To the surprise of many, the Tampa Bay Rays rule over the AL East with an iron fist mid-way through April with the best record in baseball (13-4, .765 winning %) and a somewhat astonishing 5.5 game division lead over the second place New York Yankees heading into Wednesday. If you combine the division lead for every other division in baseball, it’s only 5 games.
The Yankees sit 2 games under .500, with the defending division champions Boston Red Sox sitting in 5th place at 6-12 (7.5 games behind the Rays). The Orioles and Blue Jays are currently in a deadlock tie for 3rd as of this writing. Expectations were high for the Red Sox, Yankees and their vaunted rivalry heading into the young season, but the Red Sox pitching has been absolutely atrocious (6.09 staff ERA thus far) and the Yankees have been bit by an injury bug. The Bronx Bombers currently have 9 players on the DL, including former NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton, ace Luis Severino and All-Star relief anchor Dellin Betances. All facets of the Yankees game is slowly deteriorating, but luckily it’s still early. However, this early hole could end up being the difference. The Rays being 13-4 have nothing to do with the Sox or Yankees performance because they have yet to play them this season, and it may ultimately be how they play them that wins them the division.
The Rays won a quiet 90 games last season following a horrific 1-7 start. They didn’t get their best player until the July 31st non-waiver trade deadline, and had a winning record against both New York and Boston in 2018. They were projected to lose 100 games that year following the departure of franchise icon Evan Longoria, and talents such as Corey Dickerson and Logan Morrison who played way over their career totals in the 2017 season. Since the end of the 2016 season, the Rays have traded 20 different high profile talents, and didn’t have high expectations. But, they had something brewing. With the breakout of 2018 AL Cy Young award winner Blake Snell and a frustratingly potent offense; the emergence of the most creative manager in the game and his historic pitching strategy combined with an analytics staff second to none, the Rays wanted to make some noise.
The Rays just missed the second wild-card spot to the Oakland Athletics in a rather loaded American League East. With no major free agents and a core locked down long-term, the Rays had arguably the best off-season in franchise history. They kicked off the off-season signing ace Charlie Morton to take a starting spot. The All-Star starter signed the largest free agent deal in franchise history and the results show (2-0, 2.25 ERA and 25 Ks in 4 games in 2019). They traded for Mike Zunino, a massive upgrade to a rather weak defensive catching core that consisted of lesser known backstops Michael Perez, Nick Ciuffo and Jesus Sucre at the end of the 2018 campaign. They traded for Yandy Diaz and signed Avisail Garcia who have been early power sources for a mainly station-to-station Rays squad.
Other moves the Rays made were rather unnoticeable minor league signings such as Jason Coats, Emilio Bonifacio, and Jake Smolinski. Perhaps the best moves they made were extending the leaders of the youth movement. Reigning American Cy Young Award recipient Blake Snell (1.89 ERA, 221 Ks, 21-5 in 2018) signed for well-below perceived market value at 5 years/$50M. Brandon Lowe, one of the Rays’ most prized utility players, signed an extension for $24M over the next six seasons. The results are paying off astonishingly. Blake Snell, before his DL stint (will miss 1 start), is 2-1 with a 2.16 ERA to start the season. Lowe, on the other hand, has an OPS over .900.
The Rays roster features some of the most talented players in baseball but they have the lowest payroll, and the core locked down for the forseeable future. How did this come across; and which players are pillars for the Tampa Bay Rays other than Snell, Morton and Lowe?
Probably the Rays most potent hitter, Tommy Pham came over from St. Louis in a surprise deadline trade last season, and has made an immediate impact. Since the trade, he is third in baseball in OBP, only behind two MVPs: Mike Trout and Christian Yelich.
Since the trade, the Rays have gone 41-15 in the games Pham has been in the starting lineup. He has reached base in all but 2 of those 56 games, including a 48-game on-base streak (the longest such streak currently active). Pham is one of the faster dude’s on a squad known for its speed, can flash the pop or go to the gaps and plays excellent defense. Even with his frustrations about Tampa being notably vented this past December, he’s backed up every word he’s said. If anybody plays the Rays still of station-to-station then ambush baseball, it’s the in-your-face, exciting to watch Pham.
