There are lots of reasons to believe in the Tampa Bay Rays. They run like crazy. They pitch and catch the baseball. They can win anywhere, with 43 victories at home and a MLB-best 41 on the road.
As the postseason draws near, however, there are also pressing reasons not to believe in the Rays. They don't hit very much. Yes, they've scored 57 runs in their past 10 games, but Tampa Bay is 23rd in the majors in batting average and 25th in hits. They have outstanding starting and relief pitching, but both areas of the Rays' staff seem top-heavy and not as deep as the games, at times, require. Tampa Bay's short-term prospects seem as hazy as its long-term future; there are questions without clear answers.
David Price may win the AL Cy Young Award this season. But here's where the top-heavy part kicks in: On Wednesday, Matt Garza came into Boston 3-0 with an 0.99 ERA in his previous four starts. Then the Red Sox tagged him for six runs and nine hits, including four home runs, in 4 1/3 innings. Garza can be as dominant as anyone in the game, at times. Is he a lock to win you a postseason Game 2? No. Following Price/Garza, it's anyone's guess. In fact, I just said to a passionate Rays fan, "Quick, give me your postseason rotation." He immediately said, "Price, Garza &" and then he stopped and stared at the floor looking for an answer.
James Shields? He's been a .500 pitcher with an ERA near 5.00, who has allowed 204 hits in 175 2/3 innings. Jeff Niemann? Niemann has allowed 23 runs in 16 2/3 innings since returning from the DL with a shoulder strain. Wade Davis? Maybe. It's hard to say with any certainty what you'll get from the Rays' rotation in October.
Rafael Soriano has been as dominant as any closer in baseball this season with 41 saves. Joaquin Benoit has pitched 50 innings and given up only 24 hits while striking out 65. That covers the eighth and ninth innings for Tampa Bay, but what about the sixth and seventh innings? Again, the Rays are top-heavy.
Grant Balfour missed 32 games after injuring his rib cage rasslin' with pitching coach Jim Hickey. Balfour was activated Sept. 1 and hasn't been nearly as effective as he was before he was injured. Are you expecting Jeremy Hellickson to pull a Price-in-'08, moving from diaper-dandy phenom starter to ace reliever and getting key outs late in playoff games? Don't bank on it yet. After his first two bullpen appearances, Hellickson has a 13.50 ERA. The fit worked for Price during the '08 World Series run but it may not for Hellickson in 2010.
Then there are the off-field issues. Presuming the Rays qualify for this postseason, they'll do so knowing they will likely lose Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, Soriano and Benoit to free agency this winter. The fact that the franchise can't afford to re-sign its best players is an issue that isn't going away. Neither is the Rays' lease at Tropicana Field, which binds the franchise to its dank parking garage of a facility built in the wrong spot through 2027. Rays owner Stuart Sternberg said publicly this season he doesn't believe baseball will work long-term in downtown St. Petersburg and wants a search for a new ballpark site to expand to Tampa or surrounding counties outside Pinellas. The Rays need revenue sources to compete in an ultra-rich AL East; they began the season with an Opening Day payroll of $72 million, well behind the $213 million or the $168 million the Yankees and Red Sox spent on players this season, respectively.
Yes, the Rays have fans and an active fan base. Unfortunately, that activity extends only to watching the Rays on television and not going to the ballpark. A study published by Sports Business Journal in July showed the Rays have the seventh-highest local television ratings in Major League Baseball. The Rays' local TV ratings are up a staggering 70.9 percent, the second-largest increase behind only Stephen Strasburg mania in Washington, D.C. However, the Rays' attendance this season is down from last season by approximately 1,400 fans per game. This season Tampa Bay is averaging 22,679 fans per game, ranking only 23rd in the major leagues, behind even last-place teams like the Mariners and Diamondbacks.
I asked some Tampa-area Twitter followers for reasons and got the following responses: "The Trop is in the worst place to reach from anywhere in the Bay. It needs to move to the Channel side with our other teams." "The Trop is old, in a bad location. Two years of winning don't automatically erase 10 years of losing." "They [fans] ain't going to a game at a dome stadium. They are not traveling from Pinellas County to the Trop, either."
The Rays begin Friday 2½ games behind the Yankees in the AL East and holding a 6½ game wild-card lead. Tampa Bay is going to make the playoffs. The Rays are a very exciting team to watch. After that, their short- and long-term futures hold far more questions than answers.
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Steve Berthiaume is a host for "Baseball Tonight."