The refrain is uttered with a mixture of panic and disdain: Did John Henry hire Chaim Bloom to turn the Red Sox into the Rays?
By this logic, big-market teams shouldn't debase themselves engaging in the constant machinations that have made Tampa a perennial contender despite one of the game's lowest payrolls. Big-market teams should flex their big-market muscles and exploit their financial might.
The Dodgers, of course, have demonstrated it's possible to have the best of both worlds by combining a have's payroll with a have-not's eye for talent. Justin Turner was non-tendered by the Mets and blossomed into an All-Star and NLCS MVP. Slugging infielder Max Muncy delivered consecutive 35-homer seasons after being released by the A's. Stud pitching prospect Dustin May lasted until the third round of the draft.
And when the opportunity arose to add a generational talent, they pounced, acquiring former MVP Mookie Betts from the Red Sox and signing him to a $365 million extension.
Doing things the Tampa way doesn't mean dropping the payroll to $30 million. But it does mean developing an organization that opens new avenues to finding talent. And for an example, let's consider the circumstances that allowed the Rays to acquire postseason hero Randy Arozarena.
If you hadn't heard of the outfielder until two weeks ago, you're not alone. Signed for $1.25 million out of Cuba by the Cardinals in 2016, he made a Futures Game appearance in 2018 and showed enough during a brief call-up to St. Louis last year to earn a postseason roster spot, going hitless with a steal in five plate appearances.
The Cardinals viewed Arozarena as expendable in a system that included outfield prospects like Tyler O'Neill and Lane Thomas. The Rays, however, honed in on his control of the strike zone, which was evident throughout winter ball and the minors, where he posted an on-base percentage of .377.
Add 61 steals in three minor-league seasons, as well as the ability to play all three outfield positions, and the Rays found themselves taken with the 25-year-old's combination of patience and athleticism.
"Just a very athletic player that did a good job of strike-zone recognition and had really come on strong his last year in (Triple-A) Memphis and a little bit in the big leagues," Rays manager Kevin Cash told reporters recently. "He put together back-to-back seasons that really caught our eye and guys were excited."
This is where organization-building enters the equation. The Cardinals saw Arozarena hit .358 with a 1.028 OPS in his final year of Triple-A, too. They saw him hit .300 last season in his big-league debut and thought highly enough of him to put him on the postseason roster. They weren't going to give him away.
So Tampa stepped up last January by offering left-hander Matt Liberatore, whom they had selected 16th overall just a year earlier in the first round of the 2018 draft. Liberatore had pitched well enough in his first full season, going 6-2 with a 3.10 ERA at Single-A Bowling Green, to be named a top-50 prospect by Baseball America, MLB.com, and Baseball Prospectus.
He's exactly the kind of player the Red Sox lack as they rebuild their farm system. And if they did have him, there's no way they'd trade him for someone like Arozarena. He'd be untouchable out of necessity.
The Rays were dealing from a position of strength, however. Even after trading Liberatore, they still boasted six of MLB.com's top 100 prospects, including three pitchers. On top of that, their rotation included 27-year-old former Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell, 26-year-old right-hander Tyler Glasnow (himself acquired in a steal of a trade from the Pirates, along with All-Star outfielder Austin Meadows, for Chris Archer), and unheralded 24-year-old left-hander Josh Fleming, who went 5-0 with a 2.78 ERA as a rookie this year.
Pitching abounds in Tampa because the Rays know not only how to draft and develop impact arms, but how to identify breakout candidates in other organizations. Reliever Nick Anderson debuted with the Marlins last year as a 28-year-old rookie, for instance, opening eyes with a nasty curveball. When the Marlins conducted their annual fire sale at the trade deadline, the Rays landed him for solid right-hander Ryne Stanek and top-80 prospect Jesus Sanchez. A year later, Anderson is one of the best relievers in baseball.
But that's a digression. This is about Arozarena's breakout. After contracting COVID-19, he quarantined during spring training 2.0 and didn't join the Rays until September, when he delivered seven home runs. All he has done in the playoffs is slam five more -- including a two-run shot off of Zack Greinke on Wednesday -- to move the Rays within a win of their second World Series appearance.
He couldn't have been acquired without a deep farm system and tremendous scouting. So don't worry about Chaim Bloom turning the Red Sox into the Rays. That would be a good thing.