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Despite losing record, Rays still feel in contention

Decision on whether or not to trade ace Price could have second-half impact

ST. PETERSBURG -- In most any other year, the Rays would be cooked if they went to the All-Star break with a record beneath the .500 mark. Not this season.

The 2014 season has been different. Yes, the Rays headed into the break with a losing record, but given the way they have been playing recently, coupled with the fact the fact that nobody in the American League East seems to want to run away with the division, Tampa Bay feels like it is still in the hunt.

Making the waters murkier on how they should proceed out of the gates in the second half are the trade rumors. Specifically, will they trade David Price? A lot of teams in baseball would love to procure the Rays' ace, and the idea of trading him looked more like a sure thing earlier in the season. Now, Tampa Bay must weigh the cost of trading Price -- no doubt the club could secure an impact player, or players, for the future -- versus keeping him.

Five key developments so far

1. Kiermaier's offense
Everybody knew Kevin Kiermaier could play defense, but the strike against him was the question of whether he could hit. Well, he started hitting once he arrived, and he hasn't stopped hitting since. Kiermaier's presence has given the Rays a much-needed spark on offense and defense.

2. McGee high or low
All the talk about Jake McGee during Spring Training focused on the fact that the hard-throwing left-hander was working on a curveball, and having that pitch would help keep hitters off his fastball. While McGee did work on a curve, he just hasn't used it. Instead, he locates his 97-to-99 mph heater wherever he wants to with great success and little regard for keeping hitters off his fastball.

First-half awards
MVP: Kevin Kiermaier
Gave the offense a much-needed boost when the team needed it most.
Top starter: David Price
Feels as though he's pitching better than he has at any point in his career.
Top rookie: Kevin Kiermaier
Offense has matched his defense.
Top reliever: Jake McGee
The hard-throwing left-hander has been overpowering.

3. Starting pitching depth challenged
When the news came in January that Jeremy Hellickson had right elbow surgery, the starting staff took its first hit. Alex Colome then got suspended for PEDs, which meant one of the team's first options at Triple-A Durham was lost for 50 games. Then Matt Moore had season-ending Tommy John surgery, and Alex Cobb went on the disabled list with an oblique injury. Suddenly, the depth of the Rays' starting pitching was challenged. Fortunately, Jake Odorizzi began to find his way, and veteran Erik Bedard pitched well, too.

4. Bottom feeders
Tampa Bay got off to a slow start, finishing April with an 11-16 record, putting the club in fifth place in the AL East. The Rays alternated fourth and fifth place in May before dropping into last place on May 28 and remaining in the cellar until July 6. On the bright side, no team in the AL East appears capable of running away and hiding, which gives Tampa Bay some hope for the second half.

5. Archer coming into his own
Chris Archer showed quality stuff throughout the first half and is poised to become one of the better pitchers in the league. The right-hander has been overpowering in most of his starts, and he's learning how to better navigate choppy waters when he finds them. 

Second-half storylines

1. Can Longoria find his groove?
Evan Longoria is the Rays' best player -- nobody will contend that simple truth. But to date, he has not had that red-hot month he's shown Tampa Bay fans since first coming to the Major Leagues in 2008. Typically, Longoria has one or two months in which he seemingly can't miss the ball. Since that has not happened yet, the Rays can bank on Longoria having one or two such months in the second half. That's just how Longoria rolls.

2. Will Price finish the season with the Rays?
Once David Price found his stride, he has been one of the best pitchers in the AL. If the Rays are going to make a run to the playoffs, they need him to lead the way. He eats innings and he wins. Alas, if they fall out of the hunt, it's reasonable to expect that Price will get traded. The players Tampa Bay could get for its ace could dramatically impact future seasons. However, the Rays are not prone to react to deadlines like the pending July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline. Chances are Tampa Bay won't be so far out at that juncture that he'll be traded, which means it's likely he'll finish the season as a Ray.

Second-half players to watch
Evan Longoria
Needs to get on a roll and the Rays could follow.
Yunel Escobar
Can be a difference maker when he's at the top of his game.
Grant Balfour
Has to regain his confidence.

3. Does Myers return and thrive?
Wil Myers went down with a fractured left wrist after colliding with Desmond Jennings. He is expected to return sometime in August. Prior to getting injured, Myers did not hit the way he did while earning the 2013 AL Rookie of the Year Award. A Myers return has the potential of giving Tampa Bay the same kind of boost that trading for a player might. If the Rays are still in contention, his power could make a difference. If they are not, there is no reason to rush the youngster back.

4. Cobb's contribution
Cobb was a lock in 2013 and appeared headed for the same kind of consistency this season before he went on the disabled list with an oblique injury. Since returning, he has struggled with his mechanics and, at times, those mechanical issues have lingered in his mind when he took the mound. Cobb wants to get back to the point where he's not thinking about his mechanics so he can completely focus on the hitter. Based on the pitcher he's been thus far in his career, the Rays can count on getting a nice lift from Cobb's second-half work.

5. Is less than 90 wins good enough to reach the playoffs?
Every team in the AL East appears to have warts this season. Translation: 90 wins will likely be a lock to win the division, and a team with less than 90 wins will likely have a chance at winning the East. Now the bad news: The Rays did not play .500 baseball in the first half. That means they must win a lot in the second half to finish with anything close to 88 or 89 wins.

Bill Chastain is a reporter for
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