The Most Important 21 Games of the 2014 Season

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The next three weeks are crucial in determining the future of the Tampa Bay Rays.

21 games.

The Tampa Bay Rays are arguably about to enter one of the most important stretches of games you can imagine, when it comes to salvaging a season. Starting tonight against the Miami Marlins, the Rays will have the luxury of playing 18 of their next 21 games at Tropicana Field.

For a team struggling as much as the Rays are right now, and by struggling, I mean 12 games back in the standings, the saying "Home Sweet Home" may never be more appropriate.

The Rays' struggles by the numbers:

8 - games lost in a row (longest since 11-game slide in 2009)

17 - runs scored during eight-game losing streak

11 - of those runs were scored in two games.

16 - consecutive games without a win by a SP

218 - runs scored in 2014, which is good for last in the AL

243 - team batting average (22nd in MLB)

The offensive struggles are immense and well-documented. The team's foundation - pitching and defense - are being completely overshadowed by an anemic offense that couldn't support the team through three injuries to the starting rotation. Alex Cobb has returned, and Hellickson is on his way, but the offense is slumping worse that we thought, fighting to just score a single run in games. Those losses have hurt, but there's more at stake over these next three weeks.

The future of this organization is predicated on how the team performs during these 21 games.

Imagine (it may not be hard at this point) if the Rays continue to slide or even hover around .500 for the next 21 games. The Rays will be at the halfway point in the season and less than a month away from the trading deadline. One would think that all but shoves David Price out the door before the trade deadline and with a minor league system that was ranked 20th in the league, its a farm system that is in need of some impact prospects to help down the line.

A closer look at contracts and players like Ben Zobrist, Matt Joyce or even Grant Balfour could be on the move if the Rays become sellers at the deadline.

Zobrist is eligible for a team option after the season for $7.5 million, but for the kind of offensive production he's shown so far in 2014, it's hard to envision the Rays committing that much money to him for next season. His versatility as a switch hitter and a reliable fielder in multiple positions would bring a lot of value to a team that could be looking to plug multiple holes in the field, in turn, bringing more plus prospects over to the Rays.

Joyce will be going through another year of arbitration after earning $3.7 million last off season. Joyce has yet to duplicate his 2011 season where he batted .277 with 19 HR and 75 RBI and earned him an All-Star berth. He's been unable to garner many opportunities against LHH as the Rays have found most of his value as a DH and necessary outfield replacement against RHP. With Joyce in line to receive a slight bump in salary following this season through arbitration, it would make more sense for the Rays to put feelers out for a potential trade partner who needs a left-handed bat for the stretch run. Joyce probably won't command as much on the open-market, but the return may be enough to convince the Rays' brass to pull the trigger on a trade.

And there there's Balfour's salary, which  jumps to $7 million in 2015. It would make sense to deal him to a playoff team looking for bullpen help down the stretch, but we're not talking about any ol' player in any of these cases.

Although Balfour just returned to the Rays organization, he was an important part of the 2008 World Series run. Joyce has been a mainstay in the Rays outfield since his first full season with the team in 2010. And who symbolizes a "Rays" player more than Ben Zobrist? These are key pieces the Rays would be sending off, and none of that is to mention the King of the trade market chess board: David Price.

Players that have had a direct impact on the turnaround of this franchise could be heading out the door in less than two months if the Rays don't improve quickly in these 21 games. If the Rays are going to turn it around at any point this season, this may very well be their best shot.

Their opponents over the next 21 games have a combined record of 172-176. The only three games on the road during these 21 games is a three-game series in Houston against the Astros. Out of the six different teams the Rays will play over this stretch, none of them are currently more than two games over .500.

They will face some tough pitching as some projected matchups right now have the Rays facing Felix Hernandez, Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha, so it won't be easy. But the Rays have been hitting the ball better at home with a .268 AVG and .731 OPS compared to just a .222 AVG and .678 OPS on the road.

It is plausible to believe the Rays may right the ship offensively to some degree. It's just a matter of if they can put it all together, because with their pitching and defense, they don't need a heck of a lot of offense to win games.

So I would urge you to really tune in, not tune out, and pay attention over these next 21 games. In a worst case scenario, it may not be too long until you see a much different Rays ball club out on the field if things don't change. In a best case scenario, the Rays put together two hot streaks over the next three weeks and inch their way back to .500, which in this division means real playoff contention.

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