I'm generally what you would consider an optimist on the Rays, often expecting good things to come about even when I might be reaching a bit because I want it to be true. I also like to think of myself as a realist though and therefore before the season started I said that the Rays would be at or above .500 but I thought any playoff talk was stretching reality a bit. I maintained that all spring and so far throughout this season, saying that I liked what was happening but the playoffs were something for next season. In my opinion that's the right course to take, usually when people make conclusions based on a month or two of play that contradict what they believed before the season they end up being wrong, a single month of baseball can be more than enough to return things to their proper place, hopes to be dashed, or disappointment turned into satisfaction.
However, after 49 games the Rays are tied for the second best record in baseball and that can't be ignored. I was interested when they swept Boston but didn't change my opinion. Once they swept the Angels I had to admit that I was wavering on my previous stance. Now they went .500 on a rather tough road trip and really could have won four or five of those games instead of just three, the two losses in St. Louis were rather unusual for this season with them losing the games themselves instead of simply getting beat by a team that played better than them that day. Now, after a brutal series finale in Oakland, they've had two convincing wins over Baltimore with a good chance at the sweep this afternoon. Evidence in their favor just keeps mounting.
This isn't some team that looks like a two month fluke either. You know those teams happen in any season, teams that are outperforming their run differential too much or benefitting from too many performances that almost certainly won't continue. No, if you look at the Rays there isn't a lot of crazy stuff going on. Their pythagorean record is 27-22, well within normal variance. Their record based on expected runs scored and allowed as calculated by Baseball Prospectus is 28-21. Navarro won't keep hitting .350 or better but his line drive and strikeout rates this season suggest that he could easily stay around .300 and it wouldn't be surprising to see his walks and power go up a tad as the season progresses. Hinske's hitting barrage was a major boost early but, except for his slugging percentage still being higher than you'd expect, he has come back to earth. Fall-off from them really ought to be balanced out by improvements from others. Jason Bartlett has a strong minor and major league history of being an adequate hitter for his position, there's little reason to believe the .573 OPS will continue. Carlos Pena is obviously struggling to make contact since that hamstring problem early in the season but it's not ridiculous to think he'll hit .250 at minimum and at least get up to around .250/.360/.500 is it? BJ Upton has more power than he has shown so far. Longoria should improve over the course of the season as he adjusts to the majors. The team is basically a league average offense right now and should probably be slightly better than that once the season is all over.
Looking at the pitching side of things there isn't much craziness either. Edwin Jackson remains an enigma but even I was truly impressed with a couple of the recent starts he made. Maybe he'll fall off, maybe he won't and all his defenders (I wasn't one of them, as you all know) will be proven right. At worst his ERA shouldn't be above 4.75. Garza is another strange one and unless he gets his control and strikeout ability in line then he'll see some regression in his ERA but at least he's a talented guy who has plenty going for him. Shields and Kazmir are who they are and there's no need to be concerned with them, Sonnanstine is up-and-down but will either improve or get replaced. Same goes for Garza and Jackson later in the season if they don't keep their performance levels up. Looking at the bullpen I don't see anything strange at all. Percival should be good as long as he's healthy, Wheeler's performance is no different than what he did in Houston from 2004-2006 once you adjust for the lower run environment this year, Miller will actually get better if Maddon stops using him against right-handers, Reyes gets a lot of completely undeserved scorn due to ONE outing where he gave up four of the five runs he has allowed this season. JP Howell has been amazing but he has always had great secondary pitches and pitching in relief has allowed him to avoid his low velocity fastball getting exposed.
The real key to this team's success though is the defense. Defense wins championships isn't just a football reality, just take a look at the surprise World Series team the last three years. The White Sox, Tigers, and Rockies all greatly outperfomed expectations because their pitching outperformed expectations and that was because they were all at or near the top of the majors in Defensive Efficiency and the effect of great defense wasn't accounted for in preseason projections. Having a great defense is a huge asset to a team and the best part of it is that as long as you aren't changing players around it's basically slump proof. Your defense may have a bad game every now and then but you never go on a losing stretch because your fielders stopped getting to balls. The defense was a big reason for our optimism in the spring, the defense is the reason the team has outperformed expectations, and the defense is the reason we can talk about the team maintaining a high level of performance in the future.
The question now becomes "When can I call them legitimate contenders?" This may seem overly dramatic but in my mind it's important and not something to take lightly. To say they're contenders means that I don't think they'll regress much. To say they're contenders means that I don't just think that they're good and might have a shot, I'm saying that I expect them to be able to finish this season with at least a better record than every non-division winner in the AL. To say they're contenders means that I expect them to be in the playoffs and will be faced with real disappointment if they aren't. I will be throwing my preseason beliefs in the garbage and drawing a conclusion based on partial season results.
So when can I call them legitimate contenders? After looking at the schedule I have an answer. The Rays have won the first two games of a ten game homestand and coming up next are the Rangers, a team that often struggles on the road (most likely due to the extreme nature of their home park). After that is four games against the White Sox, a team whose success I have some doubts about but whose performance so far can't be denied and therefore they must be considered a serious opponent at the level of other division leaders. They need to go at least 6-4 on this homestand; 7-3 would be great but just so long as they win more than they lose I'll be happy. The real test though is after that when they go on a nine game road trip. This will take them to Boston and Anaheim, home of the two best teams in the league. They will also go to Texas where it's always tough on the road team. That's the toughest road trip of the season with the possible exception of one in September (at TOR, BOS, and NYY).
If they go at least 6-4 at home and 4-5 on that tough trip, making them 39-29 and 10 games over .500 almost halfway through June, then I will call them contenders. If they can't do that and falter in the face of tough road games, well, I'll keep my doubts a while longer.