Read the methodology behind the ratings here. Remember that the grading scale is 20-80, with 50 representing league average.
2012 Organizational Rankings
#30 – Baltimore
#29 – Houston
#28 – Oakland
#27 – Pittsburgh
#26 – San Diego
#25 – Minnesota
#24 – Chicago AL
#23 – Seattle
#22 – Kansas City
#21 – Cleveland
#20 – New York Mets
#19 – Los Angeles Dodgers
#18 – Colorado
#17 — Miami
#16 — Diamondbacks
#15 — Cincinnati
#14 — Cubs
#13 — Milwaukee
#12 — San Francisco
#11 — Washington
Tampa Bay’s 2011 Ranking: 4th
2012 Outlook: 63
After seeing a dramatic roster turnover between the 2010 and 2011 seasons, the Rays used last season as a “reloading” year. They weren’t rebuilding, per se, as they still had a solid core of talent intact and their roster was competitive enough to keep them in the playoff hunt, but they certainly used the season as a chance to take stock of their young talent and to set themselves up for a competitive run in 2012. They were patient, slow to move, and they didn’t make any dramatic roster moves in the hopes of bolstering their team in the short run (i.e. promoting Desmond Jennings early, trading B.J. Upton at the deadline, etc.).
As such, reaching the playoffs in 2011 was icing on the cake for the Rays. It wasn’t necessarily an expected outcome, nor was it an ending the Rays’ front office had been gunning hard for all season. They certainly had a good team, but the Rays weren’t willing to do anything that would hurt them in the long-term in the hopes of giving them a better shot at reaching the postseason.
Thanks to this long-term outlook, the Rays are again poised to make a serious run at the playoffs. Their rotation is headlined by two aces (David Price, James Shields), and they have two more potential front-of-the-rotation starters behind them in Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore. Their defense will likely only improve with the additions of Desmond Jennings and Jose Molina, and their offense — which was seventh-best in the majors last season by wRC+ — is arguably the best the Rays have had in recent years.
There’s a reason the Rays haven’t traded B.J. Upton or James Shields yet: they both make their team better in 2012. The Rays are tied with four teams for the fourth-best “2012 Outlook” ranking in baseball, and it’s looking like they are serious about making a run at the playoffs this season. Much like the Rays were willing to let Carl Crawford leave via free agency instead of trading him, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Rays hang onto Upton in the hopes of making a serious run in 2012.
2013+ Outlook: 64
The Rays may be tied for fourth-best in “2012 Outlook”, but they rate as the best team in the majors in future talent. Their major league roster is currently jammed full of young players that will be under team control for a number of years, including Desmond Jennings, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, Matt Joyce, and (of course) Evan Longoria. They have an incredible core to build around going forward, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that they have Longoria locked up through the 2016 season and Moore signed through 2019.
That said, the Rays’ farm system has been critiqued some this off season by most prospect analysts, and the general consensus is that the Rays’ system has fallen from one of the best in baseball to one of the top-10 or so. This is largely a result of a lack of depth at the top of their system; while they have an impressive core of young talent in the majors right now, the top of their farm system is full of question marks. Their top pitching prospect behind Matt Moore is Chris Archer, who may end up in the bullpen if he never improves his control or refines a third pitch. On the position player side, Hak-Ju Lee, Tim Beckham, and Brandon Guyer are the only notable prospects in Double-A or above, and you can arguably make the case that Beckham and Guyer have moderate upsides.
The Rays restocked their farm system with a plethora of draft picks in 2011, and their lower minors are swarming with high upside, toolsy players. But for the next couple years, the Rays won’t have as much sure-fire future talent coming up through the pipelines. It shouldn’t hurt them over the next couple years — their roster has enough young depth to be competitive for the next handful of years — but their success in 2014 and beyond will depend on how well they develop the raw talent simmering in the low levels of their minors right now.
Revenue Resources: 31
And here’s the kicker. You are likely wondering why the Rays rate as low as 10th, especially considering they came in 4th last season, made the playoffs, and arguably have an even better team in 2012. How could a team with such an excellent roster, future prospects, and front office be rated so low?
