Last year, the Devil Rays hit the All-Star break at 28-61 (.315), then went 39-34 (.534) in the second half thanks in large part to the mid-season promotion of Jonny Gomes and a fantastic second half from Scott Kazmir. This year, the Rays will reach the break with a record at least ten games better than a year ago and are once again set up for a strong second half.
The Yankees last faced the Devil Rays in early May when nearly half of the D-Rays starting line-up was on the DL. The day after the Rays left New York, they activated shortstop Julio Lugo and third baseman Aubrey Huff. Huff struggled through May, but turned it on in June, hitting .359/.400/.543, bringing to mind the extra 100 points of OPS he added after the break last year, aiding the Ray's strong second half showing. Lugo has followed a similar course this year (.349/.439/.604 in June after a dreadful May), though he was actually less productive in the second half last year.
A month later, the Rays added to Huff and Lugo by activating second baseman Jorge Cantu and center fielder Rocco Baldelli. Bringing Cantu back into the fold has allowed the Rays to finally bench Travis Lee (.201/.286/.296 this year) by moving Ty Wigginton, who previously started at third for Huff before moving to second for Cantu, to first base. Baldelli, meanwhile, has come back from a year and a half on the DL due to an ACL tear and Tommy John surgery and lit into American League pitching, hitting .330/.387/.567 (though his center field defense has been atrocious, if error-free).
Of course, none of those four players could be expected to keep up that level of production, and there's a strong chance that Huff and Lugo, both of whom are in their walk years, could be traded. But a large part of the Rays' improvement has simply been benching or other wise disposing of the players those four have replaced: Lee, Thomas Perez (.172/.200/.250), new Kansas City Royal Joey Gathright (.201/.305/.240), and the since released Sean Burroughs and Nick Green.
What's more, activating those four aren't the only improvements the Rays have made over the past two months. They've finally ended the Damon Hollins' experiment in right field, replacing his all-or-nothing approach with the superior all-or-nothing approach of Russell Branyan (both have 10 homers, Hollins in 208 at-bats, Branyan in 114). More significantly, they finally cut bait on Toby Hall (.262/.298/.382 career and the Rays' starting catcher since 2002), swapping him to the Dodgers for former Yankee prospect Dioner Navarro (5 for 14 with a double and three walks since switching team and .283/.367/.382 overall in his young major league career). In addition to already being a better hitter than Hall, Navarro is also eight and a half years younger.
The Navarro deal also saw the Rays swap out Mark Hendrickson (sweet mercy) for ex-Met Jae Weong Seo, which gives the Rays a starting pitcher with a higher ceiling who is also three years younger. The Seo-Hendrickson exchange is one of three changes the Rays have made to their rotation since we've last seen them, having also farmed out 25-year-old failed prospects Doug Waechter and Seth McClung for 24-year-old Jamie Shields and 28-year-old Tim Corcoran. The significance here isn't the additions of Shields and Corcoran (no relation) so much as, once again, the removal of the players they've replaced, a pair of pitchers who couldn't get their ERAs below 6.60.
Tonight the Rays send Seo to the mound to face Jaret Wright. Wright was lit up by the Mets in his last start, getting the hook after just 1 2/3 innings, just the second time all season he failed to make it through five full innings, the other being his first start all the way back on April 15. Seo, who had been demoted to the bullpen with the Dodgers, has made two appearances since coming over from L.A., the first a pair of scoreless relief innings in Florida, the second a Jaret-Wright-like five-inning outing against the Nationals.