The New York Yankees have had their share of ups and downs through their first 32 games, but as they enjoy an off day they do sit in first place in the American League East, percentage points ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays. Here is a question to ponder: Are the Rays a legitimate threat to the Yankees in 2011, or should Yankee fans still only realistically worry about Boston?
The Red Sox are four games back and still under .500 at 16-18. Don't let the slow start lull you to sleep, however. The Red Sox are a very good, very dangerous baseball team. Carl Crawford is not going to finish the season hitting .211, J.D. Drew is not going to hit .227 and Dustin Pedroia is going to do far better than his current .236 average. Boston will also eventually tire of John Lackey's 7.16 ERA and Daisuke Matsuzaka's frustrating inconsistency, and get its starting pitching straightened out. The Red Sox will be there at the end.
The real question is, will Tampa Bay? The other question is how have the 20-14 Rays, left for dead after a miserable off-season, gotten to a virtual tie with the Yankees at this point? Especially after starting 0-6.
Tampa Bay lost Crawford to Boston, closer Rafael Soriano to the Yankees and first baseman Carlos Pena to the Chicago Cubs. They have gotten just eight games thus far from star third baseman Evan Longoria. They signed Manny Ramirez for some offense, then watched him retire after just five games.
How are the Rays winning games? Amazingly, a bullpen with ex-Yankee Kyle Farnsworth leading the way with seven saves and an ERA of 0.75 has been a key part of the equation. Can Farnsworth really be a reliable replacement for Soriano in the heat of a pennant race? History, and the Yankees' experience with him, would say no. Casey Kotchman is hitting .355 and has shown to be a more than adequate replacement for Pena, who hit just .227 and .196 the past two seasons.
Tampa Bay, though, seems to living mostly with its starting pitching. James Shields, David Price, Wade Davis and Jeremy Hellickson have started a combined 27 games, and Hellickson's 3.72 ERA is the highest among the four of them.
Right now, that is starting pitching neither the Yankees nor the Red Sox have been able to match. If the Rays keep getting that kind of work from their starting rotation you would have to think that yes, indeed, the Rays could be a legitimate playoff threat all the way to the end.