Are These Early-Season AL Frontrunners For Real?

Following a season in which the American League featured three 100-win teams and a wild card with 97 wins, the 2019 Junior Circuit pennant race looked to be much of the same prior to the 2019 season. The Red Sox, Yankees, and Astros would lead the pack, and everyone else would try to get in where they fit in.

However, as we reach the quarter mark of the season, two surprise division leaders are setting the pace. The Astros have assumed their comfortable position atop the AL West, but it's the Minnesota Twins and Tampa Bay Rays leading the Central and East with two of the best records in all of baseball.

Are these two pennant sleepers the real deal? At what point do we drop the "it's early" tag and start projecting these traditional also-rans as legitimate contenders? First, let's take a look at the keys to the Twins and Rays hot starts.

Minnesota made a number of moves to improve their club this offseason, but with the Bryce Harper/Manny Machado saga seemingly overshadowing all other hot stove action, it was easy to miss. The club added a trio of power-hitting veterans, led by the ageless Nelson Cruz, along with former all-star Jonathan Schoop and Marwin Gonzalez.

Cruz has made a late career push that could potentially land him on the Hall of Fame ballot down the line, blasting 37 or more homers in each of the past five seasons. In his age 39 season, the DH is slashing .270/.354/.508 with 7 homers and 22 RBIs over his first 35 games. That said, Cruz was recently sidelined with a wrist injury that will require an MRI.

Following his breakout 2017 all-star campaign, Schoop fell back to earth in 2018 and was allowed to walk in free agency by the Brewers after he contributed little to their playoff run following a midseason trade from Baltimore. He inked a one-year deal with Minnesota for $7.5 million, and has thus far performed well as the club's regular second baseman, slugging over .500 with an OPS+ of 119.

The bust of the group thus far has been Gonzalez, who has struggled as the team's every day third baseman in the absence of the injured and inconsistent Miguel Sano. He's been picked up however by returning shortstop Jorge Polanco, who was solid in his first full big league season in 2017, but appears poised for a breakout at age 25. He's currently slashing .324/.393/.607, and is drawing walks as well as hitting for extra bases.

Toss in yet another addition, power hitting first baseman C.J. Cron, coming off a 30-homer year in Tampa and the Twins have the makings of quite a potent infield. The improved infield couples nicely with a solid starting outfield that consists of a trio of returners in Eddie Rosario, Byron Buxton, and Max Kepler.

The real story for the Twins so far, though, has been the starting pitching, led by blossoming star Jose Berrios and a pair of veterans off to tremendous starts. Berrios is 6-1 with a sub-1 WHIP and a K/BB ratio better than 6 to 1. Not to be outdone, however, is rotation mate Jake Odorizzi, who currently holds the second-lowest ERA by a qualified starter in the AL, along with a stellar .169 batting average against. Add in a resurgent Martin Perez, who was signed for a bargain following a poor 2018 season in Texas, and Minnesota has an experienced front line of starters that could lead them through a long season.

Along the theme of pitching, the Tampa Bay Rays have the lowest team ERA and second lowest team WHIP in all of baseball. They've allowed the fewest runs in the game, the second fewest home runs, and the third fewest walks. This all added up to a 19-9 start to the season and a position atop the AL East, as powerhouse rivals New York and Boston stumbled out of the gate.

The Rays have been led on the mound by starter Tyler Glasnow, who prior to a recent forearm injury had been lights out to begin the season. The 25-year old was acquired from Pittsburgh as part of the Chris Archer deal, and has reached the sixth inning in all but one of his eight starts in 2019. His 1.86 ERA is the best in the AL, as is his 0.91 WHIP. The Rays can only keep their fingers crossed that Glasnow can return to form following his injury, which is in a troublesome spot for a pitcher.

That said, Glasnow has not been by himself in the Rays rotation, as he's been joined by reigning AL Cy Young winner Blake Snell and the late-blooming Charlie Morton, who at age 35 has turned himself into a top-line starter over the past three seasons. Snell was lumped up a bit on Opening Day by the Astros, and turned in a clunker when he was tagged for 7 earned runs by Kansas City on May 1st, but has already posted three starts of 10+ strikeouts and looks to be back on track. Morton is currently striking out more than 11 per nine, and ranks sixth in the AL in strikeouts overall.

On the offensive end, Tampa has been led by relative unknown infielders Yandy Diaz and Brandon Lowe, who have a combined 17 home runs and 35 extra-base hits. Tommy Pham has an excellent .397 OBP and has turned himself into a lynch-pin center fielder and fixture at the top of the line up. Throw in solid offensive contributions from Avisail Garcia and Austin Meadows, who was hitting the cover off the ball prior to being sidelined with an injury, and in typical Rays fashion the team has done more with less.

So who will be in the race for the long haul? As it stands now, my money is on Minnesota, simply by virtue of not having the Yankees and Red Sox to worry about, and playing in a relatively soft division overall. The Yankees will eventually get healthy, and Boston seems to have snapped out of their World Series hangover and have won eight of 10. The injury to Glasnow could be crucial for the Rays, as it may interrupt the tremendous momentum he had to begin the season.

It's unlikely the Rays will be able to crack the postseason with anything less than 93 wins, while Minnesota has more margin for error with a weakened Indians team as their only real competition in the Central. The Twins welcome the Angels to Target Field this week for a three game set before they'll head out west to face Seattle for four games and then to southern California for a series in Anaheim. Meanwhile, Tampa gets a couple of soft balls against the doormat Marlins before entering a tough stretch on the road against the Yankees followed by series against the Dodgers and Indians.

The end of May will see the Rays and Twins face off head-to-head for four games in Tampa, part of a brutal stretch for the Rays in which they'll play 34 games in 34 days. Will both teams still be in first place? It's a definite possibility for Minnesota, who currently hold a four game lead on Cleveland. The Rays, on the other hand, have the Yankees breathing down their necks just a half game back.

It feels a bit silly talking about division races in mid-May, but keep your eyes on these two potential sleepers in the AL as the season progresses

Leave a Comment

Featured Site