On Wednesday, the Tampa Bay Rays received the highest of compliments from the team with the highest payroll in baseball.
“They are a better franchise than we are right now,” Yankees GM Brian Cashman said during his postmortem press conference.
Tampa proved that on the field in October, eliminating the Bombers in the ALDS. And the Rays now find themselves on the cusp of reaching the World Series, just one win away from reaching the 2020 Fall Classic.
To Cashman, it was no surprise. He knew the Rays were a formidable opponent — capable of winning it all.
Yet Tampa’s payroll comes in at 28th in the majors – $28.3 million to New York’s $109.4 million, per Sportac data. And just recently – even though it doesn’t feel that way due to the pandemic – there was significant talk of the Rays playing half their future games in Montreal. As a result, any criticisms of how the franchise operates are completely valid.
Even so, the baseball operations department deserves massive credit for creating a contender despite limited financial resources. The Rays scout as well as anyone. They know their identity. They utilize their entire roster. And they’ve found the right players to buy-in and make their platoon-heavy system work.
As one rival executive put it, “Their club is probably the best in the games in terms of fundamentals. They don’t hurt themselves. They rarely give away extra outs.”
Or, as an AL scout put it, “They’ve got hard-nose baseball rat types who do the little things. They’ve got strong makeup guys that are more team-oriented and willing to acquiesce and take on certain roles.”
Remarkably, the Rays have no homegrown first-round picks on their roster. But they’ve still managed to draft well, landing the likes of Blake Snell (second), Brandon Lowe (third) and Kevin Kiermaier (31st).
They absolutely fleeced the Pirates in the blockbuster trade that sent Chris Archer to Pittsburgh in exchange for cornerstones Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows plus Shane Baz, a potential future top-of-the-rotation arm. “The best trade ever,” was how the scout referred to it.
Others acquired in deals include breakout star Randy Arozarena, Willy Adames, Ji-Man Choi, Manny Margot, Mike Zunino, Nick Anderson and Peter Fairbanks.
It hasn’t all worked. Jake Cronenworth has emerged out-of-nowhere in San Diego, though Hunter Renfroe did make a couple quality defensive plays in Game 4 of the ALCS. In any case, the majority of teams would take Tampa’s hit percentage on transactions. Charlie Morton, who has paid dividends, was a significant free-agent expenditure at two years, $30 million.
The Rays have also made a significant impact with their academies in Latin America. Wander Franco, 19, the top prospect in baseball, was signed by Tampa out of the Dominican Republic for $3.8 million in 2017-18. “He’s the best hitting prospect I’ve seen in years,” the scout said.
It’s a credit to Erik Neander, Bobby Heck and the rest of the front office/analytics department. Procure the right talent and let elite in-game manager Kevin Cash and his staff do the rest, utilizing all 25-28 players on the roster.
The Rays thrive because of their starting trio of Glasnow, Snell and Morton. They’ve built an elite defense featuring plus defenders in the middle of the field. An example: Zunino doesn’t hit for average but is a pro at managing the pitching staff. And they can give you so many different looks with their stable of guys that throw 98 out of the bullpen. It’s why they’re so successful in one-run games.
“It’s tougher to do in a playoff series, but the idea is that you never see a guy more than once,” the executive said. “All their pitchers are a little different, with their arm angles and velocities. It makes it more difficult for a hitter to adjust. It’s about diversification.”
Offensively, they try to exploit matchups and find timely homers amid a slew of strikeouts. Tampa isn’t afraid to hit behind the runner, steal or sacrifice. The key: don’t do too much, as Joey Wendle did with his opposite-field, two-strike single in Game 4.
And yes, there’s openers and four-outfielder alignments too.
“It’d be tough to use your bullpen for 162 games like that. They’d get worn out,” the executive said. “It diminishes the value of doing that. But in this shortened season, it’s worked perfectly.”
As currently constituted, the Rays would never take on a $25 million per year player. And they’ve had to trade the likes of David Price and Evan Longoria as a result. But they’ve consistently found a way to replace those high-end pieces and make it work.
It’s why the Rays are still trying for a ring, while the Yankees are having another postmortem presser.