Rejoice! MLB Opening Day has finally arrived. After a long winter defined by a stalled free-agent market, worries over service-time manipulation, and a rash of extensions that committed most of baseball’s biggest stars to their current teams for the foreseeable future, it’s time to get excited about the game itself. There are certain things we can expect: Mike Trout will be very good, the strikeouts and dingers will be plentiful, and pitcher usage will continue to evolve. But some questions linger: Will Vladimir Guerrero Jr. live up to the hype? How will the Nationals fare in the post–Bryce Harper era? And is this finally Byron Buxton’s year? Our staff has some ideas.
World Series and Playoff Picks
Remember a few years ago, when the National League was a wasteland because almost half of its teams were rebuilding? Well, a lot of those teams got good, and now the NL is the exciting, evenly matched league, while the AL is the one with a few excellent teams and a bunch of bad ones. Fast-forward a few years, and the tables may turn again, but for now, the AL is the much easier circuit to call. It would take a massive upset for any of the top four AL teams to miss the playoffs, but the Dodgers not winning the West is the only NL outcome that would actually surprise me, which is why they’re my pick to win the pennant (again). My only firm predictions for the NL East and Central, respectively, are not-Marlins and not-Pirates.
I’m flipping my World Series pick from last year and taking the Astros over the Nationals. Houston is, for my money, the best team in baseball, with their pitching depth and wealth of prospects giving them an edge over Boston and the Yankees. As for the Nats, well, if I keep picking them to win a playoff series every year, I’ll have to be right sooner or later.
The Yankees will probably break their own record from 2018 for home runs in a season and have a lights-out pitching staff. The Red Sox will probably sniff 100 wins, which would be a drop-off from last year. The Rays will probably beat the Orioles 17 times and win close to 90 games. The Indians will probably still have a historically good pitching staff and MVP-lite seasons from Francisco Lindor and José Ramírez. And still, I can’t help but feel like the Astros would be resounding favorites in a playoff series against all of those teams. And resounding favorites against anyone that comes out of the NL, for that matter, which feels like much more of a crapshoot.
Last year, every Ringer staffer involved in this exercise picked the same six division winners. Boring! While the group was generally right—five of the six consensus winners reached the playoffs, albeit two via the wild-card route—the Braves surprised the woeful Nationals, the Red Sox outshone the Yankees, and the Brewers usurped the Cubs in the NL Central. Which is to say that even in an era defined, in part, by an increasing lack of parity, surprises will emerge in 2019. Those surprises might not extend all the way through October, as picks for Washington (the reasons outlined here) and Houston to reach the World Series aren’t exactly groundbreaking. But a loaded field of potential NL playoff teams and what should be a three-way duel in the AL East could pave the way for upsets this season—and plenty of in-season entertainment in the process.
The Nationals no longer have Bryce, but they still have Max Scherzer, Juan Soto, Trea Turner, and Anthony Rendon. The Astros no longer have, uh ... Charlie Morton, but they still have all of the core pieces from a team that’s won a combined 204 regular-season games over the past two years. This ultimately ends in D.C. heartbreak, because that’s how sports work.
Lindbergh: Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels. In last year’s staff predictions post, I wrote this next to my Mike Trout pick:
Note to editors: Please paste this selection next to my name in all future installments of our preseason-prediction group posts. I will reevaluate whether Trout is still the default AL MVP pick either in 2024 or when he signs with or is traded to an NL team (whichever comes first). Thank you.
Well, now we know he’s not going to an NL team. Talk to me in five years.
Glicksman: Francisco Lindor, Indians. The Cleveland shortstop has finished among the top 10 in MVP voting in each of the past three seasons, and he’s coming off a campaign in which he slashed .277/.352/.519 while racking up 38 homers, 25 steals, and an MLB-leading 129 runs. He’s one of the most consistent and consistently fun players in the majors, and he only just turned 25. Voters snubbing Mike Trout in AL MVP voting has become a storied baseball tradition. Look for Lindor to impress everybody who’s not a card-carrying member of the Dolan family.
Kram: Trout. I tried to make this pick more interesting than the obvious choice. But Trout makes it so hard to argue for anyone else. He was already the best player in baseball, and he’s getting better, for goodness’ sake. Now that he’s committed to the Angels for the next 12 years, he’s a good bet to be the preseason favorite for this award for most or all of the 2020s, too.
Baumann: Trout. I feel like Trout’s been Trout long enough now that I don’t need to spend a lot of time explaining this pick.
