This is the Tampa Bay Rays team I predicted before the season would win the World Series. Oh, they're still missing a few key parts -- Matt Moore is out for the season and Wil Myers is still on the disabled list until mid-August or so after breaking his wrist -- but we're finally seeing the Rays play like the team we've grown to appreciate since 2008.
You know what those teams have been about: starting pitching, defense and enough offense to win 90 games in five of the past six seasons.
For much of the season, the Rays' rotation struggled, beginning with Moore's Tommy John surgery. In early June, the Rays had the worst record in the majors. They were 24-42 on June 10, had lost 14 of 15 and Rays fans must have had visions of Dewon Brazelton and Doug Waechter. On that date, the Rays ranked 22nd in the majors with a 4.10 ERA; the starters ranked 20th with a 4.08 ERA.
Since then, however, the Rays have gone 29-12, including 11 wins in their past 12 games. The pitching staff ranks third in the majors since June 10 with a 2.85 ERA and the starters own a 2.90 ERA, second only to the Padres.
Alex Cobb pitched the latest gem in Tuesday's 5-1 win over the Milwaukee Brewers: 8 IP, 3 hits, 1 run, 2 walks, 12 strikeouts, 101 efficient pitches in dominating a solid lineup. Cobb was a key to Tampa's playoff run last year, going 11-3 with a 2.76 ERA, his season interrupted by a concussion after getting hit by a line drive. This year, he missed six weeks with a strained oblique, but in his past two starts (10 strikeouts and no runs in his previous outing) his changeup has been dancing and diving again like 2013.
Against the Brewers, eight of his 12 strikeouts came with his changeup. He threw the pitch 44 times, will throw it on any count and the Brewers went 1-for-9 against it. It dives away from left-handers and in to righties and it's a wipeout pitch -- batters are hitting .167 against it this season.
With Cobb back in a groove, the Rays now feature a rotation of David Price, Cobb, Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi, with Jeremy Hellickson, who has made two starts after missing most of the season, back as the fifth guy. Right now, I'd argue it's as good a group as any in the majors.
And it should remain that way. In other words, the Rays need to keep Price.
I get it. We've been talking about Price getting traded ever since the Rays hit rock bottom. They were 15 games out of first place; we should have been talking about Price being traded. We know how the Rays operate; they have to constantly churn their best players for younger, cheaper players. Price is a free agent after 2015, they won't be able to afford him, so they have to trade him. Or so everyone says.
Then they got hot. Now it's clear: They're in the playoff hunt. When the night began, the FanGraphs/Coolstandings playoffs odds that we also run here at ESPN gave the Rays a 7 percent chance of winning the AL East and a 14.7 percent chance of making the playoffs. Those aren't great odds, but those odds are good enough to warrant keeping Price and giving your team a chance. In 1914, we had the Miracle Boston Braves, who went from last place on July 18 to a World Series title. In 2014, why not the Miracle Tampa Bay Rays?
I'd even suggest this: Keep Price -- and Ben Zobrist, another free agent after 2015 -- for next season as well. I think of it this way: What gives the Rays the best chance of winning a World Series this year and next? A team with two of their three best players or a team without two of their three best players? Pretty obvious.
"But the future."
To which I say: Worry about the future when the future arrives. Plus, the Rays are kind of in a unique situation anyway. It's not as if winning 90 games every season has driven their attendance to new levels; they're last in the majors in average attendance this year, they were last in 2013 and they were last in 2012. The Rays don't depend on winning for revenue as much as they rely on revenue sharing, which will come whether the team is good or bad.
The perpetual churn is necessary to keep winning and Joe Maddon and the front office have the pride to stay competitive every year, but does the turnover give the Rays the best chance at winning? Not in 2014 and not in 2015. Plus, there's no guarantee a Price trade will work out or that the Rays won't fall apart in three years regardless of what happens to Price.
It reminds me of when the Twins traded Johan Santana when he had one year left before free agency. That trade ended up not helping the Twins, and in 2008, minus Santana, they lost the AL Central to the White Sox in a tiebreaker game. If they had kept Santana, they probably would've won the division and maybe would have ridden Santana to a World Series title.
The Rays can do that with Price and the other young pitchers behind him in the rotation. Go for it. Try to win now. Imagine that.