Baseball has had its share of improbable team success stories in recent years, but little can rival what is occurring this season in Tampa Bay.
The Rays entered the season with a payroll of just under $44 million. That number represented pocket change in a division that would be described fairly, in the terminology of soccer’s World Cup, as the “Group of Death.”
The Yankees opened the year paying $209 million in salary, and have since added to that total. Jason Giambi and Derek Jeter make a combined $45 million this year, more than Tampa Bay’s entire club. The Red Sox payroll, though down slightly this year, still ranked fourth in baseball at $133 million to start 2008.
Those two teams have enjoyed a stranglehold on the American League East. The Yankees won nine straight division titles from 1998-2006 before getting bumped from that perch by the Sox last year. Boston, for its part, has made the playoffs six of the past 10 seasons.
No club except the Sox and Yankees has reached the postseason from the A.L. East since 1997. Attempted challenges—chiefly from a Toronto team that has invested increasingly aggressively in recent years ($97 million payroll in 2008)—have consistently been rebuffed.
This year is different.
It is one thing to encounter the occasional David Beats Goliath storyline in the postseason, when the laws of probability are bent by a short-series format. But for Tampa to do so over a 162-game schedule may represent an even more stunning accomplishment.
The Rays have become baseball’s ultimate underdog story. Though their home attendance remains pitifully low (21,441 per game, 26th in baseball), their appeal is hard to deny, even for fans of clubs that have been challenged by Tampa’s emergence.
“Going around (Boston), there were a lot of people who said they liked what we’re doing and they wished us well. I think in general, not just in a baseball sense, but what’s going on with the economy and the country in general, I think our story resonates,” said Rays manager Joe Maddon. “I’m aware of that. It’s a positive part of this also.”
How is it that a financial flyweight is winning in a division of heavyweights? How is Tampa Bay doing this?
THE FINANCIAL REALITY
One of the keys to creating a foundation for sustainable long-term success was for the Rays to accept the market realities that they faced. Under former owner Vince Naimoli, there was little consistency—aside from losing—to what the team formerly known as the Devil Rays did.
The business model would change. In some years, the team would go young. In others, it would make a play for veterans who were playing out the string on their career. There rarely seemed a unified approach.
Stuart Sternberg, a former partner at Goldman Sachs, took over as Principal Owner following the 2005 season. Individuals with expertise at analyzing markets and developing long-term strategies to deal with them took over as the decision makers in Tampa. The front-office team defined its resource constraints, and reacted accordingly.
“We call ourselves a low-revenue team,” said Rays President Matt Silverman, who worked with Sternberg at Goldman Sachs. “We’re in a medium-sized market, and if you include Orlando in our market, we’re a relatively large market. But at this point, we’re a low-revenue club.”
“When it comes to payroll, we’re not going to be up there with the Yankees and the Red Sox,” he continued. “It’s going to be difficult to make it to where Baltimore and Toronto are. That’s just the reality of our market.”
Yet the Rays did not bemoan the fact. To the contrary, they found opportunity in their financial status.
MINING FOR LOW-COST, HIGH-REWARD PLAYERS
The blessing and curse of being a rich baseball team is the opportunity to swim in free-agent waters. Such franchises can dig into their wallets to acquire players with recent track records of outstanding performance.
That ability, however, represents a double-edged sword. In many cases, talented players who reach free agency (after six or more major-league seasons) have already played much of their best baseball.
In spending freely on such players, teams reward past performance. And, in some instances, they do so at the expense of giving a job to a younger player who may be emerging as both more talented and cheaper.
The Rays did not face that limitation. As a low-revenue club, they had to either rely on talents who had come up through their farm system or find castoffs from other organizations with untapped potential. Big-name free agents who would demand lucrative long-term deals were simply not an option.
“Our margin for error is much slimmer than some of our competitors,” said Silverman. “We can’t put ourselves in a position where we sign a player to a seven-year, $100 million deal and take the risk that he might not perform or there might be an injury. Our owner likes to say, ‘You can’t bet the ranch. You can bet the garage, you can bet one room, but you can’t bet the entire ranch.’”
That was most notably the case with Carlos Pena. The former first-round pick bounced between organizations. He was drafted by the Rangers, traded to the A’s and then the Tigers, spent a few years in Detroit before getting non-tendered, and then spent 2006 kicking between the minor-league systems of the Yankees and Red Sox. (The Haverhill native enjoyed a late-season cameo in Boston that year.)