Wagner: Trout. Trout led the American League in fWAR every year from 2012 to 2016, got hurt in 2017 and played only 114 games before finishing second, and then was narrowly edged by Mookie Betts in 2018. That means he’s coming off the first year of his career where someone who played a similar number of games as him amassed more WAR than him. I could get cute and pick Matt Chapman to win this, but after an offseason in which Trout got paid almost a half-billion dollars and we lamented that as an underpay, do I really want to look stupid in mid-September when he has 2.5 more WAR than the next closest guy?
Kram: Juan Soto, Washington Nationals. Here’s a fun fact: Soto leads all NL players in projected OPS this season, per FanGraphs. He ranks second in the majors to Trout. Washington’s left fielder would be the youngest MVP winner ever, at just 20 years old, but after he OBP’d .406 and slugged .517 as a 19-year-old rookie with scant experience above A-ball, there should be no doubting Soto’s capabilities this season. He’s more than capable of replacing Bryce Harper as the Nationals’ leading left-handed outfield slugger, and thus more than capable of swooping in to claim this award.
Baumann: Ronald Acuña Jr., Atlanta Braves. Nolan Arenado, Bryce Harper, and Manny Machado all just signed huge contracts with teams that have an eye on the playoffs, which is an obvious blueprint for an MVP season. Too obvious, in fact, so I’m going off the board a little. Like those three players, Acuña is the best position player on a team on the playoff bubble, and he combines the novelty of an up-and-coming star with an absolutely spectacular style of play. If the Braves have a good year, Acuña will be a big reason, and at the center of the narrative.
Wagner: Manny Machado, San Diego Padres. Like numbers? Machado has three seasons of greater than six WAR and has posted a greater than 130 wRC+ in four years. That combination alone won’t be enough to be a runaway—the NL MVP has averaged around 7.6 WAR and a 158 wRC+ the past three years with plus defense. But Machado’s numbers at the plate should be enough to at least get him into the conversation. If he has a couple scorching-hot months at the plate to go with a full season at third base (where he’s been an all-time great defensive player in the past), he could separate from the pack.
Like narrative? Machado is the best player on an up-and-coming Padres team that, like the 2015 Cubs, could arrive a year early and poke its head into a tough NL playoff race. Megaprospects Fernando Tatis Jr., Francisco Mejía, and Luis Urías could all electrify an otherwise boring NL West and dispel lazy criticisms of Machado’s leadership. Maybe if he wins MVP, we’ll all finally realize he deserves every damn penny of his $300 million contract.
Glicksman: Acuña. Tilde hype season! Remember last year when the Atlanta phenom hit leadoff homers in three straight games as part of a streak in which he went yard in five consecutive contests? That stretch barely scratches the surface of what the 21-year-old can do. Acuña might already be the most complete player in the bigs not named Mike Trout, and he’ll improve upon a rookie season that garnered him comparisons to Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays, and Hank Aaron. Get ready to see lots of tongue.
Lindbergh: Kris Bryant, Chicago Cubs. Last year, the top five position players by WAR were all in the AL. The same five players are projected to finish atop the leaderboard in 2019, which leaves the top of the NL list in a muddle (much like the NL standings). In the face of uncertainty, I’m defaulting to someone who won one before. Through last May 19, Bryant was the NL’s best hitter, but not long after that, he hurt his shoulder. He played through shoulder discomfort both before and after two extended injury absences, and he suffered the worst power outage of his career.
Bryant, by all accounts, is back to full strength, and while he hasn’t had a torrid spring, he’s hit for enough power to assuage concerns about lingering inflammation. Not only is he as solid a prospect as any player to lead the league in WAR, but he’s also the (probably) best player on the (probably) best team in a division that’s likely to be close, which is a recipe for strong support in MVP voting.
AL Cy Young
Lindbergh: Trevor Bauer, Cleveland Indians. Among AL starters with at least 100 innings pitched last season, Bauer trailed only Chris Sale in park-adjusted FIP and Sale, Justin Verlander, and Blake Snell in park-adjusted deserved run average. He’s never missed time with an arm injury, he’s throwing a nasty new changeup that’s helped him post a 32-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio this spring, and he’s still pitching for the only good team in a division where his surface stats will see a boost from facing weaker opponents than the aforementioned trio of rivals in last year’s Cy Young race. There’s no obvious favorite, but Bauer has a few factors in his favor, assuming he isn’t traded to an NL team.
