This afternoon, the Rays won a 5-4 decision against the Orioles, their latest effort in pursuit of an AL Wild Card appearance. Now in sole possession of the first play-in spot, the Rays managed a victory thanks to a solid bullpen effort and a clutch RBI knock from outfielder Tommy Pham. More notably, they took the field with an active roster unlike that of any other AL playoff candidate.
When manager Kevin Cash penciled in today’s lineups, he was working with a set of names that are, for most casual fans, unrecognizable. Players like Eric Sogard, Ji-Man Choi, and Willy Adames could all probably go unnoticed in a police lineup, but they’ve nonetheless been key contributors to Cash’s 81-58 Rays outfit. But, aside from their collective lack of renown, Cash’s players all share something else in common–nearly all of them arrived in Tampa via another club’s roster.
At time of posting, 27 of the players on Tampa’s 40-man roster were originally acquired by the club via trade or waiver claim.
Currently, there are only four players—Diego Castillo, Austin Pruitt, Nate Lowe, and Kevin Kiermaier—on the Rays active roster who can claim that Tampa was their first professional stateside club. Every other player suiting up for Tampa these days was signed, drafted, or developed by a different MLB organization.
For context, this is far more than most teams in the current AL playoff race. According to Roster Resource, the Red Sox (10), Yankees (18), Astros (15), Indians (19), and Twins (9) don’t even come close to the Rays in terms of trade-acquired 40-man roster players. The only other competitive team with a somewhat similar roster makeup is Oakland, with 25 such players.
That the Moneyball-grounded Athletics are the only other team with a similar roster construction is, obviously, not a detail to be overlooked. Though A’s executive Billy Beane is arguably the face of “value-oriented” baseball strategy, the employees at the controls of the Tampa war room seem to have just as much invested in the exploitation of market inefficiencies.
In November 2016, the Rays organization came under the control of three men: Senior VP and General Manager Erik Neander, Senior VP Chaim Bloom, and VP James Click. Since then, these men have directed a Baseball Operations department with a consistent ethos, which could be best described as a combination of payroll-cutting moves committed in concert with the acquisition of advanced (read: older) prospects and post-hype players on the fringe of other MLB rosters.
As you might expect, this strategy has welcomed its share of detractors. When the team traded All-Star outfielder Corey Dickerson to the Pirates in 2017 for pitcher Daniel Hudson, minor league infielder Tristan Gray and cash considerations, many were quick to decry the monetarily motivated decision–among the critics was former franchise icon Evan Longoria, who said that he “felt bad” for Rays fans in the wake of the trade.
Of course, that trade was perhaps a table-setter for another, more successful trade with Pittsburgh. At the 2018 deadline, the team dealt pitcher Chris Archer to the Pirates in exchange for pitcher Tyler Glasnow and outfielder Austin Meadows. In terms of Baseball References WAR, Tampa has already received more value from Glasnow and Meadows (3.9 combined WAR) since the trade than Archer has provided Pittsburgh (1.4 WAR). And that’s before accounting for the massive gains the club earned in terms of controllable years, or contractual savings (Archer has identical club options for 2020 and 2021 worth $8.25MM, while Glasnow and Meadows are both still pre-arb players).
There have been other “hits” for Tampa on the trade market along the way. This past offseason, the club sent former top-100 prospect Jake Bauers to Cleveland in exchange for infielder Yandy Diaz and minor league pitcher Cole Sulser (with cash going to Seattle to help facilitate the deal). Though Bauers was the younger, more widely renowned chip in the deal, Diaz ended up providing a solid 1.7 WAR campaign in limited action for Tampa before being felled by injury, while Bauers has struggled to a 78 wRC+ with the Tribe in 2019. This deal, though not a franchise-altering move by any means, is a perfect exemplar of the small, near-term wins the Tampa front office has continually milked out of trading partners.
This organizational inclination toward wheeling-and-dealing has obvious economic roots for the Rays, who have been locked in a roller coaster stadium saga that, in its most recent episode, saw the org announce plans for the team to split time between Tampa and Montreal in coming years. The Rays rank 29th in 2019 game attendance and are dead-last in organizational payroll with a $62,367,745 outlay (a figure which would account for less than 30% of Boston’s league-leading 2019 payroll).
Even if they will never be big spenders, per se, the Rays did at least loosen the purse strings with this offseason’s signing of starter Charlie Morton to a 2-year/$30MM deal–an organizational exception-to-the-rule that has paid massive on-field dividends in 2019. At 35, Morton is in the midst of his best season, with a 5.4 WAR valuation underscored by his 3.06 ERA, 2.80 FIP, and 11.04 K/9 through 170.1 innings of work. The Rays may not dip into free agency much but, in the case of Morton, they threaded the needle with aplomb.
It’s quite easy to be judgemental of the machinations of a baseball ops department so clearly constrained by the financial realities of working in a small market. Still, despite any prescriptive beliefs one might hold about how baseball teams should use their revenue, it’s important to recognize what Neander and Co. have been able to pull off in constructing their third consecutive 80-plus win ballclub this year.
In a game where much is often made of the culture-building aspects of draft-and-develop philosophies, the Rays have been able to squeeze wins out of a roster constructed more like a Lego set, where pieces are matched, assembled, and deconstructed again with purely modular logic.
These are not players that have come up through the ranks together; they are not players who have developed camaraderie over years of minor league bus rides and minor league meetings.
Today’s Rays are, simply, players who have come from everywhere but Tampa, to somehow steer themselves within arm’s reach of October.