Tampa, which lacked a starting first baseman entering 2007, signed Pena to a minor-league deal. He made the big-league club that year only because of an injury at the end of spring training.
Pena has become a force in Tampa, hitting 74 homers (5th most in baseball since the start of last year) slugging .563 (7th) with a .956 OPS (7th). The Rays paid him all of $800,000 in 2007 before signing him to a three-year, $24 million extension this January.
“Sometimes having limitations or restrictions provides greater discipline and forces you to do things that you might not otherwise do. We think they can be, in a way, a blessing,” said Silverman. “Carlos Pena comes in as a minor-league free agent, makes this club and is now signed to a long-term deal. If we had been able in the offseason to plug that hole with a free agent, Carlos Pena wouldn’t be here.”
Of course, a player like Pena, or veteran additions signed to short-term contracts such as outfielder Cliff Floyd and reliever Troy Percival, can only be a difference maker if a team has a substantial core of talent. In order for a club with a thin wallet to establish such a base, it needs a nucleus of cheap young players.
With the average player on the roster at 27.7 years old, sixth-youngest in the majors, the natural reaction would be to assume that the Rays represent the triumph of a home-grown strategy. Yet that notion would be misleading.
The Rays represent an interesting mix of home-grown and imported youth. The team has seen some of its own draftees become core members, like Carl Crawford (1999, 2nd round), B.J. Upton (2002, 1st round), Rocco Baldelli (2000, 1st round), James Shields (2000, 16th round) and Evan Longoria (2006, 1st round).
"They’ve done a good job drafting people,” said Rays outfielder (and former Red Sox) Eric Hinske. “We’ve got a good team, man. We’ve got good players—good young players. They’re not arbitration eligible yet, so they’re making $400,000.”
But Tampa has supplemented that group with a number of top prospects from other organizations. Scott Kazmir, heisted from the Mets in 2004 for Victor Zambrano, represents the most notable example, but the Rays have quietly stockpiled a number of young players who followed indirect prospect paths.
In 2005, Dioner Navarro was used by the Yankees as a prospect centerpiece needed to acquire Randy Johnson. In 2006, Tampa extracted him from the Dodgers as part of a return for Mark Hendrickson. This year, he was an All-Star catcher for the American League.
Edwin Jackson had one been considered one of the top pitching prospects in baseball while with the Dodgers. But his star fell quickly, and so the Rays were able to acquire him from the Dodgers in 2006 for closer Danys Baez.
Last offseason, Tampa made a splash with a prospect-for-prospect deal, sending Rookie of the Year runner-up Delmon Young to Minnesota in exchange for 24-year-old, former first-round pitcher Matt Garza. Garza is 11-9 with a 3.55 ERA this year.
Young players who did not have the luxury of enduring growing pains elsewhere have been afforded that opportunity in Tampa Bay. There is, to be sure, a lesson about a key principle of creating a small-market powerhouse.
“Patience,” said Rays outfielder Cliff Floyd, who signed a one-year, $3 million deal this offseason. “You need a lot of these guys to grow up and learn how to play the game the right way…If you allow guys to grow and you know you have good athletes, something like this can work out for you.”
PSYCHOLOGY AND A WINNING MODEL
Yet for a perennial cellar-dweller to emerge as a contender, more than talent proved necessary. There were times when the Rays seemed defeated even before they played. Former manager Lou Piniella spent much of his time in Tampa Bay bemoaning the failure of his organization to invest in proven veterans.
His implication was clear. The young Rays roster, as constructed, was incapable of competing with the big boys of the A.L. East.
The Rays felt a need to challenge that psychology in order to create a winning environment, a fact that was acknowledged when the franchise dropped the "Devil Rays" logo in favor of their new identity as the "Rays" of sunshine. Manager Joe Maddon, who replaced Piniella following the 2005 season, was a significant part of that, even as his team endured plenty of lumps. In 2006, Tampa went 61-101 and finished in last place. In 2007, they went 66-96 and finished in last place.
Still, Maddon proved unrelenting in casting an optimistic air. He would speak with certainty about the winning future that was close at hand, about the emergence of Kazmir and Shields as cornerstones of a playoff-worthy Rays pitching staff.
He felt compelled to challenge resignation in the face of baseball’s superpowers and to speak of the winning culture that was being formed. Maddon understood that his message struck some as pie-in-the-sky, but he also recognized a need to ignore his skeptics.
“I thought from the beginning (that) you’ve got to push at that notion (that the playoffs were hopeless),” said Maddon. “I’ve always gotten rolls of the eyes. It’s okay. I’ve been part of all this eye-rolling in the past. If you truly believe something, if you really do, you can absorb all that.”
