Why the Rays are the most exciting team in baseball

After gaining confidence over the second half of last season, Kevin Kiermaier and the Rays are off to a 5-2 start. AP Photo/Chris O'Meara

Let's begin with Blake Snell. He's a good place to start when talking about the most exciting organization in the majors for 2019, given that he's the reigning American League Cy Young winner and owner of a Millennium Falcon fastball and wipeout curveball. Maybe you don't know much about Snell other than the impressive stat line: 21-5, 1.89 ERA, 221 strikeouts, just the fourth American League starter to post a sub-2.00 ERA since the designated hitter was instituted in 1973. The other three were guys named Guidry, Clemens and Pedro.

Maybe all you need know to about the ace of the Tampa Bay Rays is this: He didn't even keep his Cy Young trophy. "I have big goals for myself, so I know I can't get caught up in one award," he said back in spring training. He gave the trophy to his father, Dave, a former minor league pitcher. "For me, the individual accolade is cool, but I think it's more meaningful to my dad than it is to me right now," Snell said. "I'm in the moment, and I have a lot of stuff I want to chase and get to. As cool as that award is and as happy as I was when it happened, maybe a couple days after I was ready to focus on this year."

It's logical to assume some regression from a 1.89 ERA. Snell could pitch exactly as well as he did last season and give up more runs, simply if a few more bloopers and bleeders fall in. I asked Chaim Bloom, the Rays' senior vice president of baseball operations, how to project Snell's performance moving forward, especially knowing he allowed a .088 average with runners in scoring position. Bloom smiled. "I'm sure Blake will you tell he can do a 1.89 ERA again," he said.

"I think I can do better," Snell said. "It's what you tell yourself. I think the mental aspect of the game is huge. I don't take it to where each game is the most serious moment of my life, but it's very personal to me. I'm doing everything I can to where that day my body is 100 percent ready to go and I can do anything I want. I think one thing that screwed me over a lot is that I listened to the outside noise and they'd tell me what I did need to do and I'd buy into it. That's not who I am. Who I am is I don't care what anyone says."

This is just one reason to get excited about what the Rays might do this season: The guy with the 1.89 ERA is telling us that, yes, it's possible to do it again.

Snell's breakout was a tribute to the Rays' development system -- and that curveball that finished his transformation from a pitcher with potential to a Cy Young winner. While Snell was growing up in Shoreline, just north of Seattle, his dad focused on teaching him proper mechanics and balance. The two didn't worry much about pitch grips.

"There's not a pitch I came in with after getting drafted," Snell said. "Even my four-seam fastball wasn't a four-seam fastball." He learned his fastball grip from Kyle Snyder, now the major league pitching coach. Minor league instructors Dewey Robinson and Marty DeMerritt taught him his slider and changeup.

Snell tells the story of how he learned his curveball.

"I'm in low-A, and I'm struggling, I only have a fastball/changeup/slider. I just told my pitching coach, 'I'm going to throw a curveball. I'm throwing it. I don't care.' I showed him my grip, and the pitching coach was Kyle Snyder. We're going back and forth, and I said, 'I'm throwing it. I don't care. I'm throwing the curveball.' I showed him my grip and he was like, 'Huh. Why are you throwing it that way?' He said, 'No, we're going to throw it this way.'"

Dick Bosman, then a minor league coordinator, helped Snell refine the pitch. He spent an entire instructional league season working on his curveball. Still, he didn't use it much, even as he reached the majors. "I'd throw it here and there and it was always good, but I love my fastball," Snell said. Last season, he finally realized that nobody could hit the curve. "It was like, start throwing it a lot more."

He did. Now he had four lethal pitches. He doubled his usage of the curve from 2017, and batters hit .122 against it with only one home run. That was a shot by Jose Ramirez in September. Snell had taken a no-hitter into the seventh inning. He remembers the pitch, on a 3-2 count, flat like a changeup. (I checked the video: Snell's details were spot-on.) "I was carving that whole lineup," he recalled. "He battled me the first two at-bats and I got him. And the third one he got me. I don't mind. He's a good dude. I like him."

After serving up three home runs to the Astros on Opening Day -- including one on a curveball -- Snell entered Tuesday's start ready to deal. The Rockies couldn't touch him. In Snell's language, he carved them up, matching a career high with 13 strikeouts over seven scoreless innings and inducing 25 swing-and-misses, more than he had in any game in 2018.

As Snell told me with a sort of quiet bravado, "If I'm attacking with all four, yeah, good luck."

