Heading into the 2019 Major League Baseball regular season, the American League East was expected to be as competitive as any division in the game. The defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox and 100-win New York Yankees were projected to battle it out for the division crown as two of the sport’s most stacked teams.
But early on in the 2019 campaign, a surprising and talented contender has emerged atop the AL East, and in the process, that club is paving a road that leads to pennant possibilities. The Tampa Bay Rays have sprinted out to a 19-10 start with an interesting cast of characters and an organizational blueprint that has no comparison in sports.
By orchestrating absolute chaos and embracing the unpredictable, the Rays have penciled themselves into a pennant race that features teams with twice the talent they have. Tampa Bay has a modern “moneyball” club that actually welcomes unconventional ways of winning.
Often in sports, enjoyment sprouts from the most chaotic moments. Whether it’s an unforeseen trick play in football, a 360 dunk in basketball, or a sassy glove save in a hockey game, as fans, we are most amused by the most unpredictable of things.
It stands true in baseball as well. Whenever Nolan Arenado, Andrelton Simmons, or anyone else make a backhand stop deep in the hole and throw a laser — while jumping away from the play — all the way to first base to just barely beat the runner, we lose our minds because we didn’t see it coming, and it was an incredible feat. Those are the most entertaining of moments.
No team in MLB, and maybe in all of North American pro sports, embraces variability and unpredictability like the Tampa Bay Rays. The way they build their team, play the game, and operate from a managerial standpoint is unlike anyone else in the game, and they do it in the most volatile of ways.
And on account of all of that, to a casual fan of the game, the Rays might be the most entertaining and genuinely fun team in MLB just by the way they embody the erratic nature of the game and play accordingly. And they have done exactly that in so many creative, chaotic ways, that it seems like every time you tune into a Rays game, they’re doing something new and different.By being the most unpredictable team in the sport, the @RaysBaseball have also become legitimate AL pennant contenders. @bytomdorsa explains.Click To Tweet
They became the team that comes to mind when someone refers to the “opener,” basically bringing the new strategy to light, and whether you like it or not, it has worked for them. And in doing so, Tampa Bay set the all-time MLB single-season record in 2018 for most no-decisions by a starting pitcher (91) and most wins by a reliever (55).
This is a team with only three true starting pitchers on their staff, in AL Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell, fireballing right-hander Charlie Morton, and the up-and-coming Tyler Glasnow. They employ an “opener” twice in the normal rotation to make the most of their electric and versatile bullpen, which goes to show that the Rays are perhaps the first team in the history of the major leagues to essentially build their entire team around their relief staff.
Jose Alvarado is terrifyingly good. Chaz Roe, Diego Castillo, and Yonny Chirinos are highly talented. Ryne Stanek is the best little-known pitcher in the bigs. They have an insanely deep pen full of late-game shutdown relievers and lockdown openers at their disposal.
Their offense is just as good, and in the same way, made up of interchangeable parts. Most of their batting order consists of devalued guys acquired from their previous teams who blossomed under better conditions, like slugger Ji-Man Choi, versatile outfielder Tommy Pham, 2018 deadline acquisition Austin Meadows, power-hitting catcher Mike Zunino, and bulky infielder Yandy Diaz.
Their successful 19-11 start all boils down to fifth-year manager Kevin Cash, a 41-year-old who was nominated for AL Manager of the Year last season. You could argue Cash has the hardest managerial job in baseball, in juggling relievers, deciding on where to play the many misfit position players, and keeping morale high in a completely unorthodox system.
Behind the mind of Cash and the entertaining, intriguing team construction, this club is a legitimate pennant contender, as they were when they took home the franchise’s sole American League crown in 2008. The Tampa Bay fanbase is starved for postseason baseball after last experiencing such in 2013, an AL Division Series loss to the Red Sox. What it would mean for the St. Petersburg crowd is impossible to properly convey.
Although they have been benefited by slow starts from the Red Sox and Yankees, this Rays club is clearly for real. All through embracing their self-made chaos and variability, the Tampa Bay Rays have grown into legitimate pennant contenders in 2019.