The Tampa Bay Rays are normally, no pun intended, a small fish in a big pond. They’ve had some past success, yes, but in the AL East against the mighty Red Sox & Yankees, it’s hard to continually compete.
The Rays came into 2019 promising, but not considered a real threat to win the AL East. They’re a young team, didn’t make many huge offseason splashes, and are generally not well-known. Heck, if you Google “Tampa Bay Rays,” a sidebar pops up with “Tampa Bay Rays famous players” and none of the five dudes they list even play for the Rays.
Despite all this, here in mid-April the Rays find themselves atop the AL East. The Sox are struggling and the Yankees are banged up, yes, but that’s not to discount the Rays playing well. Not only are they in first, as of 4/17 they’re the only team in the entire division over .500.
MLB has long, long season. Obviously a lot can and will change between now and October, but how have the Rays started this hot, and is it sustainable?
I feel like everything with the Rays offense starts with Austin Meadows, flourishing in a classic post-hype prospect situation. Meadows feels like he’s been on the radar forever as the Pirates potential 3-hole hitter of the future, but he’s only 23. After getting flipped to the Rays in the Chris Archer trade (more on that later) he’s suddenly the catalyst in one of the AL’s best offenses. Meadows might not keep up a .349/.423/.683 slash for the remainder of the season, but he looks like a top of the order bat the Rays can count on.
The Rays are also currently being buoyed by contributions of two guys both outdoing their career averages.
Kevin Kiermaier, usually more known for his defensive wizardry in CF, is currently sporting an OPS over .100 higher than his career average, while newcomer Avisail Garcia is nearly .90 over his career number. I think I have more long-term hope that Garcia continues at his current slash than Kiermaier, but quality offensive contributions from both bode well for Tampa Bay. Tommy Pham may not be hitting the ball with much authority at the moment (.338 slugging) but is getting base on a fantastic .375 clip.
Combining all this with the recently extended Brandon Lowe & first basement Ji-Man Choi (both producing above league average) and the Rays might really be able to outlast the AL East in the long run.
The old adage in baseball is “you can’t win if you can’t score,” and no one is feeling that more than the Rays opponents this year. They’re first in baseball with a 2.33 ERA, and are top-five in almost every other meaningful pitching category.
Even with reigning Cy Young winner Blake Snell on the staff (currently on the IL with a broken toe but expected back soon), it’s hard to point out any one arm on the staff who’s been far better than the others.
Tyler Glasnow, also acquired in the Archer trade (told you we’d discuss that later) has looked dominant, as if he’s ready to fulfill every single ounce of promise his 6’ 8” frame has tantalizingly offered for the past couple years.
Filling out the rotation (not counting the Rays “openers”) free agent signee Charlie Morton has picked up where he left off in Houston, sporting a 2.18 ERA (which still leaves him third amongst Rays starters) while Yonny Chirinos has been solid both starting & piggybacking off an opener. Snell has been, well, the usual (2.16 ERA, 36 K’s in 25 innings).
The bullpen is where the Rays are really staking their claim as a potential AL East winner. In a season where bullpen struggles have been apparent throughout MLB, Tampa Bay has four regular relievers that have yet to allow a run (least surprising of which is Jose Alvarado, a new favorite of @PitchingNinja on Twitter).
The Rays might not have the payroll or superstars of other teams in the AL East, but combining a hot start with some potential prospect help en route (is that Brent Honeywell’s music???) they look to at the very least be for real as season-long contenders.
*all stats as of 04/17/19
By Kyle Bandujo