1. ARE THE RAYS LEGIT?
Yes, yes, and yes again. I feel like the only one who said before Spring Training started that these guys were going to be right up there with the Red Sox and Yankees for the division race. The Rays' youth is going to show down the stretch, in a good way. They'll have more energy and less injuries... and because of their franchise history, they're definitely going to have the willpower to make a serious drive at the AL East crown. Scott Kazmir, James Shields, Matt Garza, Andy Sonnanstine... and heck, even Edwin Jackson.. round out a quality pitching rotation that has proven they can shut down the best of the best. The Rays' bullpen is downright nasty. Grant Balfour has a 13.4 K/9 and a 1.08 ERA, J.P. Howell is 6-0 with a 2.96 ERA in 31 relief appearances, Dan Wheeler has a 1.82 ERA in 39 relief appearances, and, when healthy, Troy Percival has been solid. That's not to mention a returning Kurt Birkins and Al Reyes, and a possible David Price callup. When you actually break this staff down, it's easy to figure out why they have the best bullpen in the Majors right now.
Their offense might be even scarier than their pitching. The electric B.J. Upton and Akinori Iwamura provide constant spark, Carl Crawford is Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena is still slugging his way to MLB stardom, and veterans Eric Hinske, Cliff Floyd, Jonny Gomes, and Gabe Gross provide a sense of stability in the outfield. But the biggest story is my homeboy Evan Longoria. This high prospect is starting to show critics why he was signed for 9 years. The 22 year old rookie is hitting .275 with 15 homers and 50 RBIs in only 74 games, which is equivalent to 33 homers and 109 RBIs in 162 games. Oh, and their catcher, Dioner Navarro, is hitting .312. This is a solid offense 1-9 with some nice bench power, and they'll be able to stand up to any pitcher all throughout the second half.
There are three basic components to a baseball team: hitting, pitching, and defense. The hitting and pitching was just covered, so now on to the defense. Tampa's defense is the best in the bigs. Period. They have no liabilities anywhere. Whether it's at catcher (Dioner Navarro), first base (Carlos Pena), second base (Akinori Iwamura), shortstop (Jason Bartlett), third base (Evan Longoria), or outfield (Crawford, Upton, Hinske/Gross), the Rays are comparable to anybody. This team is solid in every aspect of the game and they're only getting better. The Rays will either win the AL East or grab the AL Wild Card this year... which means, yes, either the Red Sox or Yankees will be out of it.
2. WILL THE TWO NEW YORK TEAMS END UP IN THE PLAYOFFS?
Right now, I'm saying no. I'll start with the Mets.
The Mets have talent, but face it people, their woes are not just due to managerial problems or clubhouse attitudes. They're just not as good as everyone cracked them up to be. Carlos Delgado is on the horizon of his career, Carlos Beltran is one of the most overrated and overpaid players in baseball, and they're pitching is dismal. I like Oliver Perez, but it might be time for the Mets to go in a different direction. Pedro Martinez can provide some veteran stability down the stretch, but this guy isn't what he used to be and he's not going to pitch more than 100 innings this year. John Maine and Johan Santana have been decent, but due to a lack of offense, their records are 8-6 and 7-7 respectively. They simply have no starting pitching. Mike Pelfrey isn't going to be their savior, so unless they make a move for C.C. Sabathia at the break, they're done for. Their bullpen isn't terrible, but not good enough. Billy Wagner is this year's version of the 2006 Jason Isringhausen. The Mets jsut don't have the unity or ability to catch up with the Philadelphia Phillies for the division title, and the Wild Card is obviously going to come from the NL Central, so the Mets really don't have a shot at that either.
For the Yankees, I'm giving a tentative no. The Yankee history has been to catch fire late in the season, but they've never had two teams to topple. It's always just been the Red Sox, but now the Rays have spoiled the Boston/New York party. The Yankees are a bit too streaky if you ask me. Robinson Cano has had his moments, but is still hitting below .250 for the year, Derek Jeter has been highly inconsistent with his bat and in the field, and Melky Cabrera is hitting sub-.250. It also doesn't help that Chien-Ming Wang got hurt, and that the Ian Kennedy/Philip Hughes expiriment failed miserably. Mike Mussina and Andy Pettite are doing their best to pick up the slack, but face it folks: Sidney Ponson and Darrell Rasner don't cut it as your 4-5 pitchers. Joba Chamberlain can be dominant, but he's still in a transition phase and won't be consistent in the rotation. There are too many uncertainties with the Yankees that the Red Sox and Rays don't have for me to assume that they'll catch up.
3. WHAT MOVES WILL WE SEE HAPPEN BEFORE THE TRADE DEADLINE?
As is normally the case with trade deadlines, the one trade that WON'T happen is the one that is most publicized. C.C. Sabathia isn't going anywhere. It'd basically be a give-up-your-farm-system-to-rent-this-dude-for-half-a-season type of thing. The Yankees, Phillies, Red Sox, Dodgers, and anyone else who might be interested aren't going to do that. One move I can foresee, however, is Erik Bedard. He might go to Philly, Tampa, LA (Dodgers), or even the Bronx. Bedard is definitely on the block, and he'd be more appealing to clubs since he's in the first year of a 5 year contract.
The one relief pitcher that I see almost positively getting traded is Damaso Marte. He's a quality left-handed power pitcher, and a team like the Yankees or Phillies would love him for their playoff pushes.
Infielders: Wilson Betemit would be a card in any trade the Yankees make, the Mets and Mariners may try to move Delgado, Richie Sexson, and Jose Vidro. The one infielder who I don't see going anywhere is Mark Teixeira, whom people seem to think is available.
Catchers: I don't think any available catchers will be moving at the deadline.