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The Rays win without tanking

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone loves an underdog, and in today's professional sports landscape there may not be a better underdog story than the Rays, a team that continues to field competitive teams despite vying against the game's wealthiest.

The Rays' front office, on the tightest of budgets, deserves a great deal of credit for this accomplishment. Their ability and willingness to balance current and future needs is especially striking in light of current MLB concerns that some teams are intentionally playing to lose.

As we come to the close of hot stove season, let's take a minute to appreciate what the team has accomplished.  We'll review standings, budgets and system rankings, and compare their recent efforts to the ex-Rays GM led Los Angeles Dodgers, a team that is spending hoards of ownership money.

We'll lock it up with a look at the current front office and their most recent moves, which seem to have positioned the team to add an improved 2016 offense to their historically good pitching and defense.

The Numbers Game: The Standings and Budgets

Within the AL East, the 2015 Rays paid the least $935,620 for each win. Next in line were the Blue Jays at $1,251,783 and the Orioles at $1,467,440. The most expensive of the bunch were the Red Sox at $2,162,717 and the Yankees were last with a cost of $2,453,711 per win.

This efficient success has been a hallmark of the franchise since 2008, the year the Rays turned the corner and finished 1st in the AL East despite spending just over $43.7 million, approximately $90 million less than the second place Red Sox who spent over $133 million that year.

In 2009, the Rays finished 3rd in the AL East with an 84 win season, spending $63 million while the Yankees and Red Sox totalled $323 million between them. The Rays took back 1st place in 2010, slipped to 2nd place in 2011, and won 90 games in 2012, good for 3rd place in the Division.

Over that span the Rays' payroll never surpassed $78million. The Yankees, meanwhile, never spent less than $215 million, the Red Sox had a low of $121 million, the Blue Jays have spent $119 or more since 2013, and the Orioles have worked their way up to a high of $118 million in 2015. With the recent spending spree of the Jays and Orioles, it's no wonder that the Rays are finally showing a slight slip in the standings, finishing 4th in the division over the last 2 seasons.

This isn't merely a story of David vs Goliath folks. it's David vs an entire gang of Goliaths.

The Numbers Game: The System Rankings

If you're thinking that the Rays were able to get as much as they did by building one of the most consistently highly rated systems in MLB, you're absolutely correct. But it's not as easy as it seems on the surface. Thanks to arbitration top players get expensive quickly.  The Rays are constantly searching for deals that allow them to replenish the system with young, cost controlled talent.

From 2008 through 2015, the Rays system has been ranked as follows by Baseball America:

2008 1st, 2009 4th, 2010 1st, 2011 2nd, 2012 8th, 2013 4th, 2014 20th, 2015 12th

When you can constantly promote players and still maintain a system with enough talent to be ranked in the top 3rd of the league 7 years out of 8, you know you've done an outstanding job.

Throughout the 2008-2015 stretch, the Rays have identified talent in other organizations that help them compete fairly quickly. You don't have to look any further than one of the more recent acquisitions of both Brad Boxberger and Logan Forsythe from the Padres, both of which were instrumental to keeping the Rays above .500 in 2015.

At the time of the trade, if I had told you that Forsythe would become the Rays MVP and that Box would save 41 games, you would have called me crazy. But now that it's in the books, let's recognize that the front office did an outstanding job of recognizing and acquiring talents that allowed them to field a competitive team in 2015 despite injuries.

Andrew Friedman: Rays vs Dodgers Edition

There's no easier way to explain just how well the Rays front office has done - with or without one of its stars, Andrew Friedman - than to look at what he accomplished with the Rays compared to what he accomplished with the Dodgers (so far) after Fangraphs named him the best off-season acquisition of the Dodgers in 2015.