Good luck facing this entire Rays pitching staff. Although Snell is the headliner, the depth here is ridiculous. When Tommy Pham came over from the Cardinals in a trade on July 31, he immediately was impressed. "All these guys throwing 95-plus. Everybody on my team was throwing hard and had a secondary pitch," Pham said.

The staff has keyed the team's 5-2 start by giving up only 11 runs in seven games. Tyler Glasnow, who came over from the Pirates in the Chris Archer trade, gave up one run his first start and hit 100 mph. Charlie Morton -- at two years and $30 million the most expensive free agent in franchise history -- has started the season with two strong outings. Yonny Chirinos gave up one run in seven innings in his start. Ryne Stanek is the hard-throwing reliever who will often serve as the team's opener. Ryan Yarbrough usually follows him as the "bulk" guy -- he's the crafty lefty, the one guy on the staff who doesn't throw 95. The secret weapons are flame-throwing relievers Jose Alvarado and Diego Castillo, a deadly left-right tandem who both hit triple digits on the radar gun and have looked unhittable so far:

Yeah, good luck.

Mitch Lukevics is one of those baseball people with whom you want to sit down, have a cold one or two, and listen to the stories. He's gregarious and personable and in his 45th season in professional baseball, starting in 1975 when the White Sox drafted him out of Penn State. He spent six seasons pitching in the minors, reaching Triple-A, and later became director of minor league operations for the Yankees from 1989 to 1995 -- when the farm system churned out Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada.

He lost his job anyway. "Of course, when you work for Mr. Steinbrenner," he said, referring to George, "you know the next day is going to come, and that day did come and I landed here."

The Rays hired Lukevics as one of their first employees in 1995, two seasons before they would play their first major league game. He has been the director of minor league operations since 2006 and is a walking encyclopedia of Rays history.

He took me into a big, empty room at the club's spring training complex in Port Charlotte, Florida, that used to be the visiting team's clubhouse when the Rangers played there. Framed photos of players who graduated from the farm to the majors adorn the walls -- a wall of honor -- and feature not just stars, but Toby Hall and Steve Cox and Victor Zambrano and everyone else. "Every one of these players on this board, I know," Lukevics said. "They all came through here."

So you know he's not exaggerating when he raves about the current farm system. "It's a subjective comparison, but we're by far stronger from top to bottom with the depth in the farm system than we ever have been," he said. ESPN's Keith Law rated it the second-best system in the majors behind San Diego's. It starts with Wander Franco, Law's No. 3 overall prospect who hit .351/.418/.587 as a 17-year-old in the Appalachian League with more walks than strikeouts.

"Arguably the best prospect in the history of the Rays," Lukevics said, knowing full well the organization has produced David Price and Evan Longoria. "He has that rare ability to put a bat on the ball and impact the baseball. What he's doing at his age is something special." Like any experienced baseball person, Lukevics exercises caution with his enthusiasm. "Here's not there yet by any stretch of the imagination," he said of Franco. "A wise man once told me: Let's see how a player handles failure."

Franco will start the season at Class A Bowling Green. With Fernando Tatis Jr. already in the majors and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. likely to join him soon, Franco will be the must-watch minor leaguer of 2019. Two-way player Brendan McKay, the fourth overall pick in 2017 out of Louisville who will start the year at Double-A Montgomery, is another player high on anybody's watch list.

"Everybody would say the bat is behind the pitching, and it is," Lukevics said of McKay. "Not everybody can do this, and he has the mental wherewithal and the physical wherewithal to take this on. This year, we're taking away first base, and we're learning as an organization how to handle him. He's instrumental in the process. He's a bright young guy. He knows his body better than we do. Let's see how it goes. There's great hope that he can do it."

Franco was a big international signing out of the Dominican Republic, McKay a high draft pick. Vidal Brujan was given $15,000 to sign out of the Dominican in 2014. He broke out last year, hitting .320 with 55 steals in Class A, becoming one of the most exciting prospects in the sport.

"I give a lot of credit to [international scouting director] Carlos [Rodriguez] and our people," Lukevics said. "When we signed him, he was really little, really skinny. He has physically matured, and with language training and everything else, he has probably grown more than any player we have here. It's a wonderful story. When you say 'Vidal Brujan,' I have a big smile on my face because I know where he started."

