That's right folks, Devil Rays, as in "Sold their soul to". They're evil, they're feisty, they're like a little dog that chews at your ankles all the time; no matter how hard you try and pound them, they're just too dumb to ever stop, and they'll always come back for more. They're also the most properly run franchise in professional sports. There, I said it. They've out-Moneyballed the Moneyballer. Beyond that, they have a really good manager, hipster glasses or no.
This is a team who is built from the ground up, and is as efficient as any team has ever been, with the exception of the aforementioned Moneyball-era Oakland A's. Andrew Friedman has essentially discovered all of the market inefficiencies within baseball in the last 5 years, and has exploited them before anybody else has had a chance, and has done it better than anyone coming after him. Veterans who can't play defense used to be the thing that smart GM's stayed away from, letting others overpay for the likes of a Pat Burrell, or Raul Ibanez. People started catching on, and Friedman pounced on a cheap Johnny Damon, who provided excellent offense from the left side.
Beyond Friedman, Joe Maddon has been an excellent manager all year long. His use of splits and platoons, and his lack of favoritism among his players has given the Rays chances to win games despite not being an incredibly talented offensive team (Matt Joyce, for example, has a .292/.361/.505 line against RHP, and a .217/.287/.370 line against LHP, so he just doesn't play much against lefties!).
The obvious strength of this team is their pitching. Top to bottom, this rotation has been downright excellent all season long. This is a product of Andrew Friedman and his staff, drafting and developing pitchers better than anybody else has done in recent memory. The bullpen has been really good all year long as well, with the exception of JP Howell.
The offense isn't incredibly talented, but, as mentioned already, Joe Maddon uses what he has better than anybody else to squeeze every little bit of value he has out of his lineup. Evan Longoria is obviously really awesome, as is Ben Zobrist. Everybody else flashes brilliance here and there, but beyond those two, nobody is so outrageously good that they deserve a mention here. Simply put, they have guys who get on base, and are given a chance to play to their strengths as effectively as possible.
Defensively, this team shines, not only in ability, but in versatility as well. The versatility of the defense allows Maddon to use his entire team as effectively as possible. The fact that Ben Zobrist can play 80 different positions allows others to be inserted in to their best defensive positions, while putting forward his best lineup to face a given pitcher. This team is full of guys who can play multiple positions well, which is part of the reason the pitching staff has such amazing numbers.
As a whole, the Rays only have a few names that really jump off the page to you, but have a lot of guys who are slightly above average, with the odd excellent trait. By exploiting all of their strengths, and shielding their weaknesses from opposing teams as effectively as possible, this becomes a team who doesn't give up many opportunities. It's incredibly fitting that the Rays made their way in to the playoffs less than a week after the Moneyball movie came out, because this team is Moneyball part 2. They're built for sustained success, and that success is coming as inexpensively as ever before.
The pitching depth makes this team much more dangerous than they would appear to be on paper. Combine that with the offensive strategies, and the defensive prowess, and you have a sleeper contender to get through the AL side of the bracket. I hope this isn't a recency bias kicking in, but I think the Rays will make it to the World Series.