The Rays have been battling injuries all season long, but their AL East title hopes are still very much alive. Despite having a double-digit amount of players on the disabled list, the Rays have been able to hold their ground in baseball's toughest division.
The team's leader, Evan Longoria, has missed almost a month now with a hamstring injury. Incredibly, the Rays have managed managed to stay atop the division (now tied) and have actually gained a game on the Yankees since Longoria went down on the final day of April. But Longoria was just one of numerous injuries that caused the Rays to play shorthanded throughout the month of May. Leadoff hitter Desmond Jennings, Jeff Keppinger, Brandon Allen, Jeff Niemann and Brandon Guyer (out for the season) have all hit the DL this month, essentially weakening every part of their game to some extent.
Yet somehow the Rays have continued to win ballgames. How role players have stepped up with Longoria on the sidelines is what really tells me that the Rays will be able to fight through their injury issues and prevail with the division. Sean Rodriguez, Elliot Johnson, Jeff Keppinger, Will Rhymes and Drew Sutton have all contributed to replace Longoria at the hot corner. While Longo was hitting .329/.433/.561 with 19 RBI and 168 wRC+ before he hurt his hammy, here's how the five fared:
Longoria made up for the lack of production from Rodriguez and Johnson, which is why there was obviously a major concern when he was put on the DL and was reported to miss over up to two months. To many's surprise, the Rays had all five of Longoria's replacements work together to put up some impressive numbers offensively following the injury:
If these five can keep up the good work for about another month—when Longoria could possibly to return—the Rays will stay on the right track and escape what could've been a disastrous fall in the standings. Once Longoria returns, the Rays will only get better, as his defense at third and his big-time power has been dearly missed
Longoria is not the only player that could help the Rays run away with the division once he returns. The Rays have yet to unleash the full potential of their base-running game, as the Rays' three biggest threats on the bases—Desmond Jennings, Sam Fuld and B.J. Upton—have yet to play a single game together this season. As I said before, the Rays' injury issues have negatively impacted every part of their game, and base-running has been a big one. Once Jennings returns (likely later this week), the Rays will get an instant boost on the base paths as they get back their talented stolen-base duo of Jennings and Upton.
Barring any more injuries, the Rays will also be bolstered by the return of Jose Lobaton, Jeff Keppinger and Kyle Farnsworth. Jose Lobaton provides the Rays with the switch-hitting catcher they need, as Chris Gimenez has hit just 0.59 off of right-handed pitching this season. Keppinger gives the Rays' offense a huge boost against left-handed pitching (.417 against lefties this season), as well as some extra depth in the infield. And Farnsworth gives the 'pen another good righty, which is preferable over the likes of Joel Peralta or Burke Badenhop late in games, considering the terrific job he did last year.
The Rays's starting rotation, which—besides Matt Moore—is everything hyped up to be, is another reason to believe the Rays have what it takes win the AL East. It is once again the division's best rotation, and it has continued to carry the Rays through these brutal injuries. Jeff Niemann, who has had a strong start to the season, broke his leg right when he started to heat up and really find his groove at the back end of the rotation. Luckily for the Rays, they happen to have the best starting pitching depth is baseball, and found an effective replacement for Niemann in Alex Cobb. Since being called up, Cobb is 2-0 with a 2.25 ERA through his two starts. I believe with six starters as good as these, the Rays will simply out-pitch their AL East opponents just as they've done in the past years.
One more thing to consider when discussing which team is the favorite to win the AL East is the injury problems amongst the Rays' competition.
Boston currently has seven outfielders on the DL, including stars Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford. Their pitching is their biggest weakness, injuries to three starters (Aaron Cook, John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka) and their closer Andrew Bailey (likely won't return until August) a big reason why.
The Yankees also have their share of injuries, as pretty much half of their bullpen is on the disabled list, including Mariano Rivera (out for the season), Joba Chamberlain (likely out for the season), and David Robertson. They're also missing a much-needed solid starter in Michael Pineda, who will miss all of 2012 as well.
Even the Orioles, who have had a great start to the 2012 season, have been affected by injuries. The big bats of Nolan Reimold, Mark Reynolds and Brian Roberts are all on the DL. Starter Zach Britton—a potential key piece in Baltimore's rotation—is also hurt.
Although the Rays have been bombarded with injuries right from the get go, their AL East foes by no means have been injury-free either. With the Rays having the benefit of less long-term injuries than than the Sox and Yankees thus far this season, I believe they'll use that as an advantage down the stretch. As for the Orioles, well, the Rays hope their early-season success is just a fluke and they won't be in the pennant race once October comes calling.