How in the World is Tampa Bay Doing It?

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

I write about the Rays a lot. I just wrote about them signing Amed Rosario, for example. Earlier this month, I wrote an article titled “The Rays Can’t Keep Getting Away With This, Can They?”, and in another, I wrote that I had recently daydreamed about one of my favorite Rays players during a root canal. I’m endlessly impressed by how this team does it. But this year? I cannot put into words how wild I find this version of its team construction. In other words, I’m writing about the Rays because they deserve it – or at least I think so.

Last year, they won 99 games. They had both one of the best offenses and one of the best pitching staffs in the American League. They did a little bit of everything, and nearly overtook the Orioles for first place in the AL as a result. But that was last year. Three of Tampa Bay’s top six players aren’t returning.

There’s Wander Franco, of course. He may never play another game of major league baseball. Tyler Glasnow, who looked downright indomitable in his first year back from Tommy John surgery, got traded to the Dodgers. Shane McClanahan is having Tommy John himself. Heck, Jeffrey Springs came into the season as one of the team’s best pitchers, and his own surgery will keep him out until after the All Star break this year.

That’s just the way life works for the Rays. It’s not always for the same reasons, but the team deals with extraordinary turnover. Blake Snell was a key cog in Tampa Bay’s rotation right until he wasn’t. Tommy Pham powered the offense until he became too expensive in arbitration. Austin Meadows, Chris Archer, Charlie Morton – I hardly have to go through all of this in detail. The Rays swap guys out left and right in pursuit of their yearly goal of winning the AL East.

Maybe that’s a bridge too far this season. After all, they’ve lost so much from last year’s group. But look at our projected standings, and we have them second in the AL East. Baseball Prospectus has them fourth, but it also has them winning more games than we project; that division is just incredibly competitive. Models and betting markets agree that the Rays are going to be a good team again this year, above .500 and competing for a playoff spot or divisional title.

In past years, that’s been because the Rays have reloaded with new players that are better than the market realizes. They signed Zach Eflin last offseason and he turned into one of their best pitchers. They traded for Isaac Paredes and Randy Arozarena a few years ago, and Pham before that. They call up prospects all over the place; Franco and McClanahan debuted as in-season reinforcements. The pipeline seemingly has no end.

This season feels like it should be the end of that run. In contrast to previous years, this winter’s acquisitions don’t exactly spark joy. Tampa Bay’s new everyday shortstop, José Caballero, played second base for the offensively challenged Mariners, and the Mariners traded him away in pursuit of more offense. Jonny DeLuca was a lightly regarded prospect in the Dodgers system before joining the Rays, who are going to make him part of their platoon machine. Ryan Pepiot – OK, I like Pepiot quite a bit. I think he might be their biggest acquisition of the offseason.

I had to go to a paragraph break here because the Rays have acquired so many players who don’t sound very exciting this offseason. They signed Phil Maton in free agency. They traded for Richie Palacios from the Cardinals. Rosario signed with Tampa Bay on a minuscule deal because no one would offer him more.

This just doesn’t sound like it should be enough. Most of these players came over in exchange for a pittance, either financially or in trade return. The Rays have a ton of plate appearances to replace, and they’re doing it with a bunch of players who no one else was interested in. It feels like they’re heading for a fall.

Only, of course, that probably won’t happen. They’re projected to be an excellent team yet again. And be honest: You’d take the over on a lot of the individual player projections, wouldn’t you? The Rays do a good job of finding players with skills that the rest of the market isn’t evaluating correctly. Their work with pitchers is a great example. Eflin wasn’t considered the best pitcher on the market by a long shot last winter, which is why he signed a three-year, $40 million deal. It’s why the Rays were able to sign him in the first place.

Go down the line, and you’ll see more examples like that. Springs came over in a minor deal with the Red Sox, then promptly turned into an ace. Zack Littell was an acceptable reliever who bounced around the league; we now list him as Tampa Bay’s no. 3 starter after a shockingly effective promotion to the rotation in 2023. An endless string of relievers unlock better levels of performance with the Rays; Chris Devenski and Pete Fairbanks are two recent examples of it, and I’m excited to see what Maton and Tyler Alexander can do this year.

Again, we all kind of know this by now. The Rays get a little bit extra out of everyone because their player development operation is excellent. They also get a little bit extra out of everyone because they understand how to put players in the best position to succeed. Think Paredes with the short porch in left, or their seemingly boundless mix of platoon options (traditional lefty/righty, pitch shape, and so on). They unlock defensive versatility that no one predicted, or reduce defensive versatility in favor of improved performance for guys who were perhaps stretched too thin.

Their other trick, the one that I think gets talked about less, is their ability to adapt to what the market is giving them. They do their homework on the free agents who might be available to them and sign not only the ones who are best poised to improve with them, but also the ones who are most undervalued by the market before any improvement. When they make trades, sure, they’re looking for guys who can improve in their system, but they also find guys who would be bargains even without improvement.

Rosario is a great example of that. Even if you value the first win above replacement at a much lower rate than the others, as teams increasingly choose to do (as they should, in my opinion), his contract still comes in below that level. Eflin likely got less money because he’d alternated between starting and relieving the previous year. Even if Paredes only played to the form his that minor league numbers implied, he looked like a valuable regular; the Tigers traded him for less than that due to a combination of outfield need and prospect fatigue. Yandy Díaz was blocked in Cleveland, which is why he was available in a three-way trade. Arozarena was available because the Cardinals had an outfielder crunch on their 40-man roster.

