What a season. The Tampa Bay Rays and the New York Yankees have kept each other close in the hunt for the AL East pennant and the best record in baseball. The season series between the two teams sometimes approached postseason intensity, and on Thursday the Rays' victory over the Yanks gave Tampa Bay the final advantage in the season series and the tie-breaker if the teams should end the regular season sporting the same record.
As of now, the Yankees lead the division by a half game over the Rays. And the really odd thing about the Rays record comes for the fact that the team is largely underperforming. Outfielder Carl Crawford is arguably the only offensive player having an above-average year. The team batting average of .250 is no. 10 in the AL. Not typically the stuff of an offensive powerhouse.
Though the Rays score runs at a respectable rate, the team owes most of its success to pitching and defense.
But the starting pitching has shown some inconsistencies also. David Price, who posted his 18th win by beating the Yankees in Thursday's game, was the only starter on the staff to pitch fairly consistently all year. Righty Jeff Nieman was the most consistent prior to the All-Star break. Matt Garza and James Shields have allowed gopher balls at an alarming clip even while collecting 14 and 13 wins, respectively. The bullpen has shown itself as one of the best in baseball led by closer Rafael Soriano's 1.82 ERA and 43 saves.
So what's my point in all this? The playoffs figure to look differently than in 2008 when the Rays first appeared in the postseason. The 2008 Rays shocked Boston with their bats. B. J. Upton and Evan Longoria were on fire. This year Upton has struggled at the plate and Longoria's numbers have perhaps suffered from teams pitching around him.
The key for the Rays will be picking the right starters. Price is a lock, but after that it's a guessing game as to whom General Manager Joe Maddon will use. Rookie Wade Davis was more consistent over the last month of the season than any member of the staff aside from Price. I wouldn't be surprised if he started in the playoffs even if the Rays stick with a three man rotation. Most who follow the Rays thought the team would end up relying on Nieman when the postseason rolled around, but Nieman's role probably depends on his performance during his next two starts. Can the team consider keeping both Garza and Shields out of the starting rotation come playoff time?
It boils down to this: The Rays have the pitching to win the World Series. But will the team get the pitching it needs to win in the playoffs? Minnesota and Texas represent formidable obstacles aside from the Yankees. The stage is set for a terrific postseason.
In keeping with my analysis, I'd pick Carl Crawford as the Rays' MVP for 2010, just edging out Rafael Soriano and David Price. It will be sad seeing Crawford move to another team next year, as he assuredly will do. And if he doesn't get a Gold Glove award for his outfield play this year then there is no justice.