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You’re likely underrating the Rays

Red Sox Yankees Red Sox Yankees Red Sox Yankee—oh wait, the Rays are pretty much even with them now.

Baltimore Orioles v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

There are three good teams in the AL East, and three things about them are very much true: the Yankees are likely the best team in the division, despite their injuries. The Red Sox are definitely in some trouble, though Chris Sale and others will improve. But most importantly, the Rays are legitimate contenders, and have been.

What seemed like a two-team race between New York and Boston is very much a three-team one as of Thursday:

The Rays, who came into this season with nary a chance of sniffing the division are basically one week away from becoming even with a 100-win team of 2018, and running roughshod over one of the best modern teams from just a season ago. It’s remarkable, and probably not that shocking for people who paid close attention to their 90-win run last season. There are a few simple seasons why this team is absolutely, totally, for real:

1. Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow, of course.

The Chris Archer trade is one of those deals that is going to be talked about for a long, long time, not just because it was derided at the time. It was derided at the time because a middling Pirates team traded prospects they had invested in for a very fine pitcher that doesn’t much move the needle on their short or long-term chances.

Meadows was even at that time considered prospect fatigued, but this season he has hit .350/.426/.700 and has already matched his 2018 home run total at six. His Statcast batted ball profile generally agrees that this is For Real:

While his hard hit rate evidences that he should regress, that seems obvious and probably trivial: ZiPS projects him to hit at a 111 wRC+ clip going forward, and tallying a solid 2.7 WAR in total this season.

Glasnow was likely a developmental issue on Pittsburgh’s part as they shuffled him between the rotation and the pen, and he has rewarded Tampa Bay with four starts with a 1.13 ERA to start the year. A big reason is the increased use of his curve, and the reliance on the fastball has been a Pirates bugaboo for a while now. If he’s anything like his projection, a ~3.75 ERA starter over ~175 innings, then you could call that deal one of the biggest heists in recent memory.

2. Yandy Díaz

Díaz was another possible heist, this on an albeit smaller scale, as they acquired him as part of the three-team trade that sent Jake Bauers to Cleveland and Edwin Encarnacion to Seattle. Now, Bauers is could be a solid player in his own right, but Díaz has already posted eye-popping numbers that could show that there was something to their targeting of him during the trade.

Already hitting .255/.373/.473 with a .218 ISO, the big thing that jumps out is the exit velocity: it has been in the 64th percentile of the league so far, and evidence shows that he is both trying to pull the ball and elevate it a bit more, which has resulted in a slightly higher launch angle than previously. The jury is still out, but they may have found themselves another exciting young player.

3. José Alvarado

I’ll just start off with a GIF:

With Álex Colomé out the door, the save opportunities were basically handed to the 23-year-old out of Venezuela, and while his calling card has traditionally been the sinker, he has now established the fastball as his secondary and it allows him to switch between both, basically making the hitter decide in a split second whether it will have arm side run, or sinker-like dropping action. He can also pair that with a slider that looks like this:

The result has been a 17.8% swinging strike rate, a 39.5% strikeout rate, and a 0.00 ERA to start the season. Relievers are weird as we always say, but it very much looks like this competitive team is putting together the final piece to becoming fully competitive, and that’s a lock-down bullpen with a relief ace.

4. And it’s not like the rest of the roster sucks

I’m really focusing on some upside candidates that could make them better than even their 90-win team last season, but you could make a list of the things this team has done right in building a solid club:

  • The Cardinals basically gave away Tommy Pham, who is en route to his third-straight 3+ WAR season. Ho hum.
  • They added Charlie Morton in the offseason, and remember when he (again, I’m looking at you, Pirates) changed his repertoire with the Astros to more effectively utilize his nearly-unhittable curveball? Well, the Rays are leaning right into that strategy, making it his primary pitch:
  • Blake Snell, despite a fractured toe from coming out of the shower, is still the same, Cy Young candidate Blake Snell.
  • The newly-extended Brandon Lowe already has five home runs and a 164 wRC+ to start the season.

There will be ups and downs, of course, and they will eventually hit a wall or an injury that sets them back, and they don’t necessarily have the depth to withstand injuries than teams who have a payroll beyond $60 million, well below their usual mark.

This means that they, should, in theory, have $10 million of payroll latitude for the rest of the season, and that should be noted as Very Important when you have the generational opportunity of seizing a divisional win when your two rivals are severely weakened for various reasons.

In my opinion, this could be one of the teams to truly watch from hereon out. A supposedly decided division is absolutely not, and the Rays could be poised to improve, and possibly (that’s the key) make additions to push their chips in while they have this chance. Regardless, it’s a wonder they’ve made it this far, and a wonder why more people aren’t paying attention to them as a serious threat league-wide.