The Tampa Bay Rays are a true curiosity. When they debuted in 1998, they were baptized by fire in the AL East, finishing with a 63-99 record and dead last in the division. The only team worse than them in all of baseball was the Marlins, who were in the back half of their first infamous World Series tear-down. The baptism seemed to continue for the next decade, as Tampa Bay continued to finish last, save for 2004, where they finished in fourth with grace.
Then something happened in 2008. They turned good! And they’ve stayed that way more often than not. They’ve won 90+ games in six of the last 11 years, and they’ve made the playoffs four times. The team has been one of specific opportunity, whether it’s the front office making moves for players who produce more and sooner than expected or others who are perhaps more marginal but who produce en masse.
How you and I may consider opportunity is almost certainly different than how the Rays do. Their average year-end, 40-man roster payroll since existing is about 26th in baseball. They’ve only been higher than 20th twice: Way back in 2000-01, when they finished the year with payrolls that ranked 19th and 11th, and they still finished in fifth place in the AL East, anyway. That’s why it was so shocking to see them acquire Tommy Pham and $500k in international bonus money for Justin Williams, Genesis Cabrera, and Roel Rodriguez last July 31. It was the first time ever in the franchise’s history that they made a trade of such note and gave up more players than they got back — the first time they consolidated multiple, lesser talents for one greater talent.
To truly appreciate that, we should acknowledge the moves the team has made when actually competitive in previous seasons. Let’s consider when they first broke out in 2008, won 97 games, finished in first place in the division for the first time, and went to the World Series. That winter, they turned Brendan Harris, Delmon Young, and Jason Pridie into Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett, and Eddie Morlan. On April 22, they traded Josh Butler for Gabe Gross. Between the two trades, the Rays had a net gain of more than seven fWAR that year. While that’s enormous for a single season, they didn’t make another significant move that attempted to pad onto that total.
Two years later, in 2010, Tampa finished first in the AL East again, this time with 96 wins. The team’s big move that year was again in the winter before the season actually started, when they eventually turned Jesse Chavez into Rafael Soriano. That netted them another 2.3 fWAR that year. Then they stood pat through the end of the season.
In 2011, Garza was set to make a shade under six million dollars after his second year through arbitration. Tampa dealt him in January, before his hearing, with Fernando Perez and Zac Rosscup to the Cubs for Sam Fuld, Chris Archer, Robinson Chirinos, Brandon Guyer, and Hak-Ju Lee. It cost them more than two wins that season, but they cleared money after finishing 20th in payroll the year before, still made the playoffs, and came out way ahead because of Chris Archer becoming a top-of-the-rotation arm.
In 2012, the team won 90 games again but still finished in third place in the division and missed the postseason, despite winning more than two teams who actually got into October. They didn’t make any moves of significance all year, including the winter before games started.
Then they got back to their wheeling and dealing in 2013. They made two trades in the December before the season. The first was Derek Dietrich for Yunel Escobar. The second was Wade Davis, James Shields, and Elliott Johnson for Wil Myers, Jake Odorizzi, Mike Montgomery, and Patrick Leonard. They came out almost dead even in wins from those deals while saving money. Then on August 23, as they sat tied for first with the Red Sox, they traded Matthew Spann for David DeJesus for another boost. They finished second and made the playoffs again.
The team finished either fourth or fifth for the next three years, and then third in 2017 after being in the thick of the race for the division right before the non-waiver deadline. They didn’t make any particularly noteworthy trades, though, and certainly none that consolidated talent to push them closer to true contention. And that takes us back to the Pham acquisition this past season.
It’s hard to know if the deal was really a harbinger of things to come. For one, Pham is a late bloomer whose peripherals seemingly made it tough to buy into his breakout. After putting up six wins in 2017, he was slumping in 2018 before going on a tear after the trade. For another, he just went through his first round of arbitration, and was awarded $4.1 million. It’s hard to imagine him being a Ray in two years. His projected excess value would dwarf that of the prospects for whom he was traded, and the Rays will have benefited from a large chunk of it.
And further yet, based on team control, it was just as much an opportunistic move as any the Rays have ever made, despite the deal’s optics. Pham was frustrated with the Cardinals, the team was a bit of a mess in the wake of Mike Matheny being fired, and the organization has a reputation similar to Tampa’s for developing lesser talents into players who contribute to winning clubs, even though they may be slightly losing their touch. The situation was ripe for picking.
They may have consolidated some of their talent in 2018, but the Rays still play in Tampa, still can’t draw anyone to their park, and still don’t see through the end of contracts or control years with the majority of their players, whether they’re productive or not. Just look at the list of their all-time leaders in WAR, both for position players and for pitchers. Desmond Jennings is a nice player, but he’s the best career Ray expressly because everyone who’s been better has been traded away to help keep cheaper, younger talent flowing into the system.
The Rays may have shown us a new look this past summer, but it was more a different shade of the same color than a true makeover. And that’s okay, because they know how to make it work — payroll and division opponents be damned.
Standings from MLB.com. WAR data from FanGraphs. Salary data from MLBTR, Spotrac, and Cot’s Contracts. Feature photo from Monica Herndon/Tampa Bay Times