The 2014 season for the Tampa Bay Rays has not gone exactly as planned. Myriad issues have led to the Tampa Bay's 46-53 record and its key players having to worry about being traded. The club finds itself in this position for the first time since the 2009 season, with David Price and Ben Zobrist front and center in the latest trade rumors.
The problem is the Rays aren't playing like a team with a .465 winning percentage and a 3.9 percent chance of making the playoffs. With a 5-1 victory over the Minnesota Twins on Saturday night, Tampa Bay is now tied with the Los Angeles Angels and Cincinnati Reds for the most wins (22) since June 11 -- a .667 clip thanks to the efforts of Price and Zobrist.
Zobrist’s time in Tampa Bay has seen a bit of just about everything. He has been there for the lean times of 2006 and 2007, has done everything but catch and pitch in a game and has hit in every spot in the lineup. His versatility has once again been leveraged in recent weeks as he's had to play shortstop while Yunel Escobar was on the disabled list with a shoulder injury. Zobrist himself returned from the disabled list May 30 after recovering from a dislocated thumb injury but was not 100 percent from both sides of the plate.
Prior to the team’s hot streak, Zobrist was hitting .241/.322/.365 with 26 runs and 13 RBIs over 231 plate appearances, hitting mainly out of the second spot in the lineup. Zobrist has upped his production to a .311/.411/.487 line since June 11, scoring 18 times and driving in as many runs in 90 fewer plate appearances. Now that Zobrist is 100 percent healthy from both sides of the plate, he is becoming the key cog near the top of the lineup that the Tampa Bay offense relies upon to keep the line moving. The revitalized offensive production and continued defensive versatility is why Zobrist has frequently been mentioned in trade rumors in recent weeks as multiple teams -- the Mariners, Reds and Angels -- look for middle-infield help.
Contending teams are also always in search of a starting pitcher, and few pitchers are performing as well as David Price is these days.
With the victory Saturday, Price has won each of his past five starts and continues to lead the league in strikeouts and innings pitched. His eight scoreless innings against Minnesota marks the second consecutive game he has held the opposition scoreless over eight innings. Price has struck out nine or more batters in seven of his past nine outings, and he continues his approach of attacking the strike zone with authority and putting batters on the defensive. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Price has thrown 70 percent of his pitches for strikes this season; only Twins starter Phil Hughes, Price's opponent Saturday, has been better.
Price's approach has not always been as automatic as it was Saturday night at Target Field. Over the first 10 starts of the season, Price was 4-4 with a 4.28 ERA and opponents were hitting .287 against him, while slugging .464. He had 77 strikeouts and just six walks through those starts but allowed 11 home runs. He also had an abnormally high .351 batting average on balls in play due in part to some issues with the Rays' defense.
Price hit his stride Memorial Day weekend and has not looked back. Since that weekend, the left-hander is 6-3 with a 2.09 ERA, 95 strikeouts, 15 walks and eight home runs allowed. That .351 batting average on balls in play has fallen to .236 thanks in part to the defense Zobrist played at shortstop while Escobar was on the disabled list. The way Price has pitched since late May, from a process perspective, has mirrored what he was doing earlier in the season. The improved performance of the defense behind him and his home run rates returning to his career levels have helped Price regain the elite form he demonstrated in his Cy Young season of 2012 and for the second half of the 2013 season when he returned from injury.
Despite all of the success the Tampa Bay Rays have had in recent weeks, they're still facing extremely tough odds. On June 29, the Rays had the league’s worst record. Three weeks later, they've since passed eight teams in the standings but still find themselves 6.5 games back in the wild-card standings and eight games behind the Orioles in the American League East. Tampa Bay’s 3.9 percent chance of making the postseason is better than the odds of only Boston, Minnesota, Houston, and Texas.
At some point in the next 12 days, Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and his team will need to decide whether their roster can defy those odds, try again with the current controlled roster in 2015 or rebuild the team over the next few seasons.
David Price and Ben Zobrist are performing at peak value at a time when many players admit having difficulty ignoring the rumors in traditional and social media outlets. Trading both players would be viewed through a prism as the organization waving a white flag by some and a move of organizational survival by others.
If the pressures of trade rumors are affecting Price and Zobrist, they have a funny way of showing it. Their play on the field in recent weeks certainly does not reflect any anxiety of the unknown.