How The Rays Became The Best Team In Baseball
Great trade robberies, a rebuild and the occasional signing that made the Tampa Bay Rays the best team in baseball.
Before the season started, I made five “Wild” predictions for the MLB season. Some have been incredibly inaccurate while others are looking better by the day. One of the predictions I made was a Tampa Bay Rays vs New York Mets World Series, with both teams having 20/1 odds to win the World Series I said that it would be a good bet to place. While the Mets have tried to compact all the craziness into one season, the Rays have been the complete opposite.
Last Night I watched Tyler Glasnow nearly no-hit the mighty New York Yankees as the lineup beat down one of the best pitchers in baseball in Gerrit Cole. One who watches a team with a low payroll and limited star-power beat a team that has both of those has to wonder how the Rays got here. How do the Rays have the best record in the American League and one of the best in the Major Leagues?
The Rays like many teams have dealt with multiple injuries throughout the season, yet they keep winning. This season we knew that depth was going to be important for any team that was planning on making a run for the World Series but it doesn’t make sense for a team like the Rays to have the roster depth and complete roster. How the Rays were able to build the best team? They didn’t just develop players which they are known to do, they also have won the trade deadline (this year and in the recent years), despite their payroll, they aren’t afraid to make the occasional risky signing, and most important to the Rays success, is their constant innovation. Let’s take a look at how the Rays were able to overcome the odds and build the best team in baseball.
HOME GROWN TALENT
Brandon Lowe has been one of the Rays best players this year. As someone who doesn’t watch the Rays on a nightly basis, I didn’t know who Brandon Lowe was and didn’t know how he became one of the best on the team. It’s interesting when you found out that Lowe was built from the farm system. The Rays have always been able to develop stars from the early years with Evan Longoria to David Price to now Brandon Lowe. Lowe leads the team in Home Runs, RBI, and WAR (wins above replacement) and to secure his rights, the Rays gave him a six-year extension last season to keep him in Tampa.
Remember the David Price trade a few years ago? The one where the Detroit Tigers felt they needed one more Cy Young winner. Well the Tiger sent three players to the Rays in the deal, one of them was a prospect that became Willy Adames. Willy Adames is now one of the key pieces in the Rays success and is one of the best fielding shortstops in the league. Willy Adames doesn’t have mind-blowing stats, but the Rays aren’t interested in the hitting, another developed player on the Rays roster, Kevin Keirmeir is more valuable to the team because fielding is essential to winning.
The Rays wouldn’t be great if it were just home-grown talent. They have won the recent trades that they have been involved in. Hunter Renfroe is another one of the players that was good but seemed to have a wasted career in San Diego, now he is one of the key contributors for the Rays and is having a career year. The crazy part of acquiring Hunter Renfroe is that the Rays traded Tommy Pham to land him, before the season that move was a head scratcher but now makes Tampa Bay’s management look incredible. Tommy Pham was one of the best players for Tampa last season, yet the Rays saw the ceiling in having Renfroe in the lineup.
It’s assumed that Ji-Man Choi is one of the overseas signings that the Rays were able to spot before anyone else. That is far from the truth, Ji-Man Choi was actually a journeyman player before being dealt to Tampa. Choi was on five teams and was constantly on the border of starting and being sent to the minors. On June 10th, 2018, the Rays saw the upside that Choi could provide, they sent Brad Miller to the Brewers in exchange for the power-hitter. The move gave the Rays a switch-hitting power hitter that gives balance to a lineup that doesn’t hit for power.
The trade that of course everyone knows Tampa for is and would be remiss not to talk about is the robbery that sent Chris Archer to Pittsburgh. Tampa saw the potential decline in Chris Archer, from former ace to barely a viable option as a starter (last season, Archer posted 3 wins and an ERA over 5) and traded him when they still knew a team would value him in return. The trade gave the Rays outfielder Austin Meadows and starting pitcher Tyler Glasnow, Meadows is one of the best hitters on the Rays and Glasnow is one of the team's best pitchers. The best part of the deal for Tampa Bay is that the player with the most upside in the deal hasn’t even played yet in the Major Leagues, Shane Baz is regarded as one of the top prospects in baseball and is the player that the Rays are most excited about from the Chris Archer deal. The continuous decline of Chris Archer makes this one of the moves that put the Rays over the top. Seeing the rise of the Rays and the decline of the Pirates makes one think of this deal as being one of the worst in recent years and possibly in the history of the game.
THE RARE SIGNING
Many were scratching their head when the Rays signed Charlie Morton for two years and $30 Million. It’s untraditional of the Rays to make a big signing and to sign a pitcher that was 35 at the time, granted Morton was good in Houston but it was risky considering the years he had in Atlanta and Pittsburgh. Charlie Morton has been the veteran leadership that the Rays rotation needed and has also been one of the best hurlers on the team. Morton has been injured for a lot of this season but is poised to come back soon and will be vital for a playoff run that will need star pitchers.
Another one of the rare signings that ultimately became a find for the Rays this year has been Yoshi Tsutsugo. Tsutsugo was a great player in Japan that didn’t receive the same hype as other prospects from overseas. The Rays took a chance on him by giving him a two-year, $12 Million deal and the payoff has been tremendous this year for the Rays.
The Rays were using the shift on pull-hitters before it was a common thing. Tampa Bay has always been on the forefront of baseball innovation and a season like this one has favored the teams that have been on the forefront of baseball strategy. While the league has caught on to the shift, the Rays have continued to change the game and a season like this one only helps them.
The first thing that comes to mind is the opener. The Rays were the first team to introduce us to the opener strategy, where you don’t roll a starter out for six or seven innings, rather have relievers that give a few innings each. This season the Rays have not only displayed their ability to manage their relievers, they have proven that they have pitching depth to handle the injuries that have sidelined some of their top pitchers. The pitching staff is deep and the ability to move starters in and out of the rotation has given the Rays one of the better staffs in baseball.
The interesting element about the Rays this season is the ability to have “positionless players”. The major sports have been trending towards positionless players but for baseball it means something a little different. Every team in the MLB has at least one or two players that are considered utility fielders that can play multiple positions. The Rays have taken this to a new level. Almost every player on the Rays can play at least two or three positions and some can play up to five positions. This allows the Rays to be flexible with their roster and in a season that has plagued every team with injuries, the ability to have anyone capable of playing any position can come in hand. The Rays have also built their lineup to allow flexibility where a player like Austin Meadows can lead off one night and bat sixth the next night. The Rays don’t have a traditional leadoff or cleanup hitter and the ability to have a flexible roster has given them the ability to deal with injuries.
It is a long season and the Rays can run out of luck. Likewise, the New York Yankees can catch fire and take back the division. The Rays have been able to beat the odds and in a crazy way, I’m starting to root for them. It would be fun to see a team with a small fanbase win the World Series this year, or we can just credit the fact that the Tampa Bay Rays are used to playing in front of empty stadiums and the season wasn’t such an adjustment for them.