It all comes down to the finances. The Rays polled out with the second-worst revenue resources in the majors, ahead of only the Oakland Athletics. Under the new weighting system, financial resources and present talent are equally weighted, but are much more important for a team’s overall score than their front office or future talent ranking. This is because it’s relatively easy to change a team’s front office composition and focus, while it’s much more difficult to change a team’s current talent level or revenue streams.
Make no mistake about it, the Rays are in a financial bind. Tropicana Field is located on the wrong side of the Bay from the heart of their metropolitan area’s population; they’re locked into a lease with St. Petersburg through 2027; and the mayor of St. Pete has shown no inclination to let them out of that lease early. Despite all the quotes thrown back and forth, there has been little to no progress made on stadium negotiations over the past few years, so the Rays are seemingly stuck in the Trop for the foreseeable future. Marketing can only get the Rays so far, and it would be an impressive accomplishment if they actually managed to draw more than two million fans.
Not only that, but while other teams are cashing in on television deals, the Rays are locked into their current deal through 2016. They have seen impressive growth in their television ratings since they became competitive in 2008, but the Rays won’t see any extra money for another five seasons. By that time, how far ahead will the rest of baseball be? The Rays are currently far behind when it comes to revenue streams, and the difference only figures to get larger and larger in coming years.
Baseball Operations: 69
What else needs to be said? Andrew Friedman and the Rays’ front office staff lap the field in this category, coming in a full five points ahead of the next closest team. This is possibly a slight exaggeration of reality — you can certainly make the case that front offices are more similar than dissimilar these days — but Friedman has earned this praise by making the playoffs on a shoe-string budget three of the last four years. It’s not exactly controversial to suggest the Rays have the best front office in the game.
Not only that, but the Rays also have a fantastic history with player development. They are very deliberate with how they promote prospects, and they have had few misses among their top prospects in recent years. It’s difficult to say how much of this is luck and how much is a direct result of the Rays’ organization, but you can make the case that the Rays are the best organization in the game at getting the most out of players and prospects. They maximize player’s potential through player development, stat-informed coaching, and savvy in-game management (platoons, shifts, etc.).
There will likely be some hubbub over the Rays falling so low, but I like this ranking. Especially with the way that money is flowing into baseball these days, it’s important that we don’t sugarcoat the Rays’ financial situation and pretend that everything is okay simply because the team is still winning. Baseball’s revenue equality gap is widening with the advent of television contracts, and the Rays have already been playing with the deck stacked against them. How many more years can they realistically be expected to keep this up without some underlying change in their revenue situation?
Back when the Oakland Athletics were the Moneyball A’s, they had eight winning seasons in a row from 1999-2006. Over that time, they made the playoffs five times. So far, the Tampa Bay Rays have had four winning seasons in a row, and they’ve made the playoffs a total of three times. I’m as big a fan of Andrew Friedman as anyone else, but let’s not try and pretend that he’s somehow succeeded where Billy Beane failed — that Friedman has discovered the secret to sustainable success on a small budget.
I don’t buy that logic. Friedman still has a long way to go before he can match Beane’s run of success, and the margin for error is as slim as ever. Where would the Rays be if Evan Longoria didn’t develop into one of the best players in the game? What if he merely became an above average player, or his career went south like Eric Chavez’s? Where would the Rays be today if Ben Zobrist didn’t explode into a +6 win beast? Or if one of their many trades flamed out through sheer bad luck? The Rays are in the position they’re in today because they have been nigh perfect with their decisions over the past few seasons, and they have certainly been the beneficiary of their share of good luck.
Friedman is walking on a razor’s edge, and the only reason we don’t notice is because he’s made it look so gosh-darned easy. But unless the Rays’ underlying financial situation changes somehow over the next couple years — a new stadium deal would change this ranking a lot — their long-term outlook is as clouded as ever. Friedman and Co. will keep the Rays as competitive as possible for as long as possible, but nobody can fight against the current indefinitely.