Want to know how the Tampa Bay Rays are in first place? What might be baseball's best trade since Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek for Heathcliff Slocumb is a good place to start.
If you're consumed by the playoff runs of the Bruins and Celtics and a little turned off by baseball after watching the defending champs step on a rake and lose some teeth, it's possible you don't know much about Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows.
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That's about to change. They're what Tampa received from the Pirates for former ace Chris Archer last July 31, and they've been difference-makers through the first three weeks of the season.
Glasnow, a 6-foot-8 right-hander with a 100 mph fastball and hammer curve that's reminiscent of Kerry Wood, is 4-0 with a 1.13 ERA while averaging a strikeout an inning. Meadows, meanwhile, is hitting .349 with six homers and 17 RBIs between left, right, and DH.
They're driving Tampa's blazing 14-4 start, which has produced an 8.5-game lead on the Red Sox as the teams begin a three-game set on Friday at Tropicana Field.
Anyone who saw this coming is a liar. Teams made 37 trades in the final week of last July, and this one didn't register as seismic. The Red Sox, for instance, acquired Nathan Eovaldi from the Rays for Jalen Beeks (now a solid lefty out of Tampa's pen, by the way), notable relievers like Joakim Soria, Ryan Pressly, and Zack Britton joined contenders, and the Nationals debated trading Bryce Harper right until the clock struck 4 p.m.
The Archer trade was considered a win for the Pirates, who were three games out of the NL wild card and also acquired Rangers closer Keone Kela in an opportunistic bid to leapfrog the Braves, Rockies, and Dodgers. The cost of two underachieving prospects didn't feel steep.
"The return for Archer right now is disappointingly light," wrote ESPN's Keith Law, "with two of the three players already named -- both former top prospects who have failed to pan out to date."
"I am a big fan of Austin Meadows," wrote Tommy Rancel of ESPN and The Athletic. "He can just hit. Not sold on Glasnow as a second piece unless the third piece is better than I'm expecting."
Even noted Rays fan Dick Vitale weighed in with uncharacteristic gloom.
"Is this the best we can get for a top of the rotation starter like @ChrisArcher22 with a friendly contract?" Dickie V. tweeted in declaring the deal decidedly not awesome.
To be fair, others praised the Rays for acquiring a pair of former ace prospects who had fallen on hard times. MLB.com had ranked Glasnow the game's No. 9 prospect entering 2017, while Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus had both placed Meadows at No. 6.
But each had disappointed since, with Meadows exhibiting high contact rates but negligible power for a corner outfielder, and the 6-foot-8 Glasnow struggling to throw strikes with inconsistent mechanics.
Archer ended up going 3-3 with a 4.30 ERA, numbers in line with what he did in Tampa, but not nearly enough to lift the Pirates into the playoffs. They went 26-27 down the stretch.
Meadows and Glasnow didn't do much in their introduction to Tampa, either, with the former hitting .250 in 10 games and the latter going 1-5 with a 4.20 ERA in 11 starts. The scrappy Rays, with their crazy opener strategy and high-octane bullpen, very quietly won 90 games, setting the stage for their emergence in 2019.
The left-handed hitting Meadows bats leadoff and announced his presence by homering off of Houston's Justin Verlander to open the season.
"He's got the ability to do everything well,'' Rays manager Kevin Cash told the Tampa Bay Times. "He can run. He can run on the bases. He covers ground in the outfield. He's worked so hard on his defense to continue to gain ground. And then hit. Whether it's a quality at-bat, or hit for power, we've seen both. He's got a chance to be a pretty special player with this opportunity that he's earned to get going here in the lineup, and be a big part of our group."
Glasnow has benefited from working with Rays pitching coach Kyle Snyder, one of Terry Francona's favorites during their days in Boston, where Snyder won a World Series ring in 2007 as a reliever.
Snyder is also 6-8 and knows the challenges of repeating a delivery at that size. Glasnow has dominated hitters with his fastball-curveball-slider arsenal. The Red Sox will get a look at him opposite David Price in Sunday's finale.
"I was kind of in limbo - even within myself - in Pittsburgh," Glasnow told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "I didn't know if I was going to be a reliever or a starter. But the Rays were just like, 'You're going to be a starter. We know what you can do. We've seen you pitch.' It made me kind of believe in myself. The Pirates gave me every opportunity to succeed. They gave me probably more than I even deserved, I guess, because 2017 wasn't a good year at all. It was just hard getting everything to click."
That hasn't been the case in 2019, not even remotely. More than 20 years after the Red Sox fleeced the Mariners to land a pair of stalwarts for a washed-up reliever, the Rays have potentially struck similar gold, and now they're everybody else's problem.
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