The Arrival of the Tampa Bay Rays

Since the start of the season’s second half, the Rays have posted the third-best record in baseball. For fans of the team, it’s been fun, I imagine, but it also hasn’t mattered that much, since the A’s have run the single-best record in baseball. The Rays have gone 31-18 and lost ground in the wild-card standings, such that they’re only mathematically alive. They succeeded in catching up to the Mariners, but that won’t be enough to put them into the playoffs. It’s going to be another year without a World Series. It’s going to be another year without a postseason game.

You could say that the Rays are victims of circumstance. They’re 80-65 and almost irrelevant. That record, though, would ordinarily put them in a better spot. At this time last year, the Rays would be in possession of the first wild-card slot. The same would be true of 2016, and the same would be true of 2015. In 2014 and 2013, such a record would have given the Rays possession of the second wild-card slot. Most of the time, this would be a playoff contender. The Rays can’t help that the A’s are so good.

On its own, that’s somewhat encouraging. And yet there is so much more. From all appearances, the Rays are only just opening their competitive window. The talent-accumulation phase has guided them into an enviable position.

Here are the actual AL East standings:

AL East, Actual
Team W L GB
Red Sox 101 46
Yankees 90 56 10.5
Rays 80 65 20.0
Blue Jays 65 81 35.5
Orioles 42 104 58.5

That’s what you’ve gotten used to thinking about. The Orioles are nowhere close to the Blue Jays, the Blue Jays are nowhere close to the Rays, the Rays are nowhere close to the Yankees, and the Yankees are nowhere close to the Red Sox. So it goes; the actual standings are the only standings that matter, as far as the playoffs are concerned. No one gets credit for how they should have done. But, for fun, here’s a link to our BaseRuns standings page. The BaseRuns standings estimate what a team’s record should be, given its underlying statistics. I’ve never seen convincing proof that teams can sustainably over- or under-shoot their BaseRuns estimates. Variation tends to be random. Anyway, here’s the BaseRuns version of the AL East:

AL East, BaseRuns
Team W L GB
Red Sox 90 57
Yankees 87 59 2.5
Rays 86 59 3.0
Blue Jays 64 82 25.5
Orioles 50 96 39.5

It’s a three-team race for first. The order is the same, but they’re all so much closer. The Yankees have a shot at the Red Sox. And the Rays have a shot at the Red Sox. And this doesn’t even show you the rest of the landscape. According to BaseRuns, the Rays have been the third-best team in their division. And, according to BaseRuns, the Rays have been the fourth-best team in baseball.

Seriously — it’s right there in the link. The Rays have been worse than only the Astros, Red Sox, and Yankees, and they’ve been a hair better than the Dodgers. You don’t even need to go all the way to BaseRuns to make a case; since the Rays began a dreadful 3-12, they’ve had baseball’s fifth-best record, and seventh-best run differential. The Rays have been winning for a while. Not really while participating in the hunt, but that’s allowed them to be more or less off the radar.

What does it mean to have such a good BaseRuns record? Looking at the window from 2005 – 2017, I gathered all the teams with at least 90 estimated BaseRuns wins. The following season, they won an average of 87.5 games, with a median win total of 89. That’s a general, simple approach, but unsurprisingly, statistical success in one year indicates likely success the next year.

The Rays, as a team, rank ninth in baseball in wRC+, excluding pitchers to put NL teams on the same level. In just the second half, they rank seventh. Meanwhile, the Rays, as a team, rank sixth in baseball in ERA- and FIP-, and they’re eighth in xFIP-. In just the second half, they rank sixth, fourth, and sixth, respectively. That’s a top-ten lineup, and a top-ten run-prevention unit. It shouldn’t be a surprise that these numbers are so good, given the story BaseRuns is telling.

Now, in a sense, it doesn’t matter so much that the Rays have looked good in 2018, because for all intents and purposes, 2018 is shot. What matters more now is the future. The future looks similar, and the future looks bright. The Rays’ only two impending free agents of any real significance are Carlos Gomez and Sergio Romo. Romo has been important, but Gomez has a slightly negative WAR. The only players in line for arbitration raises are C.J. Cron, Matt Duffy, Tommy Pham, Chaz Roe, Jesus Sucre, and Vidal Nuno. As I sit here and try to assemble an initial draft of the 2019 roster, the only important players in their 30s are Pham and Roe. This is a young team, a cost-controlled team. You’re right to point out that’s also a cheap team. One day, perhaps the Rays will spend more money. For now, this is how ownership demands that they operate.

And there’s still more for me to show, thanks to the tireless work of Kiley McDaniel and Eric Longenhagen. Here’s a link to our giant updated prospect board. The key column is FV, corresponding to Future Value. In this plot, every team in baseball, and the number of prospects they have right now with FV grades of at least 45:

The Rays, ever so slightly, lead the way. Granted, 45 is maybe an arbitrary cutoff; I could’ve gone with 40, or I could’ve gone with 50. Let’s go with 50 this time, to focus just on the higher-upside guys:

The Rays are no longer in first, but they are in fourth, which is still a great position. I don’t need to tell any of you that prospect evaluation and projection is an inexact science. With any individual young player, no one knows for sure what he’s going to achieve. But when you start increasing the sample size, you can make evaluations with a greater degree of confidence. You can’t look at the Rays’ system and know anything about any player’s future for certain, but you can look at the Rays relative to the rest of baseball and safely conclude that they have an above-average farm. Possibly or probably a top-five farm. A possible or probable top-five farm system, to go with a team that presently has a top-five BaseRuns record. The Rays have the talent they need. They don’t have the money to keep up with the behemoths every single year, but for the next stretch of time, the Rays stand to be both good and affordable. It’s the best they get to hope for.

Any plan can go awry. It would only take a few major injuries to trip the Rays up. No one is more important to the team than Blake Snell. We already saw what happened with Brent Honeywell, Jose De Leon, and Anthony Banda. And it’s not like the 2019 roster is necessarily complete, because they could use another starter or two, at least while Honeywell and De Leon recover. I don’t know if they want to use the opener again quite so much. On top of that, the Rays could use a semi-regular catcher. They shouldn’t go into the offseason and plan to do nothing.

But it really doesn’t seem like they need that much work. Tyler Glasnow has out-pitched Chris Archer since the trade. Jalen Beeks has adequately replaced Nathan Eovaldi since the trade. With Pham, Kevin Kiermaier, Mallex Smith, and Austin Meadows, they have four pretty good outfielders. With Jake Bauers, Daniel Robertson, Joey Wendle, Brandon Lowe, Willy Adames, and Duffy, they have six pretty good infielders. Cron has a 118 wRC+ as a 1B/DH, and Ji-Man Choi has been outstanding as a DH himself since arriving in a trade for Brad Miller. The Rays are deep, and they have more options than I’ve named. Problem spots are tough to identify.

Small-budget teams can’t be good forever. It’s not realistic, not with higher-budget teams, and not with so many intelligent and progressive front offices scattered around. But small-budget teams can be good for a while, and from the looks of things, the Rays are just getting started. It would help the front office to get more of a commitment from ownership; one hopes that, as the Rays become successful, those in charge will make a greater investment. But even without a bigger budget at their disposal, the Rays have gotten to a promising spot. The window looks like it’s officially open.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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5 years ago

So sad that this is the year I placed a futures wager on the Rays winning the AL Pennant. Any other year, they’d have a shot!