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Wait, can the Rays actually win the AL East?

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Yesterday, the initial iteration of the PECOTA projection system gave the Rays a mean projection of 86 wins next season, tied with the Red Sox for the best division in the American League East. How is this possible?

In one corner, we have a Boston team that has been hoarding groundball pitchers as it seemed they should have all along, and landed highly regarded hitters in Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez.

In the other corner, we have the Rays, that shining pinnacle of the fire sale. Matt Silverman took over the General Managership in a situation where the Rays were loaded at the major league level and were in dire need of bringing the farm system back up to snuff. He helped deal those pieces, leaning on the same brain trust that existed under Andrew Friedman, and overhauled the roster to apparent great success.

Apparent, that is, if you believe in PECOTA. (I am partial to the system curated by Nate Silver, as his projections for the Rays in 2008 were my own introduction to the world of sabermetrics.)

As was noted in Ian's write up of observations in the first round of PECOTA projections, the win totals assigned are a mean projection. Run scenarios over and over again, and PECOTA delivers what seems to be the middle ground result. Or as Silver puts it:

PECOTA accounts for these sorts of factors by creating not a single forecast point, as other systems do, but rather a range of possible outcomes that the player could expect to achieve at different levels of probability. Instead of telling you that it's going to rain, we tell you that there's an 80% chance of rain, because 80% of the time that these atmospheric conditions have emerged on Tuesday, it has rained on Wednesday. - Nate Silver, 2004

Thanks to some significant run prevention, the Rays come out on top of the division, in a range of wins that boils down to 86 wins. We can use our intuition to see if that projection seems fair.

Steven Souza and David DeJesus are projected to full time rolls, splitting time between outfield and the DH, where as John Jaso is awarded a mere 150 plate appearances. Jaso's projection of a .353 OBP looks good under PECOTA, and his TAV (true average, their version of wOBA scaled to AVG) is third on the team (behind Longoria and Souza). He should get more plate appearances, and using PECOTA's expectations, that means more offense.

It certainly is a logjam between the three, with DDJ and Jaso being left handed bats expected to DH while Souza earns his promotion. Unless Kiermaier is benched for better offense (unlikely given KK's defense), the Rays should have a formidable first bat off the bench in DeJesus either way, and PECOTA loves that.

And it's more fuel to the fire of this torch I've been carrying for DeJesus. He's for sale on the trade market as much as any other player with a contract of one or two years on the team, but his veteran presence in the dugout and in the clubhouse buoyed the Rays does the stretch last season, gladly serving any role management would have him play. I think the Rays would love to have that again throughout 2015. As insurance for the outfield, and as the best possible left handed bat off the bench.

PECOTA also has faith in the Rays rotation, expecting great performances from Cobb and Smyly, decent performances from Archer and Odorizzi, and solid contributions from Nate Karns and Burch Smith. The system isn't fond of Colome, but it values Matt Moore nearly as well as Cobb, but in limited appearances due to his recovery from injury. Escalate his time table to return, and that's more plus contribution. There's a lot to feel good about.

The rotation stands in contrast to the expectations for Boston, and that's the clear deviation between the teams. Fenway is kind to hitters, and the new Sox strategy is groundball specialists. Will it work?

Using the PECOTA projections, the Red Sox' best starter Clay Buchholz would be the fifth starter on the Rays, sixth if Moore were not injured. Of course, that's as things stand with Shields and Hamels and other tradable names still out there. The Rays offense can't compare, but given the environments each team plays in, we see Boston hitting a ton and the Rays preventing a ton.

The Rays have said they intend to be competitive again next season, but how many expected the numbers to come out favorably?

Wil Myers and Ben Zobrist are traded and gone, with half the 25-man roster overhauled. The big managerial mind of Joe Maddon has departed to the great white north. THE GM walks away from the franchise he built to go play with money... and the team stays atop the division.

Who saw that coming?