On Saturday afternoon in the Bronx, Rays second baseman
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 mlb.com reported that they had been sent to Pittsburgh, swapped for Pirates slugger
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
"We've got a very talented group, but it's that time of year," Rays executive vice president of baseball operations
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
As the club decides whether to add payroll at the trade deadline, one consideration has been lessened, as Rays owner
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
The offense, meanwhile, has scored the fourth-most runs in baseball (481) but is still tantalizingly close to being much, much better.
"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."
"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
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 Baseball-Reference.com.
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
"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
Said Tampa Bay hitting coach
Does a good fit exist? The Brewers'
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
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.