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Yes, the Rays are now projected to win AL East

April 18, 2019

After finishing a distant third in the American League East last season behind the Red Sox and Yankees despite going 90-72, the Rays were generally picked to do so again this year. It’s taken Tampa Bay less than a month to flip the script. As of Thursday, FiveThirtyEight.com projects the

After finishing a distant third in the American League East last season behind the Red Sox and Yankees despite going 90-72, the Rays were generally picked to do so again this year. It’s taken Tampa Bay less than a month to flip the script.

As of Thursday, FiveThirtyEight.com projects the Rays will finish 94-68 and take the division crown by one game over the Yankees, and FanGraphs has the club finishing in a first-place tie with New York at 92-70.

This is how the projections for the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays looked on Opening Day:

FiveThirtyEight.com

Yankees 97-65
Red Sox 95-67
Rays 86-76

FanGraphs

Yankees 99-63
Red Sox 95-67
Rays 84-78

The latest projections reflect what has been a topsy-turvy first few weeks in the AL East.

The defending World Series champion Red Sox are now 6-13 after getting swept in a two-game series by the rival Yankees, who have gone 8-9 and have 12 players on the injured list.

Of course, the change in projections isn’t entirely due to the misfortunes of Boston and New York. Tampa Bay owns the best record in baseball at 14-4, as well as the Majors’ best run differential (+47).

While the Rays’ largely unheralded pitching staff has been at the center of the team’s success, recording an MLB-leading 2.33 ERA, the club’s offense also has impressed.

The Rays’ lineup has relied on a number of fresh faces who weren’t part of the 25-man roster or even in the organization as recently as last July, including Brandon Lowe, Austin Meadows, Yandy Diaz, Avisail Garcia and Tommy Pham. The team ranks fourth in the Majors with 197 hard-hit balls (95+ mph exit velocity) and fourth in the AL with an .800 OPS.

On the other side of the ball, the Rays’ bullpen -- led by Jose Alvarado, Diego Castillo and Adam Kolarek -- has been nearly untouchable, Charlie Morton and Tyler Glasnow have provided the club with two more reliable starters after ace Blake Snell, and Ryne Stanek and Yonny Chirinos have been effective in multiple roles.

Meanwhile, center fielder Kevin Kiermaier is healthy after playing 105 games or fewer in each of the past three seasons, and his presence has helped Tampa Bay field one of the best defensive units in the game so far.

Many of the aforementioned players don’t have lengthy track records at the big league level, so they’ll need to prove they have staying power. But there’s no denying the AL East has gotten a lot more interesting in just a few weeks, with the Rays now seemingly in the driver’s seat.

Thomas Harrigan is a reporter for MLB.com.