The Tampa Bay Rays: Geniuses of Their Time

The Tampa Bay Rays: Geniuses of Their Time

Thomas Johnson, Editor

     The Tampa Bay Rays, with a payroll of $28.3 million, faced off against the Los Angeles Dodgers, who have a payroll of $107.9 million, in the World Series. While the Dodgers edged out the Rays in six games, the Dodgers paid more payroll money in a shortened season, with prorated salaries, than the Rays would have paid in a normal season by about $40 million. Even though they lost, the Rays challenged the norm of spending as much money as possible to build a team.

     The disparity between the payrolls can be compared to what Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics faced in the book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, which was adapted into a movie in 2011. This follows the story of Billy Beane, a general manager for a very small market team, the Oakland Athletics, after he loses his top three players. He had to figure out how to beat teams like the Yankees who had copious amounts of money to pay for high-caliber free agents. So Billy Beane hired Paul DePodesta, a man who based the game of baseball off of a book by Bill James about sabermetrics. Sabermetrics uses statistics to try to find a way to win baseball games rather than just paying for the “best” players. Beane and DePodesta, known as Peter Brand in the movie, did not look at the person behind the player, like character and playing style, but rather what they did on the field. 

     The Tampa Bay Rays have followed a similar model. There is no one player on the team who baseball experts would describe as a superstar. While Blake Snell has won a Cy Young Award, an award given to the best pitcher in the major leagues at the end of the season, he has not had a career even close to being as illustrious to pitchers like Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers or Max Scherzer of the Nationals. The Rays’ front office has shown expertise on selling high on their players. An example of this is when they sold Chris Archer for the Pirates for Tyler Glasnow, a starting pitcher, and Austin Meadows, an outfielder. The Pirates became disgruntled with both of these players for control and injury problems, but the Rays saw the talent in two very young prospects who they could make into stars. These two players have been vital to the Rays’ efforts to reach the World Series while Archer has never been the same since he went to the Pirates. 

     The Rays are not scared to trade anyone. Billy Beane, while this changed as his career progressed, never created relationships with his players so it would be easier for him to trade or cut his players. They traded Matthew Liberatore, along with another prospect and draft pick, to the St. Louis Cardinals for Jose Martinez, along with Randy Arozarena and a draft pick. Liberatore was, and still is, a top-20 prospect in all of baseball, but the Rays saw something they wanted and they went and got it. Hopefully Liberatore will become an All-Star because as of right now, the Cardinals are looking foolish for this trade. While Jose Martinez was the most well-known player on the Cardinals’ side of the deal, he is no longer on the team after he was traded to the Chicago Cubs during the year. However, Randy Arozarena is the piece in the deal which is now making the Rays seem like geniuses. Arozarena was called up from the minor leagues in the latter half of the season and performed very well, however he truly heated up in the postseason. He already broke the record for most home runs hit in a postseason by a rookie in the National League Championship Series. While the Rays cannot be deemed a complete winner in this trade as Liberatore’s career has not even started, this trade still shows they are willing to trade even their best players for other players that they believe can help them. 

     Not only has their front office shown their ingenuity in trades and free agent signings, their manager, Kevin Cash, has shown ingenuity on the field. Cash had to fill in the shoes of Joe Maddon, one of the most revered managers in baseball history, when he took over in 2015 after being hired in late 2014. Cash, only 42 years old, has managed the game his own way. Kevin Cash has used analytics and statistics to implement the infield shift more than any other team. Usually teams will place two infielders on each side of second base, but with the shift, teams will place three players on one side of the base because a player frequently hits ground balls that way. This forces players to slap balls in the opposite direction they are used to. Joe Maddon, Cash’s predecessor, was the first to do so in recent history with David Ortiz. 

     Cash has also implemented a four-man outfield before for players who rarely hit ground balls. The most extreme thing Cash has done which has shown his ingenuity is the implementation of the opener. Rather than having a starter who would throw six to seven, Cash only had his pitcher pitch an inning or so, which is why they are referred to as the opener rather than the starter. Cash used this to try to neutralize the best bats on each team. While a starter takes a couple innings to get into a groove, relief pitchers regularly only pitch an inning so they have to be sharp immediately. So Cash thought it would be better to have a pitcher, who is usually used as a reliever, pitch an inning and then have the traditional starter pitch starting in the second inning. Sergio Romo is the most well-known opener Cash has used. Now that Romo left the team and Cash has some of the best starters in the league, he used the opener less but certainly goes back to it when needed.

     Many teams have tried to model what the Rays have done in recent years. Even the Dodgers have done this as their current general manager, Andrew Friedman, is the former general manager for the Rays. Obviously, however, the Dodgers have a much larger market and therefore, a much larger amount of funds to spend on payroll. If the Rays have shown anything with their recent success, it is that there should be a higher emphasis on minor league development and player scouting for teams that cannot spend over $200 million on payroll in a normal season. The Dodgers have had their success with paying players like Mookie Betts, but teams like the Rays cannot do that and so they have to resort to other measures. 

     The St. Louis Cardinals have been burdened by the signing of Matt Carpenter to an extension and the free agent acquisition of Dexter Fowler. Both of these players have played well, but are not necessarily worth the amount of money the Cardinals are paying them, especially in light of the Rays’ success. The Cardinals should try to follow the Rays’ model because the Rays have shown that any team can face up against these baseball giants like the Yankees, Red Sox, or Dodgers if the front office finds ingenious and unconventional ways to build a team.