Only three games back in the American League East standings after Saturday’s loss, the Tampa Bay Rays are a surprise contender this year. After leading the division for much of the first three months of the year, however, the Rays’ season appears to be beginning to come off the rails. Tampa Bay has lost seven straight, and nine of 10. In the process, they have nearly been no-hit four times — by mostly unheralded pitchers, no less — and have scored only 11 runs in the process.
Despite having spent 29 days in first place this season, the Rays have a run differential of negative five. They rank near the bottom of the league in all major offensive categories. Just how bad have things gotten? Well, Grady Sizemore, who couldn’t hack it with the last place Philadelphia Phillies, served as the team’s cleanup hitter in Thursday’s 5-4 loss to the Cleveland Indians. James Loney, a consistent, if unspectacular presence in the middle of the lineup last year, has played only 30 games this season. Evan Longoria continues to suffer through a power outage with a near career-low .413 slugging percentage and only eight home runs. The cornerstone third baseman has seen his power numbers decline dramatically since his 32 home run season in 2013. If ever there were a player in need of protection in the lineup, it is Longoria. Second baseman Logan Forsythe, he of the career .363 slugging percentage, leads the team. Rookie Steven Souza has struck out 104 times in only 76 games, and is one of four Rays’ regulars with an on-base percentage below .300 — the Mendoza line for OBP, if you will. A folding chair may be more likely to get a base hit than Rene Rivera, the everyday catcher despite a .169/.205/.280 slash line.
Clearly, the Rays have problems offensively, but it has not held them back to the point where they are out of contention. This franchise has kept its head above water the past decade by making smart decisions, and mostly building a roster around a core of young, hard-throwing starting pitchers. Offense has mostly been an afterthought, but if the Rays hope to have any chance to hang with the slugging teams above them in the standings, it must be addressed.
Although wonder boy Andrew Friedman now resides in sunny California, the Rays cannot get complacent in their wheelings and dealings. The Rays have a well-stocked farm system, and an overload of middle infield talent. Their top-30 prospect list is littered with shortstops and second basemen. While the Rays may be practicing the draft approach of drafting the best athletes and figuring out where they play later, it’s clear they have a glut of talent at two of the most valuable positions on the field.
The Rays have typically shied away from trading prospects in the past, preferring to build gradually with homegrown talent. That approach pays off every few years, but it is clear 2015 is not one of those years for the Rays. The pitching performances by Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, and Nate Karns, however, should not be wasted, just because the offense is anemic. The Rays have the pieces in place to go out and get an impact bat, and it is time for them to do so.
Across the country, the struggling San Diego Padres are clearly not living up to expectations. Now 38-43 and down a manager, the Padres bankrupted their farm system in hopes of keeping up with the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants. Wil Myers, Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, Craig Kimbrel, Derek Norris, and James Shields were all added in a hopes of contending. Clearly, those moves were for naught. Part of the reason the Padres have continued to struggle is the fact that two of the team’s most glaring holes — second base, third base, and shortstop — went unaddressed in GM A.J. Preller’s trade bonanza. Also worth mentioning is the fact that one of the pieces sent to the Washington Nationals to complete the Myers trade was Trea Turner, the Padres’ 2014 first round pick at shortstop who has raked to the tune of .314/.382/.448 in his first two seasons and could very well be called up come September. It also doesn’t help that at only 30, Kemp appears to be in rapid decline and that Myers has continued to struggle with injuries.
Those holes up the middle, make the Rays and Padres a trade match made in heaven. San Diego traded for Justin Upton in an all-in-for-2015 type of trade. Upton will be a free agent following the season, and it is hard to imagine he will want to play out the middle of his peak years in Petco Park, where fly balls go to die. Upton has actually hit 11 of his 14 home runs at home this year, but still, there are very few power hitters who would willingly sign away their best years to play in Petco. With the Padres far out of contention, and going backwards by the day, Preller needs to seriously consider trying to rebuild his farm system. Trading Upton to the Rays for middle infield prospects starts that process in motion.
Will the Rays really be willing to make a deal like this? They have been reluctant in the past, and seem to operate on their own schedule. It is hard to imagine them pushing all their chips to the middle of the table for one playoff berth as Billy Beane did last year. But, with the type of pitching the Rays have, a playoff run similar to the Kansas City Royals’ run a year ago would not be out of the question. They’ve just got to get to the playoffs to make it happen.
The Rays have eight middle infielders in their top-30 prospects, and three shortstops in the top-10 — Daniel Robertson, Willy Adames, and Adrian Rondon. Only one can play for big club. Having that type of depth is valuable only if used properly. The farm system’s job is not just to develop players for the Major Leagues. It is also to build trade chips to help a team win immediately. The Rays have not used their system that way in the past, but this season should change that.
Both franchises are wild cards in this trade equation. Will the Padres be willing to admit defeat and deal Upton? Will the Rays be willing to break from their normal path and trade prospects to make a playoff push? Neither question can really be answered at this point, but both sides have the pieces in place to make this deal happen. Justin Upton would fill a gaping hole in the middle of the Tampa Bay lineup, and management must consider acquiring him if he becomes available. With Upton, the Rays become an infinitely more dangerous team, and a real threat to win the American League pennant.
Follow Josh Sadlock on Twitter: @JoshSadlock