In Spring of 2018, the Rays were the laughing stock of baseball when manager Kevin Cash announced his “Opener” strategy. The idea was to open the game with a reliever so that the 1-2-3 hitters didn’t see the starting pitcher 3 times in the game, but the starter goes longer in the game. It basically exchanges the 6th inning for the 1st inning. Cash, however, firmly believed in the strategy and used it all year. The Rays used the strategy in 55 of their 162 games played in 2018, and won 33 games total in those 55. That gave them a .581 winning percentage when they used it, compared to their .542 with regular starting pitching. The Rays were stellar in the first inning, when starting pitchers normally would have to settle in. The Rays so far in 2019 have given up a mere 3 first inning runs in around 20 games. The strategy has helped the staff in enormous ways many people didn’t find feasible while allowing young prospects such as Yonny Chirinos and Jalen Beeks to settle in at the big league level. At the forefront of this revolution is marketing guru and Noah Syndergaard’s doppleganger, Ryne Stanek. The flame-throwing Stanek was really the only person to believe in it. When asked how he felt that he couldn’t get the win because he doesn’t reach the five inning qualifications, he responded with a simple “I can only get the L, so I won’t get the damn L” and ran with it. Catching hitters off-guard with the unique strategy, Stanek broke out as one of the game’s premiere (faux) relievers. He posted a sub-3 ERA in 59 games, with 89 strikeouts in 66 1/3 innings pitched, which averages out to around 11-per-9-innings. For comparison sake, he walked less than 4 over every 9 innings and was a big reason for the Rays success using the strategy, which now can be seen in use by teams such as the Milwaukee Brewers. He’s been doing a lot of media and even has his owner “Opener” team giveaways, bringing major publicity to the team whilst performing on the field.
Shoutout to Ryne Stanek for making the heads of both statisticians (like myself) and baseball traditionalists bang against every wall in their home. Whatever works, right?
Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows
Two of the lesser known but more devastating pieces the Rays have are that of Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows. The Rays traded long-time, default ace Chris Archer to the Pirates last season for prospect bust Tyler Glasnow, top prospect Austin Meadows and pitching prospect Shane Baz.
The moment the Rays got a hold of Glasnow, he seemingly became the James Shields of the staff, considering what Shields meant to the franchise in the seven seasons he spent in a Rays uniform. Glasnow is at the top of the leaderboards in the AL in strikeouts this year, with a 0.53 ERA prior to yesterday’s game against Baltimore where he gave up 2 runs over 7 innings and was awarded the winning decision. The 2 runs raised his ERA to 1.13, which is still the best in the league. I mean, just look at this wizardry?
Austin Meadows, on the other hand, is a corner outfield who raked in the Pittsburgh system. Pittsburgh, however, had former Ray Corey Dickerson, Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco blocking his path to an everyday lineup spot. Needing a starting pitcher, naturally they felt obliged to include him in any deal for a proven arm. Meadows opened the season with a lead-off homerun against former AL MVP and future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander and never looked back. He’s top 5 in the American League with 6 homeruns so far, and a .350 batting average. He has a 1.126 OPS and is absolutely living up to the hype the Steel City had heard about for years. He recently hit a ball into the 500 section of the Rogers Centre and won the AL Player of the Week.
Meadows leads all Rays hitters in WAR, while Glasnow leads all Rays pitchers in WAR. The Pirates made a big mistake.
The final player I’ll cover today is the most well known: Kevin Kiermaier. Aptly nicknamed “The Outlaw”, Kiermaier broke in 2015 as a conseus top-3 defensive center fielder in baseball. He’s known for his efficient routes, Henderson-like speed dashing through the outfield grass (in this case, artificial turf), daring dives and tremendous accuracy. He has a great throwing arm and is the closest thing baseball has seen to the second coming of Andruw Jones. His value in the field is invaluable but unfortunately for the Rays, his injury history is heavy and his bat leaves a lot to be desired. The Rays acquired Guillermo Heredia in the aforementioned Mariners’ trade that brought Mike Zunino to St. Pete, just as depth precaution if they lose Kiermaier’s glove. The issue is that even when healthy, he isn’t quite at the plate the level we’ve seen in the past. KK had his worst season last year, with an on-base clip at .282, which was the batting average for a lot of guys on the team. His occasional pop was there (7 homeruns in only 88 games), but it wasn’t nearly enough to be a difference maker. The Rays still won 90 games, with Kiermaier playing a lot in the leadoff spot that’s now occupied by a very hot Meadows. Kiermaier, in a small sample size, has started far better with a .344 on-base clip. If he keeps that up and gets back to his regular numbers, the Rays are even more formidable.
The rest of the lineup is extremely interesting as well. The development of shortstop Willy Adames is an interesting storyline as he’s considered by many an “elite prospect.” Joey Wendle and Matt Duffy are expected to be back from the injured list soon, and it’ll be interesting to see what corresponding moves Tampa makes with everybody in the lineup currently hitting. This only makes the Rays stronger, just like a full season of Pham, Glasnow, Lowe and Meadows. The Rays still have less than $50M in guaranteed contracts on 2019, so you have to expect any need at the deadline will be addressed.
The Rays look compete with a strong bullpen, balanced lineup and lights out rotation, complimented by a lower payroll and creative manager. Innovative strategies and the right talent to make the strategies look ingenius. This all came about from years of scoffed trades, shrewd drafting and analytically smart free agent signings from this past offseason.
They aren’t leading baseball in ERA, run differential and win percentage by a fluke. Don’t sleep on the 2019 Tampa Bay Rays.
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