As the Tampa Bay Rays have surged to a 16-8 record in August — culminating with a weekend sweep of the Red Sox, the best team in the majors — and have found success with their groundbreaking approach to pitching staff management, there’s been quite a bit of talk from the media and Baseball Twitter™ about how the club has proven doubters wrong and done the impossible this season. Having ridden “The Opener” (and, more importantly, staff ace and Cy Young candidate Blake Snell) to a 70-61 record and a +37 run differential, the stripped-down Rays are obviously doing better than many fans and media members thought they would as the regular season began.
Manager Kevin Cash clearly deserves a lot of credit for his patience, flexibility, and bold tactics, and credit breakout performers like Mallex Smith, Daniel Robertson, Joey Wendle, Ryne Stanek, and Jose Alvarado for taking major advantage of the opportunities they’ve been given. But thinking back to the projections that were bestowed on the Rays prior to spring training, it really feels much more logical to wonder what could have been if a full-scale teardown hadn’t occurred than it does to simply shower praise on the franchise because the players have overachieved and managed to rank third in an AL East that features two really bad teams in the Blue Jays (60-70) and Orioles (37-94).
“No one ever could have known the Rays would be this competitive,” you might be saying. But as spring training began, Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections had the Rays slated to go 85-77 with a +36 run differential and win the second AL Wild Card spot (though PECOTA, for what it’s worth, failed to project that the Red Sox would make a run at having one of the best records in major league history, while the Orioles would end up with one of the worst). After that point, the front office decided to kick their fire sale into full gear, dealing arguably their best hitter and a top-of-the-rotation starter before games got underway.
Because the players that they *didn’t* trade have gone all Major League, we’re supposed to be impressed that the team has a winning record and is nine games out of the last wild-card spot, rather than being disturbed by the fact that president of baseball operations Matt Silverman and GM Erik Neander got rid of the players that could have put this team over the top and made it a legitimate playoff contender. Perhaps they even could’ve challenged a Yankees club — one that is ultra-talented but has underperformed relative to expectations — in the AL East pecking order.
In case you’ve forgotten just how many veterans the Rays have traded and/or designated for assignment for non-performance-related, cost-motivated reasons since the end of the 2017 campaign, here’s a refresher: Adeiny Hechavarria, Wilson Ramos, Denard Span, Chris Archer, Nathan Eovaldi, Matt Andriese, Alex Colome, Jonny Venters, Evan Longoria, Steven Souza, Brad Miller, Corey Dickerson, Jake Odorizzi, and Brad Boxberger. As of Saturday, all those players had combined for 13.3 bWAR this year (and it’d likely be more if injuries hadn’t limited Souza to 49 games and affected his performance this season). Granted, some of that 13.3 WAR was accumulated with Tampa — if you reduce it to the bWAR they’ve accumulated with other clubs in 2018 (and Hechavarria, Ramos, Eovaldi, Archer, Andriese, and Venters have only been on their new clubs for a few weeks), it still adds up to 8.5 WAR. In comparison, the players acquired in those trades who have seen big-league time with the Rays this year — Span, Christian Arroyo, Anthony Banda, Ji-Man Choi, Jalen Beeks, Michael Perez, and Tyler Glasnow — have provided Tampa with 2.3 bWAR in 2018. (Tommy Pham, who they gave up prospects to acquire, has been a replacement-level player since coming over from the Cardinals.)
The most notable of those players who could have really helped the Rays this season is Dickerson, who they surprisingly DFA’d in February and then traded essentially for $1.45 million in payroll savings and a low-level infield prospect. Dickerson has gone on to hit for a .298/.328/.466 slash line with the Pirates this year, collecting 12 defensive runs saved in left field and posting a 3.0 bWAR as of Saturday. That’d be a fairly significant improvement over Carlos Gomez, who has a .659 OPS, six defensive runs saved, and a 0.7 WAR in 102 games for the Rays this season.
