AL's best team? It might not be who you think

April 6th, 2019

Take a good look at the Tampa Bay Rays, because this just might be the American League’s best team. At this point, that point isn’t much of a stretch. Yes, there are miles to go.

Specifically, 5,785 miles. That’s how far the Rays (6-2) will travel on a nine-game, 11-day trip to San Francisco, Chicago and Toronto that began Friday with a 5-2 victory over the Giants.

If Tampa Bay sails through this trip, it might be time to take a second look at those AL East projections. Yes, the Yankees are a wounded club, and the Red Sox and Astros are off to slow starts. Nor should anyone sleep on the A’s, a team that won 97 games in 2018 and appears to be even better.

Besides, the Rays aren’t close to being perfect. Some of the offseason focus on offense has yet to show a significant impact. But the things the Rays do well, they do better than almost anyone.

No team pitches better. Few play better defense. In Kevin Cash, Tampa Bay has a manager who is masterful at managing bullpens and personalities, while getting a consistent and cohesive effort from his team.

At a time when most of the AL contenders seem vulnerable, here’s the case for Tampa Bay being the AL’s best team.

Insanely good pitching

When a team pitches this well, this consistently, every game is winnable. The Rays have scored more than four runs in just two of their eight games. They’ve won twice by 3-1 scores. Tampa Bay’s 1.58 ERA is the best in baseball by a wide margin. When the Giants scored two runs in the seventh inning on Friday, it ended a stretch in which the Rays had allowed three earned runs in 52 innings. They’re the first MLB team to allow 11 runs or fewer in their first seven games since the 2002 Giants (eight runs), who won the NL pennant that year.

Uncomfortable pitching

There’s effective pitching and then there’s pitching that breaks bats and tests nerves. The latter is what the Rays have. Closer Jose Alvarado finished Friday’s game with a 99.5 mph fastball that Giants third baseman Evan Longoria lofted to right field for the final out. That’s no fluke. Tampa Bay’s 94.8 mph average fastball velocity is the second-highest in MLB, trailing only the Mets (94.9), according to Fangraphs.

Innovative pitching

The Rays won 90 games last season despite a 4-13 start. Part of that success was based on using the "opener” -- that is, using a late-inning reliever in the first inning, before turning it over to the next guy up, who has to face the heart of the order one less time. The Rays were 33-23 when using an opener in 2018 and are 1-0 this season. But in Blake Snell, Charlie Morton, Tyler Glasnow and Yonny Chirinos, Tampa Bay has a front four that may be as good as any.

Pitching depth

Of the 12 pitchers Tampa Bay has used in 2019, five of them are 25 or under. And the best of them, 2018 AL Cy Young Award winner Snell, is 26. The Rays also have the depth to sustain this kind of work. Right-hander Brent Honeywell, MLB Pipeline’s No. 28 prospect, is expected back in the first half of the season after recovering from Tommy John surgery. Two other Tampa Bay pitching prospects -- Brendan McKay (29) and Matthew Liberatore (54) -- made MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 list.

MLB’s best bullpen, too

Not to belabor the point about Tampa Bay’s pitching excellence -- too late for that -- but when the Giants scored two runs in the seventh inning on Friday, it doubled the number of runs Rays relievers had surrendered this season. Latest totals: four earned runs in 31 innings for a 1.16 ERA.

Offense? Who needs offense?

In a division with two offenses -- Red Sox and Yankees -- projected to be among MLB’s five best, the Rays' offensive optimism is mostly about projections. Tampa Bay began Friday with a .272 xwOBA, which was second-to-last in the AL, according to Statcast. It also began the day with the highest whiff rate (34.6 percent). But because the Rays are playing so many young players, they’re hoping for improvement. Still, the Rays have won six of eight games despite being 19th in runs, 23rd in OPS and tied for 14th in home runs.

Does exit velocity translate to runs?

The Rays believe it will. Yandy Diaz’s broken-bat home run in the top of the first inning -- 94.6 mph exit velocity, according to Statcast -- is a good sign the Rays' game plan may pay off. Of the 504 players with 100-plus batted balls, the Rays have acquired three of the top 26 in the last 12 months: Diaz, Tommy Pham and Mike Zunino. (Zunino’s offense would be a bonus since his defensive game could be invaluable to the Rays.)