On Aug. 24, the Tampa Bay Rays were tied for first place in the American League East, threatening to push the Boston Red Sox out of the top spot. Less than three weeks later, the Rays' dreams of winning the East outright are long gone; they're now 8 ½ games behind Boston, after losing the final series between them this week. Even worse, their previously safe wild card berth suddenly is well within the reach of the New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles, Cleveland Indians or even Kansas City Royals. How did the Rays give up so much ground in so little time?
Generally speaking, it was the same way that the Washington Nationals suddenly charged up the National League standings to give Pittsburgh and Cincinnati a run for their spots: They went on a streak. Only instead of the sort of streak that has Ryan Zimmerman hitting eight home runs in 10 games, the Rays' streak has both the hitting and pitching coming up short. The team posted a collective OPS of .707 in August, .711 in September, the lineup's two worst months since April, when the Rays went 12-14. The team's ERA is 4.27 so far this month, when the majority of the Rays' slide has occurred -- a far cry from the staff that led a 21-5 drive in July to take sole possession of first place from Boston, even if only for a few days.
Some of this was predictable. James Loney, for instance, was not very likely to continue to be the hitter he was at the beginning of the year. At this point in his career, we have a fairly good read on what kind of player Loney is, and when he's hitting a very singles-heavy .330 or so as he was earlier in the season, there is every reasonable expectation that his BABIP will correct itself down to somewhere in the neighborhood of his career average of .308. A 29-year-old first baseman who is suddenly hitting a lot more singles probably has not added either the power or speed to his game that would be necessary to sustain that sky-high BABIP, a fact that was also obvious just from watching him.
Luke Scott got hurt again in the second half, and that's not really a surprise either; in his last year in Baltimore, Scott had immense difficulty staying on the field, and that's continued in Tampa Bay. While his overall season line is respectable (if not necessarily impressive), Scott missed the last half of August, and he's put up a .422 OPS since his return in September. The team already has been scrambling to replace the production of the ineffective Kelly Johnson with David DeJesus, and most of the other options for that spot are either players that require a strict platoon or already have a defined role on the club -- the best candidate, Matt Joyce, is both of those things.
The Tampa Bay front office does not like acquiring players midseason, that much is clear from their usual silence at the trade deadline. That's not to say they're completely inactive -- see Ryan Roberts last year or DeJesus this year -- but the Rays generally try to stay away from big splashes. And in fairness to them, the 1B/DH trade market was particularly bad this year. Both of the ones who actually changed teams, Mike Morse and Justin Morneau, are having down seasons, and the asking prices for Josh Willingham and Raul Ibanez were said to be prohibitive. The real get would've been Kendrys Morales from Seattle, but the Mariners seemed fixated on keeping him around. The Rays gambled and lost on Scott's health in the DH spot, and they've found themselves without any means to correct that. That's how these things go sometimes.
Recognizing that sometimes things don't pan out is hardly the same as excusing it, however. While no one should be calling for Andrew Friedman's head over the last three weeks -- even if the Rays miss the playoffs, Friedman should have a leash extending at least through the end of next season, considering what he's done for the club -- and no one should be advocating blowing up the team in a Marlins-esque fire sale. But it might be time for the Rays to re-examine a few things -- such as the their lack of a consistent power threat outside of Evan Longoria and perhaps Wil Myers -- in the offseason, once this race and the postseason after it are settled, especially when they start deciding if and when David Price will be moved. Until then, however, they can only dance with the team they brought, while hoping it's enough to run out the clock on the wild card race.