The Tampa Bay Rays have done a great job of punching above their weight, but does their current model offer a path to perennial contention in the AL East and deep in the playoffs?
The Tampa Bay Rays have a nice little model for winning going.
They’ve been able to strike a really nice balance between young and veteran players, using analytics and other managerial tactics like platoon splits to turn players from the scrap heap into super-productive market inefficiencies. Pair those tools with a strong farm system and the ability to draft and develop players a well as any club in baseball, and you have a model to win consistently while spending as little as possible.
Winning 96 games and making the playoffs in 2019 while spending just $69 million on payroll, the fifth-lowest total in the game, is quite nice. Tampa Bay made five key moves during the winter of 2018 and the spring of 2019 to help them to those 96 victories.
- Corner infielder Yandy Diaz hit 14 homers in half a season, and was acquired essentially as a throw-in as the third team in a Dec. 13 trade that sent Edwin Encarnacion to Seattle and Carlos Santana to Cleveland (10 days after Philadelphia dealt Santana to the Mariners for Jean Segura). Diaz and second baseman Brandon Lowe combined for 34 homers and 89 RBIs in 161 games while costing a total of $2.08 million.
- Eight days later, the Rays struck gold by signing Charlie Morton to a two-year, $30 million deal, and he went 16-6 with a 3.05 ERA and a career-high 240 strikeouts. He was the sturdy ace the team badly needed.
- Also on Dec. 21, Tampa Bay was the third team in another trade that sent Jurickson Profar from Texas to Oakland but netted flame-throwing reliever Emilio Pagan, who saved 20 games with a 2.31 ERA while striking out 96 over 70 innings.
- A month later on Jan. 18, they signed outfielder Avisail Garcia to a one-year, $3.5 million deal, and he only hit .282 with 20 homers, 72 RBIs and 10 steals.
- Lastly, with catchers Mike Zunino and Michael Perez struggling, Tampa bought Travis d’Arnaud from the Dodgers on May 10. For just over $3.5 million. the Rays got 16 dingers and 67 RBIs out of nowhere.
Tampa Bay’s consistently proven its ability to shrewdly buy low on some players while selling high on others, like its 2018 Chris Archer trade to Pittsburgh for potential-filled starting pitcher Tyler Glasnow, outfielder Austin Meadows— who led the team with a .291 average, 33 homers, 89 RBIs, 83 runs scored and a .558 slugging percentage— and top pitching prospect Shane Baz.
Led by a progressive front office and manager Kevin Cash, the Rays have platooned really well and had the most genius strategy of any team in 2019. With Glasnow and 2018 AL Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell injured for a significant stretch, Cash and co. used the opener more often than any big league team ever, with tremendous success.
Moves like the ones we delved into is why Boston hired Chaim Bloom during the offseason as its Chief Baseball Officer and Houston replaced scandal-ridden GM Jeff Lunhow with James Click.
The Rays were immensely successful in 2019, coming within a game of upsetting the Astros and advancing to the ALCS. But when your payroll is so low, the margin of error is just as slim.
Four of the five acquisitions from the 2018 offseason are now gone, with only Morton remaining. With just a couple more years of service time until free agency, Tampa Bay sent top outfielder Tommy Pham to San Diego for a younger power hitting outfielder in Hunter Renfroe and promising infield prospect Xavier Edwards. With d’Arnaud and Garcia elsewhere, the Rays flipped top pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore to St. Louis for Jose Martinez and Pagan to the Padres for Manuel Margot.
Signing younger players like Lowe to team-friendly extensions is another tool Tampa Bay helped popularize. Yet for a team that lives on the edges and the margins like the Rays, they need to hit on nearly every move to contend.
Can any team sustain that? With the Yankees, Astros and Dodgers signing and trading for superstars every season, how many players like MLB No. 1 prospect Wander Franco do the Rays need to flourish in order to keep up?
Here’s what it boils down to: Can the Rays move up from wild card status with this ownership group, playing at Tropicana Field and while staying in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area?
The franchise is only ahead of Kansas City and Miami at the bottom of the latest Forbes valuations, and if they’re going to decrease the number of minor league teams and rounds in the annual draft, that makes the Rays’ advantages in player development less significant.
I hate to come to this conclusion, but the only way this franchise becomes perennial contenders is with another ownership group or in a different city.