Rays are kicking butt but can hear approaching footsteps in AL East

John Romano | The Rays are off to their best start in franchise history, so why do you still have a nervous twitch? Because the AL East has a historically stacked lineup of good teams.
Tampa Bay shortstop Wander Franco (5) and center fielder Jose Siri (22) have had plenty of reasons to celebrate through the first two months of the 2023 season, but the hard stuff is still ahead for the Rays in the ridiculously stacked American League East.
Tampa Bay shortstop Wander Franco (5) and center fielder Jose Siri (22) have had plenty of reasons to celebrate through the first two months of the 2023 season, but the hard stuff is still ahead for the Rays in the ridiculously stacked American League East. [ CHRIS O'MEARA | AP ]
Published June 1

By now, they should be cruising. All line drives and high-fives.

You win 40 of your first 58 games, and the rest of the schedule should be nothing more than a coronation. A stately journey toward October and the postseason.

So why does it feel like the Rays are in for the fight of their lives?

Oh, this is nothing against them. This team is well-rounded and highly entertaining. The offense has been a revelation, and the pitching is often brilliant if sometimes battered.

No, this is about the American League East. In a year when the Rays may have their best shot at glory, the East is as stacked as any group of teams we’ve ever seen.

As they prepare for their next series against the Red Sox, the Rays are holding a four-game lead in the division. Which would be fine if they were, say, 34-24.

But a 40-18 record should get you something more. The Twins had an 11-1/2 game lead when they went 40-18 in 2019. The Astros were up by 12-1/2 by the time they started 40-16 in 2017.

You need to go all the way back to the first year of division play with the Orioles in 1969 to find such a scant lead while owning such a gaudy record.

And it’s not just Baltimore that is on Tampa Bay’s tail in 2023. Every team in the East had a winning record on June 1. In other words, it’s a good thing Major League Baseball went to a more balanced schedule this season. Instead of 76 games against East rivals, the Rays will only play 52. Otherwise, they could have reached September with a collection of black eyes and broken noses.

According to research by, the strongest division in baseball history was the 2002 AL West. That group of four teams had a collective .603 winning percentage outside of the division. That was a smidge better than 2001, when the West had a .601 percentage.

Those are the only times when an entire division was above .600 in the 54 years since baseball split the leagues up.

And yet, through the first two months of this season, the AL East had a remarkable .630 winning percentage outside of the division.

So what does that all mean for the Rays?

The next three months are not going to be as jaunty as you might have hoped.

There is no Kansas City in the East to offer the Rays a 13-game respite. No Oakland with a chance for a sweep in four different showdowns. The Red Sox are in last place in the East, and they’d be sitting near the top of the heap if they were in the Central.

Tampa Bay has played East opponents in six different series so far in 2023. They won three (Boston, New York, Toronto), lost two (Baltimore, Toronto) and split one (New York). Compare that to outside the division, where the Rays have won a series nine times and lost only three.

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The good news is that every team that has gotten off to a start this good — or better — went on to win at least 93 games in a full season since divisional play began. And 16 of those 18 teams went on to become division champs.

That means there’s nothing fluky about Tampa Bay’s 40-18 start. No matter what your concerns are about the bullpen or the stability of the rotation, this is an excellent baseball team.

The problem is New York is pretty impressive, too. And Baltimore is on the upswing. The Blue Jays, bless their hearts, should be better than they are right now.

Here’s another way of looking at it:

The computer models at Baseball Prospectus say the very mediocre Twins, with their 29-27 start, have a 62.6% chance of winning the Central. The Rays, at 40-18, have a 46.7% chance of claiming the East.

Think about that. One-third of the way into the season, the Rays have had a stupefyingly successful start, and they’re not even 50-50 to win the division.

If you look at that as a fan of baseball, the next three months could be an absolute hoot.

If you look at it as a fan of the Rays, you might consider a remote island.

John Romano can be reached at Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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