Who leads the MLB in runs scored, the AL in ERA, and has a team fielding percentage of .984?
That would be the best team in baseball, the Tampa Bay Rays.
In case you haven’t noticed, the Rays are near the top in almost every statistical category both offensively and defensively. With the pick-up of Rafael Soriano, the Rays patched their achilles heel over the past couple of seasons – the back-end of the bullpen. The only problem so far is, they haven’t needed him. The Rays have scored 142 runs this year and only allowed 72, so Soriano hasn’t had a ton of important innings yet, only locking down 5 saves.
What makes the Rays more of a threat this year to win out in the AL East and be the team to beat in the post-season is the pitching staff. They have five starters that could be #1 or #2 starters for most MLB teams, and both Matt Garza (4-1, 2.06 ERA, .216 OAV) and David Price (3-1, 2.20 ERA, .202 OAV) have established themselves early as potential Cy Young candidates. Jeff Shields, Wade Davis, and Jeff Niemann are a combined 6-1 with sub-4.00 ERAs and right around a strikeout per inning. The breakout of Niemann and Davis, in particular, has pushed Andy Sonnestine, who was a huge part of the rotation during the 2008 pennant run, into the bullpen, where he has regained his form so far this year (2.92 ERA, .208 OAV).
Offensively, the Rays have a team OPS that is over .800 and don’t have an easy out in the entire lineup. They don’t have A-Rod, but they have Evan Longoria, who, at $950k, has given the Rays a pretty solid return on investment (scored 21, knocked in 16, .961 OPS through yesterday). BJ Upton appears fully healthy and showing the power he had back in 2007 when he hit 24 home runs (he has 6 doubles, 4 HR, .500 SLG through yesterday – he only had 11 HR last year and .373 SLG last year). Carl Crawford, who has been one of the more consistent Rays players year in year out, is also on pace to blow away his career numbers – his current .961 OPS is almost 200 points higher than his career average.
What is even better news for Rays fans is that they have an absurd amount of talent still simmering in the minors for their shot to contribute. Starter pitcher Jeremy Hellickson would be two years in the big leagues with most pitching famished organizations – he is currently 4-0 with a 2.57 ERA in 5 starts in triple-A Durham this year. Expect the Rays minor league depth to be a key reason they stay ahead of the Yanks, who despite featuring many of the best players in the game, don’t have the back-up plans ready in case some of their mega-stars go down with injuries.