Baumann: Chris Sale, Boston Red Sox. The Cy Young Award has been around since 1956, and since then, five pitchers have managed to produce 29 wins above average and an ERA+ of 140 or better through their age-29 seasons. Four of them are Pedro Martínez, Tom Seaver, Clayton Kershaw, and Roger Clemens, four of the best pitchers of all time. Kershaw, Martínez, and Clemens won three Cy Youngs each through age 29 (Clemens won four more after turning 30). Seaver won two in his 20s and a third in his age-30 season.
The fifth pitcher to meet those cutoffs is Sale, who has finished in the top six in Cy Young voting seven years running, but has never won. At least let him have one.
Wagner: Gerrit Cole, Houston Astros. By FanGraphs’ ZiPS projection system, Chris Sale and Corey Kluber are both projected to have better seasons than Gerrit Cole (5.9 and 5.3 WAR and a 2.62 and 3.05 ERA, respectively, compared to Cole’s projections of 4.9 WAR and a 3.16 ERA). But Sale spent a lot of 2018 dealing with shoulder fatigue, and the Red Sox just gave him a five-year, $145 million extension that they won’t want to jeopardize by forcing him to pitch through dead arm. Kluber, on the other hand, worries me more. He’s been the definition of a workhorse ace since 2014, averaging 6.1 WAR and a 2.85 ERA while pitching a downright impressive 218 innings a year. He showed some signs of slowing down last year, though, allowing a career-high 36.6 percent hard-hit percentage and seeing his velocity tick down.
That leaves me with Cole, who I think has some of the most devastating stuff in the American League and will have the benefit of another year of Astros data to influence his pitch selection, without the drawback of Astros fatigue after a year when they didn’t make the World Series.
Glicksman: Justin Verlander, Houston Astros. There was a time a few years ago when popular opinion suggested Verlander was washed. Then he got traded from the Tigers to the Astros, posted a 1.06 ERA down the stretch en route to a World Series title, and followed that up by tallying 290 strikeouts in 214 innings last season to finish second in AL Cy Young voting. Now he just signed a two-year, $66 million contract extension that will keep him in Houston through 2021. Do you really want to doubt this man?
Kram: Cole. Even if Cole’s sudden ascent in Houston was predictable after his trade from Pittsburgh, that expectation doesn’t diminish his achievements last season. The former no. 1 pick struck out 34.5 percent of hitters after never coming within 10 percentage points of that mark in any season with the Pirates. He’s also reached 200 innings three times in four years and will spend 2019 pitching in front of a loaded Astros lineup, giving him the proper combination of rate stats, volume, and general hype necessary to win the award.
NL Cy Young
Kram: Max Scherzer, Washington Nationals. In four seasons in Washington, Scherzer has won two Cy Youngs—and those were the two worst of his four Nationals seasons by advanced ERA estimators like FIP and DRA. He was better than ever last season, falling short of his third straight award only because Jacob deGrom pitched like it was 1968 again. But Scherzer’s track record makes him the easy favorite this year. Perhaps all he has to do is pitch a little bit worse to win.
Glicksman: Scherzer. I was initially tempted to go with Philly’s Aaron Nola, but then I remembered that Mad Max literally growls at batters while he’s on the mound. He’s what you would get if you combined Nolan Ryan, John Wick, and the Anger character from Inside Out. He’s the pick.
Lindbergh: Scherzer. Scherzer has finished in the top five in Cy Young voting for six consecutive seasons, and 2018 was his best year yet. If not for Jacob deGrom’s absurd season, Scherzer would have won his third straight Cy, and his fourth in total. He has to age at some point, but until there’s some sign of decline, why wouldn’t I take him?
Wagner: Jacob deGrom, New York Mets. What kind of homer would I be if I didn’t completely ignore a bevy of qualified candidates (Max Scherzer, Aaron Nola, German Márquez, Walker Buehler) just to land on the One True Ace of the New York Mets, Jacob deGrom? Also, he’s coming off a year with a 1.70 ERA and he throws a fastball that seems like it starts at someone’s knees and ends at their letters.
Baumann: Scherzer. Scherzer won the Cy Young in 2016 and 2017, and he would’ve won it again last year had Jacob deGrom not put up a historically good season I don’t think he’ll repeat. Which is not a knock on deGrom—I’d bet against Lefty Grove putting up a season like deGrom had in 2018. Scherzer is as durable, as reliable, and as capable of the spectacular one-game performance as any pitcher in the game.
