The Tampa Bay Rays have the best record in baseball, and they need to make sure it stays that way.
With a whopping $61 million total payroll — which includes $7 million in buried money for Evan Longoria and Edwin Encarnacion — the Tampa Bay Rays will finish the month of April with the best record in Major League Baseball. Despite spending over $11 million less than the Miami Marlins and Baltimore Orioles, who are actively trying to lose 100 games, the Rays lead the New York Yankees and their $209-million payroll by two games. The $225-million Boston Red Sox roster is buried 7.5 games back as their World Series title defense gets off to a miserable start.
This is no accident, and it should not come as a shock to serious baseball fans. The Rays are now 55-28 dating back to last August with a run differential of plus-119. Simply put, the Rays are a damn good baseball team, even if the casual fan would struggle to name more than one player on their roster.
It is impossible to find an obvious weakness for the Rays right now. Their offense is right in the middle of the pack in the American League, but will get young stud Austin Meadows back from a strained thumb in a few weeks. Prior to hitting the shelf, Meadows was hitting .351/.422/.676 with six home runs and 19 RBI in 20 games. In addition to Meadows, Brandon Lowe, Yandy Diaz and Tommy Pham have been providing plenty of pop.
If the Rays offense has been good, the pitching staff has been phenomenal. Tampa Bay has the best staff ERA in the league with a 2.95 mark. Led by Tyler Glasnow, who has put it all together and has a 1.75 ERA in six starts, Blake Snell, who is carrying over his Cy Young dominance and striking out 12.4 per nine, and one of the team’s few free-agent signings, Charlie Morton, who has a 2.76 ERA and is striking out 10.7 per nine, the actual starters have been filthy. Ryne Stanek, the primary “opener” has a 1.20 ERA in 15 innings. The Rays bullpen has been even nastier, with Jorge Alvarado, Wilmer Font and Chaz Roe all striking out over 13 per-nine.
At this point, if you’re not taking the Rays serious as a World Series contender, you’re dead wrong.
The Rays are very good, and making it work with a payroll that would have qualified as low five years ago. None of this is new territory for a franchise that plays in the worst stadium in the league and struggles to draw more than 15,000 fans most nights. Despite their obvious limitations, though, the Rays have actually managed to make the playoffs four times out of the stacked AL East. This team feels different than those other playoff teams. Each time the Rays made the playoffs in the past, it felt like they had to grind through the whole season to stay ahead of the Red Sox and Yankees. Now, the Rays look and feel like the best team in baseball.
Almost every owner in baseball spends less than his budget would allow because at the end of the day, baseball is still a business and the owners are in it to profit off their investment. Even with their obvious financial constraints, the Rays are spending way less than the rest of the league. They spent over $74 million on their playoff roster in 2013. There has to be more money in the coffers to make sure the 2019 squad keeps their grip on the best record in baseball.
Chances like this don’t come along too often for smaller-market teams like the Rays. The Baltimore Orioles were able to rack up the most wins in the American League from 2012 to 2015 and go to the playoffs three times in five years by capitalizing on “down years” for New York and Boston. The Rays have that chance this year, with the Red Sox pitching staff putting up nightmarish numbers and the Yankees decimated by injuries all throughout their lineup and rotation. Tampa Bay has to keep their foot on the gas now and go all in on this season because the Red Sox and Yankees won’t be down for long, something the Orioles found out the hard way.
Tampa Bay’s front office has made some incredible moves to get the team to this point, most notably fleecing the Pittsburgh Pirates out of two elite prospects, Glasnow and Meadows, for Chris Archer. They’ve embraced and mastered the art of the “opener” and took a patient approach with Snell that is now paying huge dividends. But there’s still more that can be done.
Two All-Stars remain unsigned, Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel. One of them needs to end up on the Rays. Keuchel would provide more stability to a young rotation and should continue to flourish, like Morton, with an analytically-minded coaching staff. Pair Kimbrel with the flame-throwing Alvarado, and the eighth and ninth innings are effectively taken care of.
If the Rays are serious about making the most of this season, they need to move now on one of the free agents. Richer teams will soon be sniffing around as the season drags on and injuries flare up and needs become more apparent. Can the Rays dig up $25 million to offer either player a sweetheart one-year deal? Or will they be willing to go out more than one year to get the job done?
This is their best chance yet to win the World Series, and if Stuart Sternberg hopes to ever make Tampa Bay a legitimate home for Major League Baseball, he will open his checkbook and go all in on the 2019 season.