Don't look now, but the Tampa Bay Rays are readying to make a run in the toughest division in baseball next season, continuing the progress they made during an on-fire second half in 2018.
Okay, have they signed Nelson Cruz and traded for Edwin Encarnacion? Not yet, but basically? Alright, when they do that, then you can look. See? I told you.
"He [Edwin Encarnacion] will probably be a Mariner about as long as Carlos Santana was a Mariner."@Ken_Rosenthal dives into the details and moving pieces of yesterday's three-team swap between the M's, #Rays and #Indians. pic.twitter.com/ZcMHZbczOy— MLB Network (@MLBNetwork) December 14, 2018
I rag on the Red Sox plenty for turning dirt into gold (hello, World Series MVP Steve Pearce!) but nobody does that better than the Rays, the team that annually crawls out of the depths of hell, led by Matt Duffy holding a blowtorch and a caffeine-crazed Kevin Kiermaier. I would forgive you if you stopped watching the Rays midway through June last season (and judging by their attendance, so did the city of Tampa, if you replace "June" with "Opening Day"). There wasn't much to crow about, especially once Blake Snell hit the shelf for a bit.
But by the end of the year, their young core was humming. Snell was aflame every five days, Tyler Glasnow was showing off his world-class snapdragon (though the ERA still didn't line up), and the youth movement offense was relentless every time the gates opened. No, Joey Wendle wasn't the Rookie of the Year, but he made it far closer than he should have, and Willy Adames more than held his own at 23 in a league that's given us unrealistic rookie expectations (no, not everyone is Juan Soto).
And this offseason, they've made slick move after slick move while our eyes have been trained on a Bryce Harper "chase" that more accurately resembles a dog running half-heartedly at a tennis ball before realizing it's very, very tired. While you were sleeping, Tampa signed Charlie Morton, who's better than J.A. Happ, to a cheaper deal than the Yankee lefty, slotting him in behind their kiddos. Now, behind Snell/Glasnow/Morton, they'll use two openers, while welcoming Brent Honeywell and Jose De Leon back sometime this summer.
Weeks prior, they dealt Mallex Smith, a nice player without a level up still in his arsenal, to obtain Mike Zunino, who's exactly the kind of castoff who hits 30 homers at the Trop. His defense is top notch, and he's now able to shake off the shackles of high expectations in Seattle.
Finally, Tampa helped facilitate a three-way deal that sent pure hitter and mistreated Indian Yandy Diaz to the Bay. 27 years old and a hitting machine without a position, Diaz reminds me of another shoved-out slugger who couldn't find a home in Cleveland a few years back: Jesus Aguilar.
Assess all this, and realize that they're still one of Nelson Cruz's final two potential destinations, and have shown indications they'd like to butt their noses back in on their own three-way trade, open the door back up, and get Edwin Encarnacion from Seattle themselves. In an offseason that's struggled to get started, Tampa has already added a seasoned power arm, pure offense, and potentially a few high-dollar swing-from-the-heels sluggers. 89 wins last year and counting.
Nobody wants this smoke in the Wild Card Game. Hopefully, Tampa's fans get the memo.