NEW YORK — After losing three out of four games to the Yankees over the weekend, the Rays left New York City two games further back in the American League East and with an unusually revamped roster.
On Thursday, Tampa Bay acquired veteran southpaw Dan Jennings; later that same day, the team acquired lefty slugger Lucas Duda; and Friday, the Rays shipped out swingman Erasmo Ramirez for veteran reliever Steve Cishek.
It was a welcome sight for a Rays team on the precipice of a playoff run. It was also an unusual scenario for Evan Longoria, who has manned third base in Tampa Bay since 2008. He has led the team to the World Series (2008) and four postseason appearances (2008, 2010, 2011, and 2013). In that time, the organization's most significant deadline acquisition was reliever Jesse Crain (2013), who never pitched due to a shoulder injury.
Longoria is not used to sudden changes to the roster, and while the upgrades are improvements, the three-time American League All-Star is cautious of a revamped team.
"I have got a lot of belief in the group of guys we have in here," Longoria said to DRaysBay in an interview before Thursday's series opener. "I don't know if adding more guys at the deadline and mixing up the chemistry we have is better or worse."
The Rays have not made a postseason appearance since 2013, losing a five-game AL Division Series to the eventual World Series-winning Red Sox. Since then, the team has suffered through three consecutive sub-.500 seasons. Meanwhile, franchise stalwarts such as David Price, Ben Zobrist, Carl Crawford, and Melvin Upton Jr. enjoyed varying degrees of success elsewhere.
Manager Kevin Cash, who succeeded Joe Maddon after the 2015 season, said over the weekend that the upgrades are a sign of a winning culture — which hasn’t always been the case.
“Well it hasn’t been the case because we haven’t been good enough,” Cash said. “That’s kind of on me and the guys that have been here. We’re appreciative of the guys because they’ve won ball games and [the front office] wants to do everything to help out.”
All of the Rays’ acquisitions made appearances this week: Cishek pitched yesterday afternoon, picking up the win in relief, Duda is 3-for-7 with two home runs as a Ray and Jennings tossed two-thirds of an inning in Sunday’s 5-3 win, his third appearance.
While Longoria is cautious of the team tearing down its core, he is thrilled with the team upgrading the bullpen. The team’s relief corps has been atrocious at times this season with Alex Colome — the Rays’ All-Star closer with 30 saves — saddled by a 3.59 ERA and 1.34 WHIP while being the lone consistent performer.
"Short of adding Tommy Hunter, who was probably our biggest offseason bullpen acquisition, I don't think, for whatever reason, [the bullpen] was something they focused on until now,” Longoria said.
Using Alex Cobb, Jake Faria, Chris Archer, Blake Snell, and a healthy Jake Odorizzi before giving way to effective relievers is the gameplan. Sergio Romo, a pitcher with experience closing out World Series games, was added last Monday. Also, Brad Boxberger, who saved 41 games for the Rays just two seasons ago, is a part of the core. It’s an exciting time for these arms to pitch high-leverage innings.
“It gives another meaning in August and September,” Boxberger said to DRaysBay before Friday’s 6-1 loss to the Yankees. “Instead of being ready to finish the season strong for yourself, it’s a team effort to compete in every game and every game matters instead of just checking the days off until you go home.”
Despite the disappointing weekend, the Rays are just 3.5 games out of first in the AL East and 2.5 games back of the Royals for the second AL Wild Card spot. An upgraded offense with Duda cleaning up for Longoria, Steve Souza Jr., Logan Morrison and 2017 All-Star Corey Dickerson remains a potent threat to the rest of the AL.
Yet, it will be the pitching that determines the Rays’ fate, and much less so the bullpen, according to Longoria.
“You live and die by your starting pitching,” Longoria added. "I’m sure we would love to have the best player at every position so I would never say 'no, we can't improve.'"
The Rays have improved — on paper at least — and after today’s 4 P.M. trade deadline passes, and all of MLB sets course for the final two months, the true test begins.