AL Rookie of the Year
Lindbergh: Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Toronto Blue Jays. No need to get cute. A balky oblique muscle and the Blue Jays’ prioritizing team control are the only things stopping him from walloping pitchers at the major league level.
Wagner: Guerrero. The only thing that would make me more certain of Guerrero as the favorite to win this award is if the Blue Jays were to give him every single plate appearance he deserves. Call him up, cowards.
Glicksman: Guerrero. I would provide an explanation here, but I’d prefer to watch this highlight on loop for the next three and a half hours.
Kram: Guerrero. Last year, Michael predicted Oakland’s Franklin Barreto would win this award, perhaps because he forgot Shohei Ohtani existed. There’s no need to get cute with the trophy this year. Like with Ohtani last season, it’s Vlad’s to lose.
Baumann: Guerrero. Guerrero is going to put up huge numbers under near-Ohtanian levels of international curiosity. If the Blue Jays ever call him up.
NL Rookie of the Year
Glicksman: Pete Alonso, New York Mets. The 24-year-old first baseman secured a spot on the Opening Day roster after slashing .352/.387/.620 with four homers and 11 RBIs in spring training. Projections often liken him to Rhys Hoskins, and while Alonso’s defense is suspect, his power is real. Anyone who can hit dingers like this deserves a trophy.
Pete Alonso, casually hitting one WAY out of the stadium. No big deal.pic.twitter.com/zQUzv6oSYY— SNY (@SNYtv) March 9, 2019
Wagner: Touki Toussaint, Atlanta Braves. Ace Mike Foltynewicz is injured to start the season, and at some point, Toussaint could get the chance to go every five days for the Braves. With his repertoire of stuff, he might not relinquish that chance. Toussaint had a big walk problem last year, but so far in spring training, he’s struck out 20 batters and walked only three in 15 2/3 innings. He also lowered his walks in his second year at the Single-, Double-, and Triple-A levels. I’m already regretting choosing a pitcher with walk problems and justifying it with 15 innings of spring training. That curveball, though.
Lindbergh: Alonso. Alonso, who led all minor leaguers above High-A in homers last season, has punished professional pitching at every level. Doing so in spring training helped him secure a spot on the Opening Day roster despite expectations that the Mets would hold him back. His path to playing time isn’t completely clear, but being in the big leagues from the get-go will give him a leg up over rookies who arrive later in the season. It’s easy to envision a scenario in which a Nationals outfielder finishes second in Rookie of the Year voting for the second straight year.
Kram: Alonso. Preseason favorite Víctor Robles could win this award to give the Nationals a sweep of the individual NL honors, but the center fielder is likely to contribute in ways (defense, baserunning) that aren’t rewarded as easily as loud offensive numbers. So instead, turn to Alonso, the first-base masher for the division rival Mets. Since the introduction of the Rookie of the Year vote, 24 rookies have crushed at least 30 home runs; 17 won the award, and another five lost to a different 30-homer rookie. (The other two played in 1963 and 1964.) Alonso has never slugged below .500 at any minor league level, and 30 homers isn’t out of the question as long as his team gives him a chance to play every day. Hitting those homers in a possible playoff race in New York can only help matters.
Baumann: Alonso. I’m actually pretty jazzed about the NL Rookie of the Year race, because like the pennant race, it has about a dozen different contenders with no clear favorite. There’s downside to picking Alonso—he might get dinged for being a first baseman, and the Mets are among the teams most likely to use him too little or in a bizarre fashion for no good reason—but my suspicion is that he’s going to hit a bucketload of home runs, and for a big-market team in the playoff hunt (cf., Ryan Howard, 2005; Cody Bellinger, 2017) that’ll be enough to carry the day, even for a first baseman.
Kram: Byron Buxton. Heck yeah, I’m falling for Buxton again. The Minnesota center fielder and former no. 1 prospect has inspired optimism once more this spring, despite a putrid showing at the MLB level in 2018. Buxton struck out just five times in 44 plate appearances this spring (11 percent), after whiffing in 22, 21, and 32 percent of his PA, respectively, across the past three spring trainings. He coupled this strikeout avoidance with unprecedented power, too, as seven of his 16 hits went for extra bases and he hit more home runs this spring (four) than in his entire spring training career before 2019 (three). Granted, in his MLB career, Buxton has been an above-average hitter in just three of 13 months he’s tallied at least 40 plate appearances, and two of those months involved feasting on weak pitching in September—but making more consistent contact and generating more power on contact is a good place to start for a player already blessed with top-notch speed and defense.
