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3 teams to believe in so far in 2019

@RichardJustice
April 17, 2019

April baseball standings are a thing of beauty. The Rays are in first place, the Padres are tied for first and the Twins are a half-game back. The Rangers have a winning record and the Mariners are on pace to go 105-57. If that last one doesn’t rock your world,

April baseball standings are a thing of beauty. The Rays are in first place, the Padres are tied for first and the Twins are a half-game back. The Rangers have a winning record and the Mariners are on pace to go 105-57. If that last one doesn’t rock your world, this might: The Red Sox are in last place in the American League East, and the Pirates are ahead of the Cardinals and Cubs in the National League Central.

So who has staying power? Are we going to look at the standings three months from now and see that things have played out the way we thought they would? Here are three surprise teams that are easy to believe in.

1. Rays (13-4)

The team with the best record in baseball doesn’t even feel like a surprise after winning 90 games last season and going 99-63 in its past 162 games. Their plus-40 run differential is also MLB’s best. If you’re a skeptic, you’ll point out the Rays have MLB’s lowest payroll and fourth-youngest roster (26.8 years per man). Which probably is irrelevant. The Rays may have baseball’s sharpest front office and one of its best managers in Kevin Cash. Also, lots of pitching: their 2.41 ERA is baseball’s lowest. Their starters are 10-1 with a 1.56 ERA. Their bullpen has depth and velocity.

Offensively, the Rays are on the right track. They averaged 6.2 runs per game on a just-completed 7-2 road trip. Last summer, the Rays began collecting high exit velocity hitters, and those additions began to pay off on the road trip with 82 batted balls -- tops in the Majors -- of 100 mph or better. Twelve hitters joined the 100-mph club on the trip, and the Rays have outscored opponents 18-3 in the first inning this season. Austin Meadows, Kevin Kiermaier and Brandon Lowe are third, 16th and 27th, respectively, in the AL in Fangraphs WAR. Tampa Bay’s top three starters -- Tyler Glasnow, Blake Snell and Charlie Morton -- are third, ninth and 17th, respectively, among pitchers. Dominant seasons require dominant performers, and so far, the Rays have those.

2. Padres (11-8)

You can look at the 2019 Padres and see similarities to the '18 Braves, who improved by 18 games and made the postseason for the first time since '13. Shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. may do for the Padres what Ronald Acuña Jr. did for the Braves.

Eighteen games into his career, the 20-year-old former No. 1 prospect has been everything the Padres could have hoped for with four doubles, five home runs and a .347 on-base percentage.

Here’s another way the two teams are similar: young pitching. The Braves had to churn through most of their top young talent last season to manage their workloads, and the Padres are prepared to do the same. Of San Diego’s 19 games, 12 have been started by pitchers 24 or younger. And the Friars' system is loaded -- just as Atlanta’s was -- with young pitching.

So even with the need to manage workloads, San Diego may have enough. If, say, Dallas Keuchel shows up in a Padres uniform, that may be another reason to believe.

One notable difference between the 2019 Padres and the '18 Braves is that San Diego took two plunges into free agency, signing Manny Machado and Eric Hosmer to deals totaling $444 million. Hosmer is off to a slow start, but Machado’s .365 on-base percentage has made the left side of the San Diego infield potentially baseball’s best.

3. Twins (8-6)

You can look at the Twins a certain way and make an easy case that they’re now the AL Central favorite. And it’s not just because the Indians appear to be more vulnerable than they’ve been at any time in this string of three straight division titles.

The Twins are off to a good start despite an offense that is in the bottom half in almost every category except one: OPS. Minnesota is ninth with an .814 OPS, which could be an indication that there’s more there after adding Nelson Cruz, Marwin Gonzalez, Jonathan Schoop and Willians Astudillo to an everyday lineup that already had Eddie Rosario, Jorge Polanco and Max Kepler.

Jose Berrios and Michael Pineda have been excellent at the front of the rotation, and once Jake Odorizzi gets on track, he will add quality depth. Addison Reed’s return from the injured list should make the bullpen as good as any in the division.

Also interesting is how the AL Central will play out. The Tigers and White Sox could both get better as their youngsters settle in, and the Tribe will start to get its core guys back at some point.

But if Twins center fielder Byron Buxton -- who has an .868 OPS with three steals and seven doubles -- finally is the player he has been long projected to be, Minnesota will be in excellent shape.

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.