With the Athletics also overachieving this year, it’s not a guarantee that the players the Rays dealt would have been enough to lift them over the top and into a playoff spot this year, but it certainly would have given them a better shot. And while you can argue that those deals will give them a better shot at contending in future years, it’s not as if the AL East is going to get a lot easier any time soon — guys like Luis Severino, Aaron Judge, Mookie Betts, Gleyber Torres, and Xander Bogaerts are young and under club control for years to come. Even if the Rays eventually develop players that rival those names, can their ownership group really be trusted to embrace a “Trust the Process” approach that will result in sustained success?
The Rays continue to pinch pennies despite the fact that principal shareholder Stuart Sternberg has a net worth of roughly $800 million — that’s not ridiculously rich for an MLB owner, but it’s certainly no “mom and pop” ownership situation. They have a proud tradition of thriftiness, dating back to when former majority owner (now minority partner) Vince Naimoli established the team and refused to purchase internet access and an email server for franchise employees, believing that the internet was a fad (and he stayed steadfast in this belief until 2003!)
According to Spotrac, the Rays’ MLB-low payroll adds up to just under $71 million this year. Considering that every MLB club received a $50 million payout from the sale of BAMTech prior to this season, that means Sternberg and company are paying less than $21 million out-of-pocket to field a club this year, and that’s not even factoring in the money they receive from revenue sharing and their TV deal. They consistently rank among the worst MLB teams in attendance, no matter their record, and they probably always will unless they get a new stadium built at some point. But that’s no excuse for selling off assets year after year — small-market teams with attendance issues such as the Royals and Indians have found ways to be competitive and take advantage of their respective windows of opportunity over the last several years. There’s no reason the Rays shouldn’t be able to do the same.
Perhaps it’s due to an edict from the ownership group, but the Rays’ front office hasn’t helped with curbing the issue of frugality, as they’ve seemed to be in “perpetual rebuild” mode for at least five years now, with no clear end goal in sight. From the beginning of the 2014 season (the year after their last playoff appearance) to the end of the 2017 campaign, the Rays traded a bevy of talented starting pitchers under 30 — Jeremy Hellickson, David Price, Matt Moore, Erasmo Ramirez, Nate Karns, and Drew Smyly. Granted, in addition to the many prospects coming back in those deals who never really materialized to anything, they got some quality players back in those trades — Mallex Smith, Matt Duffy, Brad Miller, Logan Morrison, Willy Adames, Steve Cishek, and Smyly, who obviously was eventually flipped himself. Moore has been mostly terrible since leaving St. Pete, and Karns and Smyly have both struggled with injuries, so some of the deals have ended up looking decent. The fact that the men in charge seem fixated on dealing starting pitchers with years of club control remaining (and many of them really good ones, at that) is more concerning — after all, they’re now to the point where they only have like three healthy pitchers in the organization who they trust to start a game and go through the lineup multiple times — and they’ve continued that trend this year by trading Odorizzi and Archer. The return they got back in the Archer trade was seemingly really good, but it better have been for a player who was the most stable piece on an ever-changing club and was the current face of the franchise.
All this is to say that the Rays haven’t shown the tendency at any point during this decade to plant a stake in the ground and truly make a commitment to being competitive. They continually get rid of their best players — not even as they’re preparing to hit free agency, but as soon as they get into their arbitration years and no longer make the major-league minimum. They gave up a ton of years of potential club control as they got rid of all the aforementioned starting pitchers, as well as guys like Souza and Dickerson, and while they got some serviceable players back in those deals, none of them appear to be legitimate face-of-the-franchise types.
In the end, rave about the Rays “proving the doubters wrong” however much you so please. Just don’t forget that the reason many of those individuals became doubters in the first place was because the Rays’ front office made it blatantly clear that they had no interest in competing for a playoff spot this year, and if they would’ve even just stuck with the roster they had going into spring training, it’s quite possible that they would be in playoff position right now. As much as you’d like to think the Rays’ future looks bright thanks to all the moves they’ve made this year and the prospects they have coming up through the pipeline, they’ve given us little reason to believe that they won’t just keep selling off assets in perpetuity. While sports fans have largely fallen in love with the “tear it down and then build it back up again” path to success, it’s worth noting that a franchise actually has to commit to finishing that product and making it whole. It’s unclear if the Rays are willing to do so.