ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays sent 14 players to the disabled list in the first half of the season, the second most in the American League.
By the end of the season, that list may be down to Brandon Guyer, who underwent left shoulder surgery, and Robinson Chirinos, whose status is still uncertain due to a concussion.
The first player to come off the DL may be Sam Fuld. The outfielder is currently on a rehab assignment for Class A Advanced Charlotte and has gone 1-for-8 in his time there. He is expected to play seven innings in left field on Thursday after playing seven in center field on Wednesday.
Another likely candidate is fellow outfielder Matt Joyce, who dealt with back tightness in a rehab assignment just before the All-Star break. He was originally placed on the DL because of a left oblique injury, which he said has healed and allowed him to take batting practice.
"Right now, we're looking within two weeks," Joyce said about a possible return date. "I'm pretty optimistic about that."
Right-handed starter Jeff Niemann was seen playing catch with pitcher Wade Davis before the team's optional workout on Thursday, and executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said Niemann could be back in August.
Third baseman Evan Longoria's status remains in question, however. Friedman said that because of the nature of Longoria's partially torn left hamstring, it's difficult to assess when he may return to the club. All that Friedman would say is that he expects Longoria to be healthy before the end of the season.
"I'm confident that he will be back, and I'm not putting a timetable on it," Friedman said. "Hopefully in the next couple weeks, it will be a little more evident of what we can expect."
Friedman also added that should the circumstance arise, he would not be hesitant to call up a player from Triple-A Durham, saying he would be comfortable with a number of options, including right-hander Chris Archer and infielder Reid Brignac, among others.
Zobrist recognized for consistent hustle
ST. PETERSBURG -- Rays utility man Ben Zobrist said he felt the word "hustle" meant running as hard as possible at all times.
It's that mentality on the diamond that made him the Rays' winner of the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association's Heart and Hustle Award, given to the player who "demonstrates a passion for the game of baseball and best embodies the values, spirit and tradition of the game."
"Any time you get nominated for an award, it's because other people think well of you in some regard," Zobrist said. "I feel honored that people think that way about the way I play the game and hopefully the way we all as a team go about our business."
Each team has an award winner who will be recognized at an upcoming game. Near the end of the season, all alumni and active players will vote among the 30 candidates for a final winner, joining the ranks of Torii Hunter, Roy Halladay and Albert Pujols.
"The way the game was played in the past is the reason we still have the game to play today, because those guys played it the right way," Zobrist said. "I feel honored that alumni would think that was about the way I play."
Rays expect defense to return to form
ST. PETERSBURG -- As poorly as the Rays' offense has performed at times this year, especially of late, the team's defense may be even worse.
Tampa Bay has committed the second-most errors in the Majors with 71, just four behind American League East rival Baltimore.
Rays manager Joe Maddon said he wants his team to focus on fielding, which could indirectly benefit the club's pitching and hitting.
"Our true identity is pitching and defense," Maddon said. "To really get back to that, I'd like to see that, and I think the rest of the group would feed off that. I think you'd see an uptick in the offense. ... Who we are is we pitch and we play defense well, and everything spins off that."
A number of injuries to position players has forced Tampa Bay to plug players in at different spots, but executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said he thought the defense would be more sound halfway through the season.
"The one thing going into the year I expected to be the bellwether for us would be our defense, and I think that's the area that's been the most surprising," Friedman said. "I think we all collectively are betting on who these guys are and what we expect them to do over the next three months defensively is going to fit in much more with who they are."
Infielder Sean Rodriguez leads the team with 11 errors on the season, with Elliot Johnson trailing him at nine and Will Rhymes not far behind with eight. Perhaps even more significantly, AL Gold Glove Award-winning third baseman Evan Longoria has been out since late April, and his absence has had an effect on the team.
Despite all of his team's problems, Friedman is optimistic the Rays' fielding will improve in the second half.
"A number of guys haven't performed I think the way they would tell you they expected going into the year," Friedman said. "We're big on betting on track records. I think what we're going to see in the second half will be much more in line with who these guys are than necessarily what we saw in the first half."
Greg Zeck is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.