In practical terms, Maddon felt that a winning culture could be created by an emphasis on proper execution. Mistake-free baseball, he felt, could prove a difference maker, since his team would more likely have to win taut affairs than simply overwhelm opponents.
That being the case, efficiency—the ability to create outs rather than give them away, taking the extra base and denying it to opponents—represented a crucial principle.
“If you can get your team to play with the understanding of play the game, execute the game properly, then you have a chance to play against these teams and be successful,” said Maddon. “If you choose not to do that, they’ll always beat you somehow, be it by their lack of mistakes or the fact that they’re overwhelmingly better, particularly offensively.
“If you’re going to play against (the Red Sox) and the Yankees and be successful, you cannot make mistakes,” he continued. “They normally have the talent to play through a bad lie. We don’t. We have to drive straight. We can’t make the same kind of mistakes they can.”
The Rays have fulfilled that mandate. The team leads the majors in defensive efficiency (a stat that measures how often a ball in play is turned into an out).
One year after they ranked last in the majors by converting just 66.2 percent of balls in play into outs, the team has jumped to a 71.4 percent and has allowed the second fewest runs per game (4.0) in the American League.
In limiting the Red Sox lineup—which had destroyed opposing pitching staffs for the better part of six weeks—to nine runs in 32 innings while winning two of three games in Boston, the Rays underscored that their run prevention is championship caliber.
SUSTAINABILITY FOR THE LONG HAUL
The champagne might as well be chilling in Tampa. Sometime in the coming weeks, the Rays are a certainty to celebrate the first postseason appearance (the first finish of better than fourth place, in fact) in the 11-season history of the franchise.
“Hopefully,” said Floyd, “this is not a one-year deal.”
The Rays are optimistic that they are no flash in the pan. Their centerpiece players are young—Kazmir, Shields, Jackson, Garza, Navarro, Upton, Crawford, Baldelli and Longoria are all 27 or younger—and would seem to have their peak seasons ahead of them.
The team has made a concerted effort, too, to gain both cost certainty and value by locking up several of those players to long-term deals. The Rays startled the baseball world by signing Longoria, after roughly a week of time in the majors, to a six-year, $17.5 million deal with three options that could make him a bargain through 2014.
Kazmir signed a three-year, $28.5 million extension at the start of this year. Shields will be paid $10.25 million over the next three years, and then the Rays have three options that could keep him around for an addition $28 million. Tampa holds a pair of options on Crawford that would pay him $8.25 million next year and $10 million in 2010.
“It’s really important for us to create an environment in Tampa Bay where players want to play. We didn’t have that a couple years ago,” said Silverman. “We wouldn’t have had James Shields and Scott Kazmir and Evan Longoria sign deals if they didn’t see Tampa Bay as a great place to play for the next five to 10 years. But they do, and that helps the cause.”
With such core players—plus a raft of tantalizing prospects behind them, most notably 2007 top overall draft pick David Price—the Rays believe they can compete for the long haul. Even so, the team acknowledges that its margin for error or misfortune is slim.
Though the Rays lineup has endured a rash of injuries, their pitching has been incredibly healthy. The rotation of Kazmir, Shields, Garza, Jackson and Andy Sonnanstine has made 137 of the team’s 144 starts.
In a year when the rotation might have endured normal attrition, the team might have had to retreat, traded veterans for prospects and retooled. There will invariably be some time in the coming years when Tampa must do just that. There may be a season when the Rays will have to do what Oakland has done in 2008, shedding tens of millions of dollars in major-league payroll so that they can pour money into amateur talent in the draft and internationally.
Even so, the team believes that more often than not, its young and affordable talent should permit it to sustain legitimate postseason aspirations, despite the formidable division where they play.
“We don’t have the ability like a couple of clubs in the American League East to contend every year,” said Silverman. “We can’t necessarily fill holes. We can’t take on a lot of financial risk. But it’s still workable.
“We don’t have the ability to be competitive every year in a 10-year period. But if we play our cards right, we have a chance to six years, seven years out of ten, to go into spring training with a chance. That’s our goal.”
That long-term goal has now led to a short-term one. A team that has known only defeat at the hands of divisional powerhouses is now on the cusp of pounding down the door to the playoffs. The Rays increasingly understand the unique nature of that accomplishment.
“What this team has done is very special,” said Rays first baseman Pena. “To be a part of it is awesome.”
Alex Speier is a Senior Writer for WEEI.com.