The Tampa Bay Rays, with the lowest payroll in the league, are headed to the postseason for the first time since 2013.
The Tampa Bay Rays don’t look like most postseason teams.
They don’t have a roster full of perennial All-Stars and MVP candidates. With the exception of Charlie Morton, they don’t have any dominating starting pitchers. Their payroll is a fraction of what some teams in their own division spend.
But what the Rays do have is a roster full of players that embody a team in the true sense of the word. And that team is now playoff-bound after a win on Friday in Toronto, clinching the Rays’ first trip to October in six years.
Manager Kevin Cash has done a great job this season putting together the puzzle that is the Rays lineup on most nights. They don’t have a single hitter who ranks in the top-10 in the American League in any major statistical category. Outfielder Austin Meadows is 15th in the AL with 33 home runs and 20th with 89 RBI.
How Meadows came to be in a Rays uniform speaks volumes about how this team was constructed. Last summer, the Rays appeared to be in rebuilding mode by trading away pitching ace Chris Archer to the Pittsburgh Pirates. In return, they got Meadows and pitcher Tyler Glasnow. Archer has an ERA above 5.0 this year in Pittsburgh; Meadows hit a home run on Friday to help the Rays to a 6-2 win, while Glasnow pitched 4.1 scoreless innings and now has a 1.78 ERA.
The rest of the Rays similarly came to the team because no else wanted them. Emilio Pagan, the club’s saves leader, was acquired in a little-noticed three-team deal back in December from the Athletics. Travis d’Arnaud was released by the Mets in May, signed by the Rays, and now has 16 home runs and 67 RBI.
The Rays came into the season with the league’s lowest payroll but might be the team nobody wants to play right now. They’re 17-6 in September and have won seven of their last eight games, with six of those victories coming against the Dodgers, Red Sox and Yankees. All three of those teams have a payroll at least $140 million more than the Rays. The Red Sox have the highest payroll in the league, $160 million more than the Rays, but won’t be playing in October (the Rays went 12-7 against Boston this season). The team with the second-highest payroll, the Cubs, won’t make the playoffs either. The Rays, meanwhile, with their $63 million payroll, become only the second team in the last 30 years to make the playoffs as the league’s most cash-strapped team, joining last season’s Athletics.
The lack of financial resources has led Cash to be creative. This is the team that practically invented the use of openers last year. In 2019, they’ve transformed that strategy into an art form. Rays starting pitchers throw on average 4.3 innings per start, the second-lowest in the league behind the Angels. They throw 70 pitches per start, fewest in baseball. Only Morton and Ryan Yarbrough have more than 10 wins. Morton is the only Rays pitcher with more than 140 innings. The Rays are headed to the postseason despite Blake Snell, the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner, having an injury-plagued season that has seen him win only six games after a league-leading 21 in 2018.
Before this season, the MLB record for fewest innings from starting pitchers by a postseason team was held by the 2018 Oakland Athletics at 824.1. The Rays this season are at 695 innings from starters. The 2005 San Diego Padres had the distinction of fewest wins by starting pitchers among playoff teams at 52; the Rays have 40 this year.
The Rays trail the Athletics by 0.5 games for the right to hold the AL Wild Card game next week. A win in either of their last two games will match the franchise record of 97 set in 2008, the same season as the club’s only World Series berth.
They don’t have a pitching tandem like Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole or a power-hitting duo like Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton. What the Rays do have are players who know their roles and are ready to fill them whenever Cash feels it’s necessary. That makes them just as dangerous as any of the other postseason-bound teams, and they didn’t even have to break the bank.