For the second straight season, the Tampa Bay Rays are the American League’s top seed in the playoffs. Carrying MLB’s fifth-smallest payroll, they handily captured a division that featured four 90-plus win teams.
Even more notable, though, is the extremely on brand way in which the Rays have gone about defending their 2020 AL pennant. They traded away Blake Snell in the offseason. They lost ace Tyler Glasnow to injury. In May, with consensus top prospect Wander Franco waiting in the wings, they traded shortstop Willy Adames for two relatively unheralded pitchers.
Do the Rays have their own version of Moneyball?
To the naked eye, the pillars of the Rays’ team-building appear to be thrift and churn. They seem to be constantly transacting, and usually netting out of those deals with less money spent, but more players to dream on.
But the excessively low budget that owner Stuart Sternberg has chosen to operate with is not the strategy in itself; it is the constraint that focuses the efforts of GM Erik Neander’s front office. And in a quandary likely to animate this winter’s negotiations over the sport’s collective bargaining agreement, the Rays have proven that the monomaniacal and often off-putting pursuit of young, unknown players can replicate or beat the success of populating rosters with famous names.
Those burgeoning players who haven’t reached free agency — or even the sport’s salary arbitration system — have little sway in MLB’s current labor market, making a pittance even as their contributions to team success swell league-wide. Promising or potentially useful players in this realm are the sport’s most sought-after talents. Which has made the Rays’ commitment to hoarding as many of them as possible a cheap, renewable source of wins. By appearing to tie both hands behind their back, they have effectively gained an edge over many teams not willing to turn the other cheek on fan bases who expect more familiar faces or outwardly explicable good-faith efforts.
Rays transactions are so consistently counterintuitive that observers have become conditioned to delay judgment or, in some cases, preemptively heap credit upon Neander and Co. Some of their moves do wind up looking ill-advised from any angle — take this many swings, you’ll miss sometimes — but most come to fit snugly within the contours of a larger game of Tetris.
Zoomed out, the underlying understanding that fuels much of what we think of as "The Rays Way" stems from the two-pronged truth of how little any one player matters to a team’s success, and how much a collection of 40 of them can be leveraged once you accept the first part.
What the Rays do is predicated on spreading out usefulness across the whole roster, and indeed across the whole organization through their powerhouse farm system. That has the effect of building crucial depth that wins games in the dog days, and also manifests as a cost-saving strategy when they limit how many salary-boosting wins or saves any single pitcher accumulates.
While that is a nightmare in the economic realm, the Rays do benefit their players by making them better, boosting or resetting careers by employing a vast front office and player development staff to identify and accentuate each player’s standout talents. They come out ahead in trades at the negotiating table, sure, but also by helping Tyler Glasnow find success that was lacking in Pittsburgh. Or by believing in Randy Arozarena enough to trade for him and start him in the postseason. More of their 2021 contributors came from trades or waiver claims or other inter-team transactions than any other playoff team. And of course, their payroll is by far the smallest. Here's a 3D look at how their roster composition compared to other playoff teams in 2021.
Their obsession with maximizing how many wins they can squeeze from their 40-man roster — the fundamental unit of MLB teams, from which each day’s 26-man team is drawn — also explains more perplexing moves. It’s how you come to begrudgingly make sense of the deal in which they sent Adames, their erstwhile shortstop, to star for Milwaukee in return for pitchers J.P. Feyereisen and Drew Rasmussen. Top prospect Franco did indeed (eventually) come up and make good on his immense potential at shortstop, while Rasmussen became a vital piece of the pitching staff when injuries struck later in the season. Surplus became a safety net.
As we come to further realize how much depth influences the outcome of a 162-game season, the Rays keep seeking, stockpiling and pouring attention into these players who inevitably end up in major-league games, performing better than other teams’ corresponding Plan B's.
Is the Rays' mentality permeating MLB?
This is both the way to understand the Rays and the reason their success can make you queasy about the sport’s long-term trajectory as an entertainment enterprise. If every team eschewed the free-agent market and habitually cut ties with players whose jerseys their fans just bought, baseball would almost undeniably risk diminishing the bonds with even its most loyal fans.
All the success on the field has not translated to a viable fan base in the Tampa area, and running the franchise on the cutting edge has not been as well-received when it manifests in ideas like splitting the team with Montreal. The two-city plan the team has bandied about is more likely leverage for a new stadium to replace the dour and difficult-to-reach Tropicana Field, but either intention is understandably grating for the locals who might consider jumping on the bandwagon of the AL’s best team.
But, the good news is that copying the Rays does not need to be quite so literal or quite so jarringly cheap. Andrew Friedman, the baseball operations leader who originally brought the team to prominence and whose acolytes still run it, left for the Los Angeles Dodgers and has implemented a supercharged version of the approach to historically great effect at Chavez Ravine.
In the wake of Friedman’s success and Tampa’s continued innovation and winning under Neander, Rays front-office deputies have become omnipresent in GM hiring discussions around the league. Similarly, their influence is everywhere in the remaining playoff field. Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom was hired away from the Rays, as were Astros GM James Click and Brewers GM Matt Arnold (who is the No. 2 decision-maker in Milwaukee). Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi started under Billy Beane and was hired away from the Dodgers after years as Friedman’s right-hand man.
The Dodgers have turned their player development prowess into a backstop that allows them to aggressively pursue and spend on stars. But the Rays approach can still feel cold. Friedman famously acquired Mookie Betts from Bloom, a former protege, as he slashed costs in his first winter at the helm in Boston.
Whether the Rays are a good or bad development for the game overall — their success does have hopeful notes in a sport with vast (but often oversold) revenue disparities between markets — their influential mode of operating is worth examining and understanding.
Already widely studied around the league, a first World Series title would only amplify their status. That, alas, is the hurdle Moneyball never got over. And one Friedman only achieved after injecting some dollars into a plan built on good, if unconventional, sense.