Glicksman: Ross Stripling, Dodgers. Among pitchers who threw at least 100 innings last season, Stripling ranked fifth in xFIP, a statistic that estimates a pitcher’s expected run prevention independent of defense. For those who don’t speak sabermetrics: The four guys ahead of him were Chris Sale, Jacob deGrom, Patrick Corbin, and Carlos Carrasco; the five guys after him were James Paxton, Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Max Scherzer, and Corey Kluber. Stripling will begin the season in L.A.’s rotation because of injuries. On a staff that features Clayton Kershaw, Hyun-Jin Ryu, and Rich “The Human Blister” Hill, expect him to stay there for a while.
Baumann: Jurickson Profar, Oakland Athletics. Profar made his big league debut as a 19-year-old in 2012, when he was the top prospect in baseball. Since then, he was hurt, or blocked, or ineffective, or all three, until 2018, when he hit .254/.335/.458 with 20 home runs in 146 games. Profar, who’s still just 26, missed so many reps in 2014 and 2015 that it’s possible he’s just now recovering, and a fresh start on a playoff contender could unlock at least some of the potential he flashed as a teenager.
Lindbergh: Shane Bieber, Cleveland Indians: The Indians have baseball’s best projected rotation, and while Bieber is the lowest-profile piece of it, he’ll more than hold his own. Bieber’s 4.55 ERA as a rookie masked strong peripherals, including a top-20 strikeout-minus-walk ratio among starters with at least 100 innings pitched. Staying around the strike zone and throwing his somewhat pedestrian four-seamer almost 60 percent of the time may have made him more vulnerable to the long ball, but he threw more pitches outside the zone and induced more chases as the season proceeded. Most encouraging, he’s reworked the changeup that he threw only 4 percent of the time in 2018, and he’s had a strong spring.
If we were picking breakouts by league, I’d agonize over Brandon Woodruff vs. Corbin Burnes, and if we were predicting bouncebacks, I’d go with Jon Gray.
Wagner: Ramón Laureano, Oakland Athletics. Laureano’s been talked about a lot for his defensive prowess, but he also slashed .288/.358/.474. If any of that offense is real, let alone if he can improve upon it, he might ride his plus-plus defense and underrated offense to six WAR in his first full season in the league.
Wagner: Atlanta Braves. The Braves are relying an awful lot on a pitching staff anchored by Mike Foltynewicz, who prior to 2018 was a bad pitcher, and is now hurt. Aside from Foltynewicz, they’re going to need breakouts from Touki Toussaint and Mike Soroka, the latter of whom threw 25 2/3 promising innings in the majors last year, but only averaged about 7.6 K/9 in his two full minor league seasons before 2018. Ronald Acuña Jr. is a bona fide superstar, Freddie Freeman will finish in the top five in MVP voting like he always does, and I’m actually bullish on Ozzie Albies. But four teams can’t make the playoffs from the NL East, and I’m not tying my wagon to Kevin Gausman and Julio Teheran.
Lindbergh: Oakland Athletics. The A’s were my pick for “surprise team” last season, which worked out well. Now I’m flip-flopping to “flop team.” I don’t think the A’s will be bad—they’re too good at defense, for one thing—but the Plexiglas Principle dictates that a team coming off a single-season increase of 22 wins (and a fairly idle offseason) is probably in line to take a step back. Oakland’s rotation is still a bottom-tier group, and while the bullpen projects to be good again, depending on pens is a scary way to win, and this year’s crop of relievers is unlikely to match the near-historic win probability added total of the 2018 group. Injuries to Jesus Luzardo and Matt Olson are causes for concern, and unlike the 29 other teams who are currently undefeated, Oakland is already 0-2 after last week’s Japan Series. The best thing the A’s have going for them is the thin field of AL second-wild-card contenders; Oakland could easily regress by 10 wins and still remain in the race.
Glicksman: Athletics. This isn’t just because Oakland went 0-2 in last week’s season-opening series in Japan. It’s because the A’s are a prime regression candidate whose pitching remains a massive question mark. Last year they were an MLB-best 31-14 in one-run games. Their bullpen no longer has Jeurys Familia, and top prospect Jesus Luzardo was recently shut down with a shoulder injury. While Khris Davis will continue to mash and Matt Chapman could emerge as an MVP candidate, the A’s will need a lot of luck to match their 97-65 record from 2018.