With the Rays, Friedman completed some outstanding deals, such as:

  • Acquiring Ben Zobrist and Mitch Talbot from the Astros in return for Aubrey Huff
  • Trading Delmon Young to the Twins in return for Jason Bartlett and Matt Garza, and eventually flipping Garza to the Cubs in return for a package that included Chris Archer and Brandon Guyer
  • Getting good value for 1.5 years of the best pitcher in franchise history by landing Drew Smyly, Nick Franklin, and Willy Adames
  • Signing some key players such as Carlos Pena and Fernando Rodney, spending wisely in the process
  • Although we can point to some missed draft selections, such as Tim Beckham over Buster Posey, it happens and they still drafted well enough to maintain one of the best systems in MLB throughout his tenure in TB
That was with the Rays. He never took on major and lengthy salaries and certainly didn't offer to carry anyone's contract.
In his short time in Los Angeles, he has completed transactions including:
  • Traded the affordable and talented Dee Gordon and Dan Haren for a package highlighted by Andrew Heaney only to flip him for the more expensive and much older Howie Kendrick
  • Traded OF Hector Olivera - covering his $28 million signing bonus - and 5 other prospects to land future top 100 prospect Jose Peraza, Luis Avilan, and Alex Wood amongst others
  • Traded Matt Kemp and Tim Federowicz for Yasmani Grandal and Joe Wieland. What makes this a notable move is the $18 million the Dodgers covered in 2015, a surprisingly small portion of the $44.6 million the team spent to have players on the field with other teams
  • Although some may call the 2015 season a success for the Dodgers since they made the playoffs, they spent over $291 million, $34 million more than they spent in 2014. To put that in perspective, that comprises more than what the Rays have spent over the last 4 seasons
What explains Friedman's new, spendthrift ways?

Well, I'd suggest this comparison: have you ever driven down road undergoing construction, and you're forced to drive through rows of pylons? Don't you find that for that stretch of road, you drive as straight as an arrow, knowing that inches left or right could make you knock them over? Well, that's essentially the maneuvering room the Rays front office has to work with.

Now picture a beautiful, unobstructed highway with no potholes and the the police all on coffee break. That's the maneuvering room he now has to operate with in Los Angeles. Nobody's saying it's easy, and it's evident when they went as far as hiring Alex Anthopoulos to help him find his way in 2016. If anything, it's harder to focus in that environment since you're not stuck between the cones, trying to get out of the construction zone.

Matt Silverman and Company

With that context, let's take a look at the most recent performance under the leadership of President of Baseball Operations Matt Silverman and Vice President of Baseball Operations Chaim Bloom and Erik Neander.

There were some glaring issues to address this off season, and most people would have agreed it was going to cost the Rays some top of the line pitching to obtain what they needed to compete in the AL East. But if I would have told Rays fans when the off season began that the Rays would add the pieces listed below with the player costs listed below, I would have been called many names:
  • Added: Corey Dickerson, Steve Pearce, Logan Morrison, Brad Miller, Danny Farquhar, Hank CongerKevin Padlo, and pitching depth Chase Whitley, Jhan Marinez, Dana Eveland, Adam Wilk, Eddie Gamboa, Tyler Sturdevant, and Kyle McPherson
  • CostNate KarnsJake McGeeGerman MarquezC.J. Riefenhauser, Boog Powell
  • Lost: Joey Butler, Tyler Goeddel (Rule 5), Joey Rickard (Rule 5)
Not only did the Rays front office aggressively address deficits, but they managed to do so responsibly, remaining well within they budget constraints.

When you can add a starting SS, a respectable 1B tandem, a powerful LF/DH, a hard hitting and talented C, four great RP options, and a tremendous 3B prospect and all it costs you is a starter (without a place on the roster), a recently injured closer, two 10-20 range prospects, and an extraneous bullpen piece, you've done an outstanding job and deserve all of the praise you can handle.

The Future

Nobody can predict the future, and nobody can tell you that all of these deals will in fact make the Rays a powerhouse at the plate. But it is clear that this front office cares about winning. There's little doubt that this team will go into 2016 much better prepared to compete than they were at the end of 2015.

MLB owners are expressing concerns about teams like the Astros, accused of "tanking" in order to stockpile high draft picks. There are owners and MLB officials who are taking a hard look at teams (e.g. the Astros have had some $25 million payrolls of late) that are pocketing revenue sharing funds instead of investing them in payroll.

The Rays' days of drafting high are long gone, but their ability to field competitive teams year after year with a limited payroll is, and will continue to be, commendable.