Those are only three of the guys to watch on the farm. The system is loaded with high-end talent, from pitchers Brent Honeywell and Matthew Liberatore to catcher Ronaldo Hernandez to outfielder Jesus Sanchez, slugger Nate Lowe and middle infielders growing on trees.

This wasn't the case just a few years ago. In 2011, the Rays were sitting in a nice place. They would finish 91-71 that season and earn the wild card. They also had 12 of the first 89 picks in the draft, a golden opportunity to stockpile the farm system with premium talent. They selected Snell with the seventh of those picks, but the rest of the draft was a disaster. Eight of the picks never reached the majors. After the Rays reached the playoffs in 2013, four straight losing seasons followed. The farm system is the lifeblood of any organization, especially a small-market team like the Rays, and the talent had dried up. In 2016, the team finished 68-94.

"We weren't trying to lose that year," Bloom said.

That's an important distinction. Unlike other franchises, the Rays never sank into a complete teardown and rebuild. In two of those losing seasons they went 80-82, hardly the record of a tanking team. It's something to respect. Of course, with their financial limitations, the Rays were always in the constant shuffle of players and talent.

Bloom said there wasn't one significant change in the scouting and development areas that turned things around. He said the goal is always for the members of the front office to keep pushing one another to look under the hood and try to remain ahead of other teams in how the sport continues to evolve. That kind of thinking -- with the acceptance of manager Kevin Cash and the major league coaching staff -- led to the opener strategy that worked so well last season and will be used again in 2019.

Now the 40-man roster is loaded with talent. Snell might be the only big star, but any of the 40 players can contribute if needed.

"It's always been an emphasis here," Bloom said. "It has to be a huge part of how we win. It just takes so much depth to get through a season. That's our goal with the 40-man roster, that every spot has someone who can help us. Maybe that comes from guys who are less heralded but can help you win that extra game or two that puts you over the top -- especially in the division we play in, the margins are razor thin. There is no margin for error, no forgiveness in the American League East."

Cash is the man who gets to figure out how to use all these guys.

"Our depth trickles all the way into low-A," Cash said. "I know those guys aren't going to impact the big league club, but we certainly feel that maybe in the past when we've had key injuries, maybe it was tough to overcome some of those tough patches. More than anything though, it's the versatility we have throughout the organization."

The day I was in camp, rookie second baseman Brandon Lowe had tried on a first baseman's glove for the first time. ("Don't expect a Gold Glove," he joked.) Lowe also played outfield last year, Joey Wendle played second base and outfield, Daniel Robertson can play all over the infield and Yandy Diaz already has started games at third base and first base. If Kevin Kiermaier gets injured -- the way he has the past three seasons -- they have multiple options to back him up in center field. Indeed, the starting outfield of Pham, Kiermaier and Austin Meadows includes three players who can play center.

The big question, though: Can the Rays catch the Red Sox and Yankees? Tampa Bay won 90 games last year but finished 18 games behind Boston.

"I think it speaks volumes how good the Red Sox and Yankees were last year," Cash said. "They were powerhouses. Eighteen games is a lot of games to make up. I hope they don't win 108 games again."

Yarbrough pointed out that "we played toe-to-toe with the Red Sox and the Yankees in the second half. That gave us a ton of confidence heading into this season." Pham also mentioned how well the Rays played down the stretch against playoff teams.

He's right. The Rays went 36-19 the final two months, better than the Red Sox (33-20) and Yankees (32-25). In that stretch they went 13-9 against the Red Sox, Yankees, Indians and A's. Since Aug. 1 of last season, they have a run differential of plus-83 compared to plus-43 for the Yankees and plus-35 for the Red Sox (not counting the postseason).

"It's a tough division," Pham said. "I thought the NL Central was the best division until I got to the AL East and saw firsthand how tough it is to try knock these two teams off."

It won't be easy. With the Red Sox and Yankees struggling out of the gate and the Rays off to a good start, however, the Rays' odds of winning the division already have increased from 2.5 percent on Opening Day to almost 9 percent. They will use the opener and move players around and throw some serious heat on the mound and hope to scrape across enough runs. They will be exciting, interesting and innovative.

"At the end of the day," Bloom said, "this is entertainment, and we want to be exciting for our fans and for everyone who follows us and watches us. But for us, as a baseball operations department, it's about winning. Whatever we do, whether it's in the minor leagues or on the scouting front or in the majors, it's with that goal in mind. If we can win in an exciting way, so much the better. But we'd rather win, period."

Don't be surprised if the Rays do just that and shock the baseball world with a division title.