Rays still the favorite in the AL East

When the Tampa Bay Rays changed their name in 2008 and transformed overnight from the hapless laughingstock of the American League to 97-win division champions, their rotation featured five pitchers 26 or younger: At 26, James Shields was the old man of the group, which included Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza, Edwin Jackson and Andy Sonnanstine.

The genius of the Rays since then has been their ability to consistently replenish the staff with young starters and yet remain one of the best in the league. With the departure of Shields this offseason, that original five has been completely made over; a transition began when David Price joined the rotation during the 2009 season. The unofficial title of staff ace has shifted from Kazmir to Shields to Price, and it appears another shift is taking place in 2013.

Matt Moore, your presence as a Cy Young contender is duly noted. With reigning Cy Young champ Price struggling -- earning just one win in nine starts while posting a 5.24 ERA, and then landing on the DL a few days ago with triceps strain -- it is Moore who has helped keep the Rays afloat more than any one pitcher. He improved to 8-0 on Sunday, limiting the Baltimore Orioles to five hits and one run over seven innings in a 3-1 victory, as the Rays completed an impressive sweep in Baltimore.

Moore lowered his ERA to 2.29, the Rays improved to 23-20 with their ninth win in 11 games, and this is looking like a team starting to click on all cylinders -- even as Price sits on the sidelines the next two weeks.

At 23, Moore became the youngest American League pitcher to start 8-0 since another hard-throwing lefty named Babe Ruth did it in 1917. The scary thing about his start is that the ability to perform even better is there, as he has been inconsistent with his command and pitched seven innings just twice. Manager Joe Maddon suggested as much, telling MLB.com:

I think from where he's coming from, he knows he can be better. He doesn't like those five-inning outings. He doesn't like that at all. So I'm sure he's deflecting based on that. As you see him get deeper into the games and more consistent with the wins, I think you might see him step out a little bit.

But I like the idea that there's humility involved. I like the idea that he knows that he can get better. I love that. The accountability is tremendous. That doesn't surprise me. ... Historically speaking, it has been wonderful, but there is 'more' in Moore. And he knows that.

Moore has held batters to a .175 average but he has also walked 26 in 55 innings, so there's room for improvement. In some ways, that's what made Sunday's outing impressive: He struck out only three but walked one, avoiding a big inning in the process. Another area for improvement is that while Moore's fastball/curveball/changeup arsenal has destroyed right-handers -- they're hitting .064 off the curveball with 20 strikeouts in 47 plate appearances -- he hasn't yet learned to dominate lefties, who have hit a respectable .236/.335/.361 off him the past two seasons he sticks mostly to the fastball against them.

Of course, a major reason he's 8-0 is excellent run support, but this isn't a typical Tampa Bay offense that struggles to put up runs. After outscoring only the Royals, Indians and Mariners last season, the Rays have scored just 12 runs fewer than the best-in-the-AL Tigers. The Rays' OPS has increased from .711 to .760 and not just because Dodgers castoff James Loney is off to a .356 start. Matt Joyce has eight home runs and Luke Scott has driven in 12 runs in 17 games since coming off the DL; both homered in Sunday's win. Kelly Johnson is hitting .274 with seven home runs. With Loney's hot start, that gives the Rays four threats from the left side. Logic says to throw left-handed pitching at the Rays, but the division isn't exactly ripe with left-handed starters once you get past CC Sabathia and Jon Lester, especially with Mark Buehrle struggling and Andy Pettitte and Wei-Yin Chen currently on the DL.

Throw a lefty, however, and there's that guy named Evan Longoria waiting for you in the middle.

But here's why I'll stick with my preseason choice of the Rays to win the AL East: pitching, pitching, pitching. At least starting pitching. (The bullpen is the team's major issue right now.) At Triple-A Durham, the rotation included Alex Torres (2.39 ERA, 49 SO, 14 BB in 37.2 IP), Jake Odorizzi (3.83 ERA, 47 SO, 15 BB in 44.2 IP), Chris Archer (4.38 ERA, 40 SO, 19 BB in 39 IP) and Alex Colome (2.86 ERA, 59 SO, 20 BB in 50 IP). The Angels would kill to have those four in their rotation right now.

Torres was called up to replace Price, but Odorizzi will get the start on Monday afternoon against Toronto. All Torres did on Saturday was pitch four hitless innings in relief of Roberto Hernandez to earn his second major league win.

It's all those arms that explain why Price will likely make his billions with another team eventually.

Not that Maddon doesn't want his ace back as quickly as possible … or co-ace, that is.