Oh yeah, the Rays.

Remember one month ago when the Rays languished near the bottom of the American League East, complete unable to score runs? Those were the days, weren’t they? All the “analysts” who “thought” the Rays would struggle without Carl Crawford and CarLOLs Pena puffed out their chests with prescient pride.

Fast forward to yesterday afternoon when the Rays stomped all over the first place team in Cleveland to run their record to 22-15, good enough for first place in their division. It’s almost as though writing off the defending division champs before their best player — one of the best in baseball — plays his first game is a bad idea!

Turns out the Rays are, once again, one of the top teams in baseball. Their rebuilt bullpen? Not quite as good as last year but rather than re-signing Joaquin Benoit, they set out to find another one. Their defense? Incredible. Best in baseball however you try to slice it. Use any advanced number you like, they’re tops in 2011. Even using the simple and elegant defensive efficiency (the rate they turn balls in play into outs) they’re number one.

During the podcast this week I asked Patrick Sullivan if he thought Beckett and Lester could be the top pitching dual in the American League? Clearly I am an idiot, as David Price and James Shields cannot be stopped. The Rays top guns each rank in the top 10 in Wins Above Replacement among others.

The offense took Longoria’s return in stride, slotting him alongside streaking hitters Ben Zobrist and Matt Joyce. Add in decent contributions from BJ Upton and a living legend, then top it off with the constant tinkering and next-level thinking of Joe Maddon and you have, once again, a heck of a ballclub.

The Rays will slump, like all baseball teams. Shields will give up home runs (it’s kind of his thing) and Price will struggle (maybe?) while Joyce and Zobrist will cool. But the talent remains and renews. The minor league system remains flush with promising prospects and the front office is always ready to make the next smart pickup on the cheap. You can simply never count the Rays out.

Life in the A.L. East – ain’t it grand?