This sounds pretty simple when you explain it that way. The Rays keep their heads level when everyone else is losing theirs. But that’s hard! There are always reasons to diverge from a value-maximizing approach to team building. The exigencies of the current day matter. Recency bias matters. Keeping fans happy matters. Keeping the clubhouse happy matters. The Rays are just a lot better than the rest of baseball at balancing all these factors while still generally finding players who the rest of the league simply doesn’t value highly enough.

Caballero and Palacios, in particular, are great examples of just this type of trade. I know that Caballero was on the outs with the Mariners, who were looking to upgrade their offense, but let me ask you this: Why? He was a league average hitter with phenomenal defense in 2023, accumulating 2.2 WAR in only 280 plate appearances. His minor league career was repeatedly interrupted by injury. He’ll never hit for a ton of power, but he’s run gaudy on-base percentages at every level and continued that in the majors last year. ZiPS projects him to be worth 1.7 WAR in 295 plate appearances. That’s a borderline All Star player in a full time role.

Now, will that production look kind of weird? Absolutely. It’s all walks, singles, and defense, a kind of modern-day Luis Castillo, the Marlins second baseman. The Mariners were all about getting more offense via power, and they’ll surely be happy with Luke Raley. But the Rays are perfectly content to get their production in weird ways; their bopping corner infield duo of Paredes and Díaz is a great example. And if you’re looking at it that way, Caballero is exactly what they need.

Palacios isn’t quite so obvious of a win, but he also fills a role the team will surely need this year. He can play both corner outfield spots, and even center in a pinch. He has excellent pitch recognition. If the Rays decide to trade Arozarena, Palacios can be part of a platoon that replaces him. If they decide to trade Josh Lowe, Palacios can step right in. The Cardinals had too many outfielders, so while Palacios’ panning out last year was great for them, they really didn’t have a spot. All it cost Tampa Bay to acquire a competent fourth outfielder with a half-decade of team control was one year of Andrew Kittredge. Deals like this are how the machine recharges itself.

Maybe this sounds like I’m heaping endless amounts of praise on the Rays. Honestly, that’s basically what it is! But someone should say it. The Rays always seem to rebuild themselves, but in using small moves to accumulate something huge, they are making a bolder bet than they have in previous years — and it looks like things are going to work out fine for them again. I just had to point that out, even if it brings my count of Rays articles to a ridiculous tally.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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3 months ago

There are a lot of reasons why someone might say the Rays are good, year in and year out, but this year I think it is probably straightforward: They are going to have four, maybe five dangerous hitters in the lineup (depending on what you think of Josh Lowe) and only one or two black holes (catcher definitely, maybe CF if you’re skeptical of Siri continuing to hit like I am). Add in some platoon maximization and I think they’ll score a lot of runs.

I have been skeptical of the Rays’ consistent success for a while because I have long thought that the Rays’ pitching usage is a house of cards that will collapse in the worst way possible. They tend to target guys with injury histories and it feels like they burn through relievers dangerously fast every year. But this group of position players is very good. Good enough that I think they will still be right in the hunt for the division all year, even if they’re running out Shawn Armstrong type guys for the entire second half.

3 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I remember an article years ago about the number of black holes in a lineup. Basically replacement level or worse. And the Rays were one of the few, or only teams with zero. A lot of teams, at least when that article was written, didn’t show the understanding of how important it is to limit how many ineffective players you have in the lineup.

The Dodgers were probably the only other team that limited those weak spots as well. But the Rays depth is so great.

3 months ago
Reply to  Twitchy

I’m sure every team would like to have fewer black holes in their lineup, but there aren’t enough to go around for everyone. They didn’t have some fundamental understanding of lineup construction that other teams don’t have. There just aren’t enough decent players.

3 months ago
Reply to  steveo

There absolutely is, it just involves building more platoons or not just spending on big name players and ignoring the other half of your roster. And for the most part these players aren’t so costly to acquire or pay.

Last edited 3 months ago by Twitchy
3 months ago
Reply to  steveo

There most certainly are. The Rays spendthrift ways, however, do inoculate them somewhat against the sunk-cost fallacy issues that plague so many other teams. They don’t get stuck playing guys because of their big contracts, because they don’t tend to have many big contracts in the first place

There’s also no “We spent all of our payroll buy have to find a couple of utility guys” problem in Tampa.

And, frankly, they’re just better than most at identifying useful talent

3 months ago
Reply to  steveo

I fall on the side of players talent more than utilization. Yes, the Rays maximize platoon advantages in a way that teams that sign vets cannot do, but most of the AAAA guys they bring up are just better than most other teams have.

For example, Phils are stuck with Castellanos, a spot the Rays would never be in. But, if for some reason they had an open spot in RF, they don’t have anyone who could step in and give a 2 WAR season. The Rays scouting just turns up more of these guys.

3 months ago
Reply to  steveo

The Rays seem to be able to identify those players sooner, or are able to coach them up. Maybe it’s a combination of that sentence. They are able to identify the players their system can coach up. Harold Ramirez went from a 90 wRC+ prior to the Rays to a 120 player with them.

3 months ago
Reply to  Twitchy

I don’t remember this article but my take on this is slightly different than this description. The idea is that the Rays have an army of guys who are best platooned but aren’t “Dodgers-era-Joc Pederson-level bad” against same-handed pitching. It’s a compromise, because it builds pretty good but not elite depth when people are hurt but also allows for almost everyone to have a non-redundant role when everyone is healthy.

But right now the Rays only have to do that for about half their lineup, because they’ve got a bunch of excellent everyday bats. So they’ve got the interesting platoon maximization – depth compromise for part of the lineup and a really good group of hitters for the other part. They’re going to score a lot of runs.

3 months ago
Reply to  Twitchy

Was that article about the 2015 Astros?