Baumann: Chicago Cubs. What worries me about the Cubs is less about the sub-.500 PECOTA projection or the aging pitching staff and more about how they’ve reacted publicly to minor disappointments the past two years. They put together a once-in-a-lifetime run of success at the top of the draft, were gifted immense financial advantages over their competition, and won a title, then did nothing while the Brewers and Cardinals reloaded and prepared to run them down. Theo Epstein has watched the house of cards fall down on him once before, and if he thinks the solution is more batting practice and Joe Maddon cutting his scrums short, then I worry about it happening again.
Kram: Braves. There’s a lot to like about Atlanta: The Braves are the defending NL East champs; they boast a tremendous position-player core of Ronald Acuña Jr., Freddie Freeman, Ozzie Albies, and new third baseman Josh Donaldson; and they’ve collected plenty of pitching talent in the minors. But the current rotation is rather shaky with staff ace—but regression candidate—Mike Foltynewicz hurt, and the bullpen is kind of a mess. Sprinkle in any pullback from the offense and Atlanta could struggle across all facets of the game; as it stands now, they might already be the fourth-best team in a four-team division race, after the Nationals, Phillies, and Mets all spent the winter making greater roster improvements.
Lindbergh: Minnesota Twins. This pick is partly an endorsement of the Twins’ potential and partly a product of how hard it is to imagine more than a handful of AL teams succeeding this season. The Twins were moderately busy this winter, adding Nelson Cruz, Marwin González, C.J. Cron, and Jonathan Schoop. Unlike last year, they can expect full seasons from Jorge Polanco, Jason Castro, Michael Pineda, and the widely beloved Willians Astudillo. Max Kepler is a popular breakout candidate, and while I hesitate to say it (again), Byron Buxton has been fantastic this spring. Couple that with a commitment to cutting-edge coaching and player development and 57 games against the White Sox, Tigers, and Royals, and there’s a lot to like here. There’d just be much more to like with another solid starting pitcher.
Baumann: Washington Nationals. This is a really tough category because most of the teams that could make the playoffs this year without having made it last year (Phillies, Mets, Padres, Nationals, Cardinals) made big additions this offseason and aren’t going to surprise anybody. So … Washington, I guess? I think they’ve been overlooked just because of how noisy the other NL East contenders have been this winter, but even without Bryce Harper they’ve got more than enough offense to support a rotation fronted by Scherzer–Patrick Corbin–Stephen Strasburg. But if they surprise anyone, it’ll only be because expectations weren’t high enough to start.
Wagner: Minnesota Twins. Bet you can’t say this five times fast: Byron Buxton breakout. Byron Buxton breakout. Byron Buxton breakout. Byron Buxton breakout. Byron Buxton breakout.
If you succeeded, congratulations. You’re every baseball writer on the internet for the past three years.
Glicksman: Los Angeles Angels. Mike Scioscia is gone, the Dark Knight has arrived, and Shohei Ohtani should be back in the batter’s box by early May. While baseball’s $430 million man won’t be able to lead the Angels past the Astros in the division, he should do enough to bring them back to the postseason for the first time since 2014. That’s what the money is for.
Kram: Tampa Bay Rays. I picked them to win the division, didn’t I? Here’s the case for Tampa Bay.
First, the Rays’ pitching philosophy has them slated to continue using the analytically sound “opener” strategy in two rotation spots this season. In games in which their “starters” threw two or fewer innings in 2018 (not counting two games in which actual starting pitchers were removed early for poor performance), the Rays went 34-25, which would put them on a 93-win pace over a full season. And that’s with rotation spots that would normally feature weaker no. 4 and 5 arms. Couple that back-end advantage with the front-end dominance of reigning Cy Young winner Blake Snell and free-agent signee Charlie Morton, and the Rays enter the season with a truly formidable group of pitchers.
Second, the team’s offense doesn’t yet feature any obvious All-Stars, but so great is Tampa Bay’s depth that the Rays can count on average-or-better players in every lineup spot, every seat on the bench, and roughly every Triple-A bus seat for good measure.
And third, the Rays’ 90-72 record last season—10 games behind the Yankees and 18 behind Boston—undersells how close they were to their division’s historically dominant teams. By advanced measures of team quality like BaseRuns record (from FanGraphs) and third-order win percentage (Baseball Prospectus), the Rays looked more like a 96- or 98-win club, respectively—almost even with the two AL East powers. The Rays’ roster is quietly almost as solid as the others atop the division, and a little more luck in Tampa Bay would add a new team to the race.