“I been shaking two nickels together for a month, trying to get them to mate.” – Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep
There is only one truly poor team in Major League Baseball, and 29 others that just cosplay as Dickensian street urchins. When the Chicago Cubs weep about how there’s just no money in this baseball thing, it’s impossible to take their statements at face value. When the Tampa Bay Rays do it, I take it a lot more seriously.
“Build it, and nobody will come.” Unlike their cross-state rivals, the Miami Marlins, the Rays have been able to build teams that win consistently. They drew moderately well in their debut season, but a decade of losing, in large part due to an incompetent Chuck LaMar-led front office, got things off to a rocky start. Winning 97 games and an AL pennant in 2008 couldn’t raise the team’s attendance to two million, and winning at least 90 games in five of six years appeared to do nearly nothing to bring fans to the ballpark. Tampa Bay drew fewer fans in 2018 and 2019 than they did in their 68-94, last-place 2016, the team’s worst year since they exorcised the Devil from their nickname.
The Rays have a better TV contract than they did five years ago, but it’s hard to make the typical arguments about investing in their roster when this team sees so little benefit. MLB’s revenue-sharing scheme subsidizes being a low-revenue team rather than being a small-market team that invests. Having demonstrated an ability to build quality teams for nothing — and have seen few financial benefits from winning 95 games instead of 65 — there’s not much of an incentive to build a quality team for something.
The Rays don’t just survive by developing stars cheaply; they have a knack for being able to avoid black holes like the plague. Let’s use a couple of charts from an earlier entry in this series to illustrate the point:
|Team||Average Deviation From 90 Wins||Cardinals||3.5|
Over the past dozen years, the Rays have an impressive record of consistently winning somewhere around 90 games and despite the low payroll, they’ve received less below-replacement performance than any team in baseball. Short of a change in how MLB’s revenues are distributed among teams, none of this is likely to change, even when the Rays get a new stadium.
Going into the 2018 season, the usual disasters were predicted. How could the Rays trade Evan Longoria, Corey Dickerson, Steven Souza Jr., and Jake Odorizzi and be expected to seriously compete? As it turned out, pretty easily. Despite replacing most of the main cast, the new group proved just as competent thanks to names like Mallex Smith, a returning Matt Duffy, and Joey Wendle. Blake Snell’s breaking stuff finally stuck, and he won the Cy Young Award with 21 wins and an ERA under two. Thanks to a few unfortunate Tommy John surgeries, the Rays had trouble fielding an entire rotation, causing the club to make the Opener part of modern baseball vocabulary. While teams had experimented with using their rotations in similar, non-traditional ways in the past, nobody had ever done so to the same extent.
The Rays won 90 games, and the Opener experiment worked well enough that they had no problem with trading former ace Chris Archer to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows, and Shane Baz. After sitting at 53-53 at the trade deadline, the Rays found two or three new gears, going 37-19 over the rest of the season. Glasnow contributed to the Rays immediately, as his command issues disappeared almost instantly with a more aggressive, less nibbly approach on the mound. Tommy Pham was also acquired in a surprise pickup after his relationship with the Cardinals became strained (at least allegedly).
Rather than simply batten down the hatches for 2019 and go with the roster that won 90 games in 2018, the team once again approached the offseason aggressively. Naturally, these moves involved bargain shopping and thrift storing rather than big-ticket free agents.
The team started the winter by picking up Oliver Drake on waivers. Already a veteran of six major league teams, Drake’s 4.59 career ERA was well above his 3.59 FIP, something the Rays bet wouldn’t continue. The presence of Pham and Meadows made Smith expendable, and the Rays sent him to Seattle for three players, including catcher Mike Zunino. Yandy Díaz and Cole Sulser were acquired for Jake Bauers. The Rays even spent a bit of money, landing Charlie Morton on a two-year deal for $30 million and Avisaíl García on a cheap, one-year contract. Drake was briefly lost on waivers to the Blue Jays, so the Rays sent money to acquire him for the second time in the same offseason.
ZiPS was not completely sold on the Rays entering 2019, projecting the team to fall back to an 84-78 record. While it would be an easy excuse to blame ZiPS not knowing just how to deal with the whole Opener thing, it liked the team’s pitching enough that it didn’t really matter how it was used. Snell, Morton, and Glasnow were all projected to be excellent, and a whopping 16 pitchers in the organization were projected to have an ERA+ above 100 if on the parent club.
Where ZiPS was worried was the offensive upside. Only Pham and Kevin Kiermaier projected above the two-win line. And where the computer was a believer in his trade-mate Glasnow, it was still a skeptic concerning Meadows.
The Rays didn’t wait until August to start beating up the league. After taking three of four games from the Astros to begin the season, they seized sole control of first place in the AL East. April in Tampa was a humiliating experience for Pirates fans, as Glasnow went 5-0 with a 1.75 ERA through the end of the month, walking only one batter per start while Meadows hit .351/.422/.676. Morton pitched almost as well as Glasnow, and while his surprising streak of finding more velocity every year finally snapped, his already excellent curve reached elite status.
And as it turned out, the offense was sufficient. Given the strength of the pitching, even with Snell not matching his 2018 breakout, a 102 wRC+ from the lineup was enough for the Rays to win 96 games. Even losing Glasnow for much of the season due to injury wasn’t enough to keep the team from leading the AL in ERA and allowing the fewest home runs in baseball in a year during which home runs defined baseball. The Rays rolled over the A’s in the Wild Card game before falling to the Houston Astros in five games in the ALDS.
What Comes Next?
There’s little reason to expect any kind of shift in how the Rays are run. Their offseason has been a quiet one so far, with the only big move a trade that sent Pham to the Padres for Hunter Renfroe. Pham’s ability to play center field wasn’t essential thanks to a healthy Kiermaier, and the team’s model for success requires the Rays squeezing every last bit of value from their players. García is gone, but ZiPS gave the recently signed Yoshitomo Tsutsugo a nearly identical 2020 projection.
The Rays may become less reliant on Openers in the near future with Brendan McKay not far from claiming a full-time spot in the rotation and the (hopeful) return of the nearly forgotten Brent Honeywell. Remember, the Opener was a strategy for Tampa out of necessity more than grand design. The organization can’t succeed without an excellent farm system, and in the final 2019 rankings on THE BOARD, the Rays ranked in first place despite trading Jesús Sánchez (along with Ryne Stanek) to the Marlins for Nick Anderson and Trevor Richards.
2020 ZiPS Projection – Austin Meadows
The suspicions ZiPS had about Meadows coming into 2019 were largely warranted by his record. Before he exploded for the Durham Bulls after the 2018 trade, he had hit .279/.318/.394 for Triple-A Indianapolis. His injury-riddled 2017 was no better, featuring a .250/.311/.359 line in Indy. No doubt, his long history of injuries contributed to these disappointing performances, but one couldn’t ignore the statistical record entirely.
Meadows hasn’t established a Cal Ripken Jr.-esque health record by any means, but 2019 did go a long way towards wiping out the performance questions. ZiPS isn’t projecting a great deal of growth, or a streak of 650 plate appearance seasons, but it is sold on Meadows being an above-average contributor for a long time. He’ll be a big plus to the Rays and, after his salary increases, the team that will probably acquire him.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.