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Is this finally the year for the Tampa Bay Rays?

The current standings for the American League East have a surprising team leading the charge: the Tampa Bay Rays. A surprise to most, but not necessarily a shock to those on the team or directly involved with the rebuilding franchise.

Last season, the Rays put up a staggering amount of victories in the AL with 90, against 72 losses. Their record still left them behind both the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox in the divisional standings, 10 games behind second-place New York and 18 games behind the champions.

The Rays also finished seven games behind the Oakland Athletics for the second wild-card spot, but 2018 can still be seen as a major success for this franchise, for many different reasons.

Managed by Kevin Cash, this Floridian franchise is enjoying copious amounts of success light years before most figured they would after struggling through the 2000s with losing season after losing season. Built on a plethora of young talent coupled with cash-saving measures and a solid front office, this team is built to succeed long term.

A big step in the right direction actually resulted in the Rays losing a key member of their front office, as Tampa Bay’s former director of player personnel Matt Arnold was snatched up by the Milwaukee Brewers and became general manager David Stearns’ right-hand man as the franchise’s assistant general manager.

Even with this loss, it showed that the team had a lot of the right pieces in place, they just needed to develop a plan to capitalize on them. 2018 was the final stepping stone in that drawn-out process, and 2019 looks to be the first season in which this team can take that plan and reap its benefits.

Riding on the backs of youngsters like Cy Young award winner Blake Snell, Willy Adames, and Jose Alvarado, recently-extended super prospect Brandon Lowe, acquired guys like Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow, and key veterans like Charlie Morton and Kevin Kiermaier, this Rays team is nothing like any of its teams before.

Growing and fostering prospects like Snell, Adames, Alvarado, and Lowe through their system and actually holding onto them is a change in culture that the front office is trying to start, which is key to the team’s long-term development and the length of their rebuilding window.

The active roster payroll sits at a paltry $49 million and change, which has always been the M.O. for this franchise, as being in a smaller market with constant complaints about the location and stadium dominating conversations that should instead be filled with chatter about on-field activities and performance.

2019 can be the year for this team, and their hopes mostly lie in earning a wild-card spot. Both the Yankees and Red Sox are divisional favorites, something that the Rays are building towards but are a few pieces away from reaching.

That echelon of talent and respect should be the team’s goal, but they will have achieved it in a different way, developing talent and relying on their scouting and drafting know-how (similar to their National League direct comparison, the Milwaukee Brewers) instead of paying their way to a title like the big shot teams across the league have made into the industry standard.

Snell and Morton are two solid arms in their starting rotation, and Alvarado has an absolute killer array of pitches that he can use to help bridge that gap and close out games. Their bullpen is in need of at least one or two more solid arms to help fill in any holes, but their staff is quite solid.

Offensively, they rely on Kiermaier and outfielder Tommy Pham, who was acquired from the St. Louis Cardinals in the offseason and has switched over to start in left field, to help set the table and get on base for the big bats, like Meadows, Ji-Man Choi, and Mike Zunino.

Both Choi and Zunino are castoffs from other franchises, as Choi was traded to the Rays in exchange for Brad Miller early last year with the Brewers, and Zunino did not live up to his high billing as the next great catching prospect for the Seattle Mariners, eventually making his way down to the Trop.

Speaking of castoffs, Chris Archer was once thought of as this team’s pitching savior. But, when a team like the Pittsburgh Pirates comes calling right at the deadline and offers two top-tier prospects like Glasnow and Meadows, it makes letting Archer go that much easier.

Both Glasnow and Meadows have All-Star potential, and both have touched the big-league already in showings that have garnered mixed reviews. However, on a team that encourages on the job training, the Rays have two of what is next in the MLB, and they should be excited to be able to pair these two players with their existing core of prospects and solid players.

In the dugout, Cash is relatively inexperienced when it comes to managerial skills and history, which fits perfectly into this franchise and their plans. Every young player is still learning the ropes of the pace of play in the MLB, and Cash is able to learn right with them and help iron out any kinks that they may come across on the way.

The Rays are a team to be reckoned with this year and after, as they have a core in place that can easily make some noise in the standings, mess up some preseason picks and even make the playoffs. This will be one of the more fun teams to keep tabs on as the season progresses, and they will become a household name at some point this season as they prepare to make a run back into the postseason.