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:
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
- 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
Matt Silverman and Company
- Added: Corey Dickerson, Steve Pearce, Logan Morrison, Brad Miller, Danny Farquhar, Hank Conger, Kevin Padlo, and pitching depth Chase Whitley, Jhan Marinez, Dana Eveland, Adam Wilk, Eddie Gamboa, Tyler Sturdevant, and Kyle McPherson
- Cost: Nate Karns, Jake McGee, German Marquez, C.J. Riefenhauser, Boog Powell
- Lost: Joey Butler, Tyler Goeddel (Rule 5), Joey Rickard (Rule 5)