The players have changed, but the roster-building strategy hasn’t. For the Rays, it’s not realistic to spend big in free agency. Sometimes they’ll be able to find fits, but they need to draft, develop, and identify players in other organizations who can help contribute to a winner.
How does the roster construction of the franchise’s two American League champions compare?
Traded for as major leaguer
The quantities of players is roughly the same, but there are differences in the roles these players filled on each team. In 2008, it’s how much of the bullpen was built. Of the seven relievers on the World Series roster, five were acquired as big leaguers in trades, including some of their most trusted relievers. Grant Balfour, J.P. Howell, and Dan Wheeler led the team in appearances that World Series with three each.
A similarity is the presence of one big trade adding two core players on each roster. In 2008, it was the Delmon Young trade, landing the Rays their 2008 team MVP in Jason Bartlett and Matt Garza, a quality starter behind Scott Kazmir and James Shields. In 2020, it was trading Chris Archer — acquired by the Rays when they traded Garza away — for Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows. Meadows has never gotten on track this season while recovering from COVID-19, but he remains a key member of the franchise moving forward.
Each team also had its fair share of post-hype prospects. Edwin Jackson and Dioner Navarro were both in their age-22 seasons when they debuted for the Devil Rays in 2006. The former top-50 prospects hadn’t yet established themselves in the majors at that point, but by 2008, they were solid contributors. Navarro was even an All-Star.
In 2020, Manny Margot, Hunter Renfroe, and Mike Zunino were all already more experienced than Jackson and Navarro, but they were all players who many felt had not lived up to expectations early in their major league careers.
Drafting — and the development of those drafted players — was a bigger part of the team’s success in 2008. Among that group, only Evan Longoria was an All-Star that season, but Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton, Shields, and Andy Sonnanstine were all key parts of the pitching and defense that turned the franchise from a doormat into a pennant winner.
The 2020 team doesn’t have as many draft picks on the roster, but the contributions from those players were enormous. Brandon Lowe was the team’s top everyday hitter, while Kevin Kiermaier remained one of the game’s top defensive players. On the mound, Blake Snell is a Cy Young winner and still one of the team’s best starters.
Traded for as prospect
The 2008 Rays trailed in quantity, but they made it count. Despite mounting injuries, Kazmir was still a top starter that season and reached his second All-Star Game. He lived up to the billing as a top prospect. Ben Zobrist was not a top prospect and hadn’t yet emerged as one of the game’s top versatile players. However, he showed significant improvement in his role and became an everyday player the next season.
Willy Adames was not ranked as highly as Kazmir when he was acquired, but he was the centerpiece of the trade that sent David Price to Detroit. He was still in the Midwest League at the time of the trade, and it was no guarantee that he would develop the way he did.
None of the other prospect acquisitions on the 2020 team were highly touted. Randy Arozarena was known — at the time of the trade, he was the Cardinals’ No. 10 prospect and had been on their postseason roster, but it’s unlikely anyone thought he would provide the spark he did once the Rays added him to the active roster.
Ryan Yarbrough was not even that heralded. After a year in the organization, he was ranked as the No. 26 prospect. Since he made his big league debut though, he leads the team in innings pitched and has become a trusted member of the staff, working in different roles depending on what manager Kevin Cash needs.
Signed as major league free agent
Neither roster — but especially the 2008 club — spent a lot, but each team made it count. Akinori Iwamura led the team in plate appearances and helped solidify the defense, and Cliff Floyd hit well in a limited role. Trever Miller limited lefties to a .612 OPS out of the bullpen.
Charlie Morton has been worth every bit of his guaranteed $30 million. Since he signed, he leads the staff in innings and WAR. In addition to his excellent work in the regular season, he’s won all five of his postseason starts with the team and hasn’t allowed more than one earned run in any of them.
Signed as minor league free agent
This is one area where the two rosters aren’t comparable. Carlos Pena had already played over 500 games in his major league career, but he needed an injury late in spring training to make the team in 2007. He hit 46 home runs that season and was one of the game’s best sluggers for three seasons.
The 2020 Phillies had the second-worst bullpen in league history. They had John Curtiss in Triple A in 2019 and Aaron Loup in the majors in 2018. The Rays were able to find roles for them as members of a deep pitching staff.
Mike Brosseau was a nondrafted player — one of seven who have been signed and debuted with the Rays in team history. He was extremely productive in a limited role playing everywhere on the diamond.
Diego Castillo is just the start of what the Rays hope is a long line of international free agents contributing in the big leagues. He’s one of their most trusted relievers, and better players could be coming. Wander Franco is the top prospect in baseball, and Baseball America ($) ranks Vidal Brujan and Ronaldo Hernandez among their top 10 prospects.
Minor league Rule 5 picks rarely make the majors, but the Rays have taken two from the Astros go on to reach the majors — Ryan Thompson, and Enderson Franco, who pitched a few innings for the Giants in 2019.
Building a team that reaches the World Series is difficult. It takes vision and hard work from executives, scouts, and developmental staff. How the 2020 team came together is impressive. Using every avenue possible, the front office put together one of the deepest rosters in baseball that was able to withstand numerous injuries.