It’s September, and that means the playoff races are heating up in Major League Baseball. However, not everyone makes it to the promised land. Tom Wright tells us what went right and what went wrong in the elimination of the Tampa Bay Rays.
Perhaps the surprise isn’t that the Rays have come back to earth – it’s that they were ever elite in the first place.
The Rays have been exploiting smaller and smaller edges over the last 10 years. In the mid-2000’s, the Rays had the huge advantage of picking at the top of the draft, a position that netted them franchise cornerstones like David Price and Evan Longoria and vaulted their minor league system to the best in the game. However, as the Rays’ major league team began to improve, the draft position worsened, and the Rays were forced to look elsewhere; as such, they began to take advantage of the unregulated international market in an attempt to stock their system. Once that avenue was also shut down, the Rays began to shift their focus from edges in talent acquisition to edges inside of the game itself. Luckily for then-GM Andrew Friedman, Joe Maddon was an ideal manager for such a focus, as no one exploited small edges like Joe Maddon did. In the last couple of years, Maddon pioneered all manner of shifts, stall tactics, bullpen usages and strategies designed to squeeze a few extra runs, a couple extra innings, a few extra outs, whatever he could find at the margins of the game that would make his team a little better. The Rays of the last couple years haven’t been in the playoffs, but they’ve always seemed to be in the hunt, and they always had at least one ridiculous stretch of baseball per season where’d they’d go 17-1 and scare the daylights out of the rest of the division.
Unfortunately for the Rays, that tireless manager and the general manager he worked with are now gone, headed for greener pastures and larger paychecks. The replacements (GM Matthew Silverman and manager Kevin Cash) seem to be doing just fine, leading the team to perform about as well as one might expect given their payroll, talent and situation. The problem is that a team in the Rays’ position needs to play significantly above expectations, and the Rays aren’t doing that. Their farm system is good, but not great (they’ve got three impact players in Willy Adames, Daniel Robertson and Adrian Rondon, but are otherwise middle-of-the-pack). Their pitching staff is pretty good (fifth in the AL by ERA+). The lineup has a couple good players and a bunch of other guys (they’re ninth in the AL by OPS+)… it’s the recipe for a decidedly okay team. Of course, no one wants an okay team, but the Rays are caught in the no-man’s land of a low-budget team that isn’t drafting highly.
This year’s team played a forgettable season, alternating between winning and losing months, hanging out near the cellar of the AL East, occasionally scaring the daylights out of a contender (they went 5-2 against Houston and 3-1 against the Nationals), and mostly staying out of the way of any of the real action. The Rays traded Yunel Escobar and Joel Peralta before the season, and they held onto James Loney, David DeJesus and Kevin Jepsen so as to flip them at the deadline, although only two of those three (DeJesus and Jepsen) played well enough for the Rays to do so. The moves were probably smart if not entirely exciting, and Silverman has put the Rays into a position where they’ll have a little more payroll flexibility for next year. Unfortunately, “payroll flexibility” in Tampa is a relative term, as the contracts coming off of the books aren’t exactly A-Rod-type deals; the Rays are still going to have to use quite a bit of creativity if they want those couple of newfound dollars to patch the holes on the team.
The overarching issue with the Rays is that while the finances of baseball have changed quite a bit in the last ten years, the situation surrounding the Rays has not. In the modern era of baseball, opulence is not merely limited to the Sox, Yankees and Dodgers; teams like the Rangers, Mariners and Padres are signing TV deals that run north of a billion dollars, and even mid-market teams like the Reds have deals in the hundreds of millions. Tampa Bay, though, occupies a rung on the bottom of the financial ladder with the A’s, far from the opulent ways of the other 28 teams. They’re wholly dependent on kids and castoffs, and they’ve been forced to watch their young players hit free agency and invariably head for other teams. The Rays are still stuck in a stadium in St. Pete, a sizeable distance from where most of the people in the Tampa Bay area actually live. They’re still not going to get a huge TV deal, and revenue sharing in baseball isn’t quite as egalitarian as it is in football. In short, they’re stuck. The Rays from 2008-2013 had a pretty amazing run for a team with such limited resources (four playoff appearances, one pennant), but unless they find a new edge to exploit or a new stadium to play in, there may be some rocky times ahead at Tropicana Field.
The Rays last made the playoffs in 2013. They have never won a World Series, although they lost one in 2008.
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