome has also been fairly solid.
Can the Rays surprise everyone by making the playoffs? Unknown as it may be, this team has shown they’re capable of winning a series. That’s the formula to being successful and could guarantee their fans the experience of the postseason once again. Now, how much fun would that be?