Through the first quarter of the season, the Tampa Bay Rays have been easily the best team in baseball. They currently sit five games up on the Yankees who they thrashed earlier in the week. Are they overachieving or are they this good? Can they sustain this pace or will they settle down as the season progresses? Let's break it down position by position.
First base: Carlos Pena is having a tough season. He started poorly, then got hot for a while and is now back under .200 for the season. He is having a good year in the field, much better than last year. His WAR (wins over replacement) sits this year at -.02. He should get back to at least last year's statistics over time which means a WAR of around 1.8, thus adding two wins going on in the season.
Second base: Reid Brignac is a surprise getting most of the starts at second while Zobrist is playing more outfield. Brignac is playing above his head a bit as his OPS is slightly higher than his minor league totals. His defense shows tremendous range but that is not currently translating to league average fielding. It seems as the season goes along, his hitting will slump a bit and it is questionable if he'll stay in the line up for good. -1 win.
Shortstop: Jason Barlett is way below last year's incredible stats. Looking over Bartlett's career, last year seems like an outlier and not a sign of a budding star. This year is still below his norms though and he should pick it up a bit. His fielding is average at best. He is sitting at 0.4 WAR and should finish around 3. +3 wins
Third base: Evan Longoria is the bomb! His season is above projections and his batting average is the highest in his career, but that seems to be the natural progression of a building star. His fielding is great and his 154 OPS+ does not seem like a fluke at all. Expect Longoria to continue raking. He might start getting pitched around more if Pena doesn't pick it up. +4 wins.
Left Field: Carl Crawford is having a good year in every respect. His OPS+ and his batting average are the highest of his career. That seems to mean that he should come back just a bit to his norms. He continues to be a good fielder and his stolen base total is right around where it should be. Based on his history, he should add another 2 wins on as the season goes along (in WAR that is).
Center Field: B. J. Upton seems lost at the plate and is doing worse than even last year which was pretty ugly considering his talent. He is an average fielder at best. Perhaps he could use a change of scenery, who knows. He could get hot, but his OBP of .296 is not promising. The Fan has a funny feeling he'll stay lost as long as he is in Tampa. 0 wins added or maybe 1 at the most.
Right Field: Ben Zobrist is not having the same kind of year as he did last year. His batting average is higher. His OBP is good, but his slugging is way off last year's pace. It's puzzling to figure out why he is playing in the outfield so much. He's a good fielder wherever he plays, but he is an outstanding second baseman and it still seems his best position. It seems in the Bay Rays' best interest to stick him back on second and bring up a young stud to play the outfield. Their minors are stacked. Zobrist will probably add some power as the season goes along, but he won't match last year's numbers. +3 wins.
Catcher: The Bay Rays have a dilemma behind the plate. John Jaso is hitting really well, but he's a liability throwing out runners. Dioner Navarro is a better defender but he can't seem to hit anymore and his performance batting this year seems to prove that last year's poor performance wasn't a fluke. The Fan doesn't think this duo adds any win value over the course of the season and might even cost the team a win. So we'll go with -1.
Designated Hitter: This has been a mess for the Bay Rays. Burrell didn't get the job done and was released. Aybar is batting .232, mostly as a DH and now they are using Hank Blalock, which won't get the job done either. -2
Starting pitching: The Bay Rays' starting pitching has been brilliant, no question about it. One through five are solid all the way through. When your number five guy is currently posting a 127 ERA+, you're in pretty good shape. Let's look at them individually.
Matt Garza: Garza is way ahead of his career norms. For three years he's been in the 115 to 117 ERA+ area code. This year, he's sitting at 180. He has all kinds of talent, so this might be the building of an ace. His walk rate is excellent thus giving him his best k/bb ratio of his career. The one troubling stat is that his BABIP is sitting for the year at .257, which means he's been pretty darn lucky so far that way. His hits per nine innings will come up, but he leads the league in innings pitched so he's a bull. He'll add 3 wins to the ledger. Keep in mind that the Fan isn't talking about wins and losses as a pitcher, but wins over replacement.
Jamie Shields: Shields is hard to figure. He leads the league in strikeouts, strikeouts to walk ratio but also in hits allowed. He's also given up 9 homers already. He hardly ever walks anyone and is by far the best on his team in that category. But it seems hard to imagine he'll continue to strikeout more than nine per nine innings since he's never done that before. Still, he throws strikes, works deep into games and keeps his team in each game he pitches. +3
Jeff Niemann: The Fan never realized how big this guy really is. 6'9" and 260 pounds. That's huge. Also huge has been his success as a starter for the Rays. He is now 19-8 over all as a Rays starter. This year, his strikeout rate, walk rate and homer rate are all in line with what he did last year. The only difference this year has been the amount of hits he has allowed. But again, like Garza (and even more so), Niemann has been extremely lucky with a .241 BABIP rate. His ERA is 2.54 but his FIP is 4.06. So expect his ERA and his WHIP to rise during the season. But even so, he's pretty darn good. +2.
David Price: Price is off to a great start. Looking at his numbers, his strikeout rate is exactly the same as last year. His walks are slightly less, which is good. His BABIP is also incredibly low at .243. His ERA and his WHIP will rise. There is not a great history to guess how less success will affect him and his perseverance. The Fan will give him a +2.
Wade Davis: Davis again has too little history to know what he's going to do. It's a pretty good guess that he'll do about the same as he's doing now. His walk rate is up over last year and his strikeout rate is down. Plus, he doesn't pitch deep into games because he is young and doesn't throw enough strikes. Don't think his ERA will stay as low as it is. His ERA is 3.35 and his FIP is 4.92. With a BABIP of .258, those hits will start falling in more. +1.
Andy Sonnanstine is around for pinch starting duties if one of the above gets injured.
Relief pitching: Rafael Soriano really has stabilized the bullpen. They always lacked a good closer and now they have one. It settles down every one else into established roles. His strikeout rate is down quite a bit from his history, so he can get even better. +1.5. Grant Balfour is having a good season. Having Soriano on top of him probably helps him a good deal. But it's hard for relief pitchers to gain in WAR so he'll probably add zero wins as he is currently at 0.5 and he finished last year at 0.9. Wheeler is also doing well and is ahead of most of his career norms. So he'll probably not add any in the WAR column, but he won't cost them either. Randy Choate is a liability so we'll give him a -1. Lance Cormier will not add or lose value.
So if the Fan is anywhere in the ball park, the Rays should pick up 21 wins over replacement over the rest of the season. That should be more than enough to win the division and get them close to 100 wins. They have to stay healthy and their pitching has to stay strong. But based on the numbers, the Bay Rays are on their way.