Wednesday July 21st, 2010

On Saturday afternoon in the Bronx, Rays second baseman Reid Brignac hit two home runs and starting pitcher Jeff Niemann scattered four runs over 6 1/3 innings for his eighth win of the season to help second-place Tampa Bay defeat the American League East-leading Yankees.

That Brignac and Niemann would still be teammates and helping the Rays to an important victory in 2010 seemed implausible two years ago when they were nearly traded at the July 31 deadline. A deal was so close that reported that they had been sent to Pittsburgh, swapped for Pirates slugger Jason Bay.

Instead of slogging through the Pirates' 18th consecutive losing season, Brignac and Niemann are in the thick of the pennant race and the Rays have a no-harm, no-foul cautionary tale about the perils of trading prospects for a quick fix at the deadline.

This year the Rays have the second-best record in the majors, trailing only the Yankees, who lead the division by two games. Tampa Bay has a 3 1/2-game lead over the Red Sox for the AL wild card. But with left fielder Carl Crawford and first baseman Carlos Peña set for free agency and, in all likelihood, about to leave this offseason, can the Rays afford to sit tight again with their window of opportunity possibly closing?

"We've got a very talented group, but it's that time of year," Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said. "We will exhaust every fit out there that we feel like gives us a real upgrade. We're not looking to do something for the sake of doing it. If we make a move, it's because we feel like it has a chance to really help us. If a fit like that lines up, we'll be aggressive in doing so."

As for that reported deal from 2008, Friedman wouldn't comment on the specifics except to say that "public accounts are not necessarily all that accurate." He reflected nonetheless on how close he was to a significant trade, a deal that turned out to be unnecessary, as Tampa Bay still advanced to the World Series that year, falling to the Phillies in six games.

"We felt like on July 31 that we had a legitimate shot to line up for a trade, and we felt like were pretty aggressive," he said. "But if someone had said we could play in the World Series without making a trade, we wouldn't have considered offering the young players we did."

This season, Niemann (8-2 with a 2.92 ERA) has been the co-ace of the Rays' rotation along with AL All-Star starter David Price, while Brignac (.274, five home runs, 31 RBIs) has been a reliable utility infielder who still has a promising future. Bay, meanwhile, was traded to Boston at the '08 deadline, where he spent a productive year and a half before signing as a free agent last offseason with the Mets, for whom he has been underwhelming offensively.

As the club decides whether to add payroll at the trade deadline, one consideration has been lessened, as Rays owner Stuart Sternberg told reporters earlier this month that "money won't be an object." What will be an object is whether Tampa Bay is willing to part with its best prospects -- every trade partner will ask for Triple-A starter Jeremy Hellickson or outfielder Desmond Jennings -- to make a run this season.

The Rays have a very good rotation, a strong bullpen and an excellent defense, all of which add up to the fewest runs allowed (370) in the AL. They could use a better situational left-handed reliever than Randy Choate, but otherwise their pitching and defense are not concerns.

The offense, meanwhile, has scored the fourth-most runs in baseball (481) but is still tantalizingly close to being much, much better.

Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria are having All-Star offensive seasons, but every other starter has been subpar. Ben Zobrist is still reaching base (.386 on-base percentage) but has lost his power (five HRs, down from 27 last year). Peña is still hitting for power (20 HRs) but not average (.213), and he also leads the AL in strikeouts (101). B.J. Upton (.230, eight HRs) and Jason Bartlett (.243, five SBs) are also way down, yet the Rays are in position to make the playoffs for the second time in three years.

"We're not all having great offensive seasons, but we're still coming up with timely hits," Upton said. "It'll be scary to see once we all start rolling. For us to be where we're at and nobody, except [Crawford and Longoria], has really been tearing the cover off the ball."

Manager Joe Maddon has been preparing his players for such a scenario for the past few years by preaching the importance of situational hitting, something that hit a crescendo this spring. The club even ordered t-shirts with "G.T.M.I." emblazoned across the front for "Get That Man In."

"I don't want us to be pigeon-holed into being one kind of a team," Maddon said. "I want us to be able to hit for power, I want us to be able to run the bases, I want us to be one of the better situational-hitting teams -- I want all of that. . . . I want us to play more of a complete game so in case one area goes away, we can do something else to win the game."

Their situational hitting success rate, however, is only middling. With a runner on third with less than two outs, the Rays have succeeded in driving him in only 48 percent of the time, a rate that bests only the Blue Jays and Indians in the AL. In all situations with a runner in scoring position, the Rays' rate of driving in runs (RBIs per plate appearance) is seventh.

On Sunday against the Yankees, for instance, in between a first-inning home run from Peña and a ninth-inning double from pinch-hitter Matt Joyce, they were 0-for-10 with a runner in scoring position.

But the Rays keep scoring runs because their patience and speed presents them with more opportunities than anyone else. They have had 1,121 plate appearances with a runner in scoring position, the most in baseball, a number of them manufactured without putting the ball in play.

They lead the majors with 394 walks and 115 stolen bases, which is 29 more than any other team. Tampa Bay is also adept at taking the extra base -- i.e. a runner advancing two bases on a single or scoring from first on a double -- which it does an AL-leading 47 percent of the time, according to

There's a pretty simple explanation for why the Rays struggle with runners in scoring position: a low contact rate. A recent study by noted statistician Tom Tango indicated that contact hitters are generally the best situational hitters (summarized here). That does not bode well for the Rays, whose 725 strikeouts are the worst in the AL and whose contact percentage of 78.8 percent is the second-worst.

"We knew we were going to strike out a lot this year," Friedman said, "but when you're not doing with the requisite amount of power on the other side, it's more glaring."

Indeed, the Rays are only seventh in the AL with 87 home runs and eighth with a .408 slugging percentage. With veterans Pat Burrell and Hank Blalock having been busts the proposition of trying to once again add more pop through a trade is intriguing.

Said Tampa Bay hitting coach Derek Shelton, "Are you asking a hitting coach if he'd want another power bat? That's a Christmas wish list. We always want another bat. But I think our guys have done a good job. We're good with what we have, but if we can add, depending on the situation, I don't think a hitting coach is ever going to say no."

Does a good fit exist? The Brewers' Prince Fielder and Corey Hart and the Phillies' Jayson Werth, should they be made available, all have more than enough power and plate discipline to fit in nicely, despite their own low contact rates, particularly since the Rays could stand to bolster right field and designated hitter. The Royals' David DeJesus is another possible match, though he'd be more of a high-contact, low-power option.

Then there is the matter of deciding at what acquiring such a bat would cost the Rays. Friedman has shown a knack for discerning deal-making, acquiring Bartlett and starter Matt Garza from the Twins for outfielder Delmon Young before the 2008 season and not trading for Bay at the cost of Brignac and Niemann that summer. He'll have to weigh the viability of an all-out World Series blitz this year against rationing his organization's bounty of prospects for more consistent competitiveness the next few years.

Friedman's skill will be put to the test again in the next 10 days, only this time -- with the likely departures of Crawford and Peña looming -- there's a little more urgency.

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