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5 hot starts that no one saw coming

@williamfleitch
April 10, 2019

Five game into the season, the Baltimore Orioles -- a team some thought could lose 120 games or more this year -- were 4-1. You knew it probably wasn’t going to last, but that still didn’t mean it wasn’t fun. The joy of an early-season run for a team not

Five game into the season, the Baltimore Orioles -- a team some thought could lose 120 games or more this year -- were 4-1. You knew it probably wasn’t going to last, but that still didn’t mean it wasn’t fun. The joy of an early-season run for a team not expected to be among the top tier of contenders shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s happy in the moment … and it can get you dreaming big if you’re not careful.

Just two weeks into the season, there are five teams over .500 who either weren’t expected to reach that level this season or who were considered possible contenders but have gotten off to blistering starts. Can they keep it up? Let’s take a look.

Rays

It is certainly not surprising to see the Rays over .500: This team did win 90 games last year, after all. But Tampa Bay has come screaming out of the gate and looks as complete as any Rays team in a decade. Kevin Kiermaier, Yandy Díaz and Austin Meadows are smashing the ball. Tommy Pham can’t stop getting on base. The Rays have four starters (don’t forget Yonny Chirinos) who are virtually unhittable right now, and in the fifth game they have the opener. The bullpen’s top three pitchers have given up one run in nearly 20 innings.

And, perhaps just as important, their primary competition in the division is already teetering. The Yankees have been ravaged by injuries, and the Red Sox … well, you see what’s going with the Red Sox. The Rays needed everything to fall exactly right to be a division contender this year. So far: It has fallen exactly right.

Sustainability: High. It won’t be this smooth sailing all year. But these Rays look built to last.

D-backs

Preseason, if you would have said that in the season’s first fortnight, Zack Greinke, Zack Godley, Robbie Ray and Luke Weaver would have all been rocked in their starts, you would have assumed the D-backs had one, maybe two wins on their slate; the starting pitching was supposed to be their strength. But the offense is what has led to Arizona’s surprising 6-5 start, and it has been led by the old guys.

David Peralta -- the old indy ball player who just keeps going out there and establishing himself every night -- is batting a mean .380. And Adam Jones, who took forever to sign this offseason, already has four homers and is hitting .362. Christian Walker, Nick Ahmed, Jarrod Dyson (!) and Carson Kelly have been solid contributors as well to a team that’s, improbably, fifth in the Majors in runs scored.

Sustainability: Low. The pitchers will settle down a bit, but the offense won’t be able to keep this going forever. The D-backs are run by smart people who will take this start for what’s it’s worth. It sure is fun seeing a veteran team win games, though, isn’t it?

Tigers

The Tigers probably don’t get enough respect, at least over the last decade, as they probably should. This is an era in which you are either supposed to be at your peak power, taking a long-term plan to build a contender or tearing down so you can start over entirely. The Tigers never did that, trying to squeeze a World Series out of an aging core, and while it ultimately cost them -- as we’re seeing today, with an uneven roster that’s still a little caught between -- you’ve got to credit them for going after that title so hard in the first place.

The Tigers are still a bit stuck in the middle; they’re probably a step behind the Twins and Indians in the short-term, and their rebuilding efforts are behind the White Sox. (And they don’t have a recent World Series title to show for their efforts like the Royals do.) So any news is good news right now, and the 7-4 start has more than sufficed.

The Tigers aren’t doing it with their bats: They’re last in MLB in batting average at .185, with a stunning lack of power. They only have three homers in 11 games; the Mariners have 33 in 13. Detroit is instead doing it with pitching, with a 2.64 team ERA and a 0.97 team WHIP. (That’s the second lowest in baseball, in both categories.) The rotation has been the undeniable strength, with all five starters having pitched well, led by Jordan Zimmermann, Matt Moore (who is now on the IL) and especially Matthew Boyd, who has a ridiculous 18.3 K/9 rate. Even Tyson Ross has been excellent.

Sustainability: Low. The Tigers’ offense has been non-existent and this rotation is pitching over its head. (Even though Zimmermann looks to have made some smart changes, and Boyd has been a revelation.) Tigers fans should enjoy this while they can.

Padres

The Padres sure feel different, don’t they? With two big moves -- signing Manny Machado and promoting Fernando Tatis Jr. to the Opening Day roster -- the club announced that the old beige Padres of the past are gone, that it’s going to be a force with which to be reckoned for the next decade -- starting now. Machado and Tatis Jr. have been fine, though it’s old standby Wil Myers who’s off to the best offensive start, along with Hunter Renfroe; it’s as if the longtime Padres have been rejuvenated by the new blood.

The bullpen has been slightly wobbly, but the Padres have to be pleased with their young pitchers, particularly fellow 23-year-olds Nick Margevicius and Chris Paddack (who is striking about 11.4 hitters per nine innings and hasn’t given up a homer yet). The pitching still feels a bit thin, and some of those veteran hitters will fade, but it’s unquestionable that the Padres feel different than we’ve seen them before, immediately and already.

Sustainability: Medium. The Padres are not a complete team yet, though reinforcements are coming over the next few years from the top-ranked farm system in the game; this team is going to be stacked. And in the short term, they are further along than many might have expected, and if they can hang around .500 and stay in the National League Wild Card chase, it might embolden them to be more aggressive come July than they had initially planned on being. (That the Giants appear to be bottoming out, while the Rockies look wobbly, gives them an opening as well.) The Padres might not make the playoffs this year. But they are making it clear they’ll be there soon.

Mariners

So the Mariners have the best record in baseball, the best run differential in baseball and the most entertaining team in baseball. As the ancient scrolls predicted.

What’s amazing -- and maybe a little worrisome -- about the Mariners’ start is that it’s so out of character for the team. You could see a situation where they might lead the Majors in steals (which they do, with 15), but how in the world do the Mariners have 33 homers? Some of their stats are ridiculous. Jay Bruce has nine hits … seven of which are homers. Daniel Vogelbach is getting on base at a .621 rate. Edwin Encarnacion, who has never batted above .289 his entire 15-year career, is at .316 and has his walk rate higher than it has ever been. The entire team is basically putting up Nolan Arenado’s 2018 line.

Oh, and Marco Gonzales is on pace for more than 30 wins! This is a quite ludicrous, but it’s hilarious to imagine the Mariners ending their playoff drought by winning, like, 120 games.

Sustainability: Impossible. But who cares? How fun!