MINNEAPOLIS — Andrew Friedman believed in this Tampa Bay Rays team before the season began, believed in it enough to ensure that nearly every player is under team control for several years.
After a first half of starts and stops and extended periods of ineffective play, Friedman said he still believes in the cast he assembled last winter.
And that might be the best thing going for the Rays as they open the second half of the season tonight against the Twins at Target Field.
“Our biggest challenge is to go through and assess how much three months changes our thought process, and I would contend it doesn't change it all that much in that each individual player, when we look at it, we don't feel any different,” Friedman, the Rays executive vice president of baseball operations, said before the All-Star break. “We feel confident in the second half of the season we're going to win a lot of games. Will it be enough? I don't know the answer to that.”
The Rays begin play tonight nine games under .500 and 9 1⁄2 games behind the first-place Orioles in the AL East. They hope the four-day break doesn't halt the momentum gained when they won 13 of their last 18 games.
The players also hope Friedman has enough confidence in them that he doesn't break up the team by trading for the future.
Staff ace David Price, obviously, is the biggest chip. But the Giants have been scouting second baseman Ben Zobrist for some time, and there is talk the Cardinals have interest in infielder/outfielder Sean Rodriguez.
“That's the business of it,” said pitcher Alex Cobb, who faces the Twins tonight.
When asked if he anticipated making any moves, Friedman said, “I have no idea. We've never classified ourselves as buyers or sellers in any year. Our focus thus far has been on guys that we have targeted, and guys that we like, guys we feel fit us going forward. There's obviously different acquisition costs to obtain different guys, and so that's something we'll assess in the next couple of weeks, and there are so many variables that go into it, that's hard to give a hard and fast answer.”
Friedman won't make a deal unless it will benefit the Rays in the coming years. So don't expect Price to be moved in a salary dump before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline should the Rays stumble from the gate in the second half.
Price is of the belief that the better the Rays play, the better his chances of staying. He just hopes his teammates are not applying too much pressure on themselves to win in order to keep the band together during the second half of the season.
Since June 11, the Rays are 20-11, tied with the Orioles for the best record in the AL East during that span. The Yankees are a game under .500, while the Blue Jays are 10 games under .500 during that stretch.
The Rays still view this as a winnable division. The Orioles have the second-lowest winning percentage (.553) of any first-place team in the division at the All-Star break since the 2000 Yankees (.542).
“If we keep winning series and winning games and come back a half a game at a time, we'll be in there at the end,” reliever Jake McGee said.
Added Rodriguez, “The first half is the first half. We have to put it aside and say, all right, if we play better in the second half than we did in the first half we're going to give ourselves a shot.”
The Rays found their footing during the last 31 games because the starting pitchers went deeper into games, which kept the bullpen rested. It all worked because the offense came to life.
“I think it's just a combination of our team playing the way it's capable of playing,” Zobrist said. “Our pitchers are going to pitch better more than they're going to pitch worse. Our hitting is going to score enough runs to win more than not.
“That wasn't happening earlier in the season. We knew we were capable of it, it just wasn't happening. We knew it wouldn't last forever. It just lasted longer than we expected.
“Now that it's going well, we can't look at the past and focus on that. We're going to focus on the games we have left and the fact that we're still close enough within striking distance of the division.”