The Rays are the favorites to win the American League East, according to PECOTA, the projection system put out by Baseball Prospectus. Their projection of 86 wins ties them with the Boston Red Sox as the third-highest rated team in the American League (the Angels and Mariners are first and second; the Central division is, as usual, the worst).
PECOTA thinks that the Rays will achieve their wins in the usual Rays fashion: by allowing very few runs to score. Their projected 638 runs allowed is second best in the American League (behind Seattle), while their projected 682 runs scored is tied with Oakland, but better than only two American League teams (Baltimore and Kansas City).
Here's a primer on what these projections do and do not mean:
- PECOTA does not believe that the winner of the American League East will only win 86 games. Whoever actually wins the division will have more wins than that. The teams finishing at the bottom of the league will have fewer wins than projected here. Instead, this is the mean wins projection.
- PECOTA thinks that the Rays and the Red Sox, as they now stand, are similarly strong squads. They face each other 18 times, and it does not have an opinion about who will win those games. For each game, though, one team wins and the other loses, meaning that the actual wins total -- which is a measure of record -- will change more quickly than the projected wins total, which is a measure of strength expressed as a record.
- That is to say that even if PECOTA is 100% correct, and both the Rays and the Red Sox are true talent 86-win teams, one could very easily win 92 games and the other 80. Anyone who says that modern projection systems take all the fun out of baseball clearly doesn't understand the uncertainty in projections.
- The real takeaway is that for the Rays, each marginal win matters. They're at the sweet spot on the win curve. So when someone (like me) wonders why the Rays are paying near market rate for a player like Asdrubal Cabrera on a one-year contract, that's the answer -- they have more than average to gain from current production.
- It's interesting that these high expectations for the Rays are not reflected in Vegas. The current odds to win the World Series at Bovada stand at 12/1 for Boston, and 66/1 for Tampa Bay.
- PECOTA thinks that the Rays will once more get it done on defense. Their defensive metric, FRAA (which is not zone based but rather takes a step back and just deals with play-by-play data), pegs the Rays defense to save 28 runs above average, second best in baseball, behind only Kansas City.
- Evan Longoria is -- as usual -- expected to be the Rays most valuable player, with Desmond Jennings the runner up. Who comes next may surprise you, however.
- Newcomer Steven Souza Jr. has the third highest projection, with a slash line of .261/.336/458. That's only slightly below Longoria's projected offensive output, but better than PECOTA's projection for Wil Myers (.254/.319/.435). If PECOTA is smarter than all of us who disliked the Myers trade, then the Rays are smarter too.
- Probably incorrectly, PECOTA predicts David DeJesus to receive the majority of plate appearances in left field, while Souza receives the majority at designated hitter. It slots John Jaso in as the third option at DH (receiving fewer PAs than both Souza and DDJ). Given DeJesus's advancing age and declining range, it's likely that Souza will play in the field more often than not. This should improve the team's defense while opening up the spot at DH for Jaso (a better hitter than DeJesus). This simple shuffle could make the real Rays better than their PECOTA projection.
- PECOTA also expects good production from Nick Franklin, with an 80% ownership of second base.
- The current PECOTA projection only is based off only 160 innings pitched by a productive Drew Smyly, and only 40 innings pitched by a productive Matt Moore. It's easy to envision a world where both of those guys eclipse those totals, making the Rays run prevention better than the already high expectations
To see the full projections, subscribe to Baseball Prospectus. As for the Rays, it's time to ditch the gloom and doom. The window is still open.