Most interesting team in baseball? The Tampa Bay Rays might fit that description. As usual.
No team should feel better about itself than the Tampa Bay Rays, who are 1 1/2 games out of first place despite a huge roster overhaul and a ridiculous number of injuries. At 20-16, they’re four games above .500 for the first time this season after three straight victories over the Yankees.
Their pitching staff is among the best in baseball despite losing starters Alex Cobb and Drew Smyly for the season and not yet getting an inning out of Matt Moore. Meanwhile, their offense is a work in progress, which is another way of saying it hasn’t been very good. Still, as they survey the AL East landscape, the Rays have to be thinking, “Why not us?”
All of this comes after a tumultuous off-season in which two franchise cornerstones departed. President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman, who’d been instrumental in making the Rays one of the smartest and most efficient franchises in the game, took the same job with the Dodgers. And then Joe Maddon left to manage the Cubs.
Rays President Matt Silverman took over for Friedman and sprinted into the job by largely taking apart the roster and then putting it back together. When he was done, he was absolutely convinced that the Rays would be good enough to contend again.
They’ve been so consistently good through the years that we’ve come to take their success for granted. That’s perhaps the ultimate tribute to the organization owner Stuart Sternberg constructed. Much like Billy Beane in Oakland, the Rays have given every franchise a blueprint to succeed without spending huge amounts of money. There’s less margin for error, but the Rays are a reminder that smarts and competent people can make up for a lack of resources.
Since the beginning of the 2008 season, only the Yankees and Cardinals have won more regular-season games than the Rays. But the Rays have done it with a payroll that ranks 25th on average. This season, only the Astros and Diamondbacks have smaller payrolls than Tampa Bay’s $75 million.
To focus on what the Rays don’t have is to miss the larger point. They have plenty. First, they’ve got brains. Friedman departed, but his baseball operations staff remained largely intact, and Silverman had been involved at every level. And when he hired a new manager, he went for 37-year-old Kevin Cash, a former backup catcher known throughout the sport for his intelligence and people skills. At this point, it’s hard to see Silverman making a better hire.
And these Rays are pretty much like a lot of those other Rays teams. In Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi and rookie Nate Karns at the top of a nice rotation, the Rays have a front three among the best in baseball. The Rays have already used eight starting pitchers and four rookies. They’ve sent five starting pitchers to the Disabled List six times. Yet their rotation leads the AL with a 3.48 ERA.
Resilience? The Rays have used 38 players, including 13 rookies, tops in the majors, according to Elias Sports Bureau. They have eight rookies on the roster at the moment. Seven players have made their Rays debut, including five who make their major league debut.
Tampa Bay’s bullpen is loaded with power arms, including closer Jake McGee, who was just activated after missing the first six weeks of the season recovering from elbow surgery.
(The Rays have allowed two runs or less 19 times, which is four more than any other team.)
What makes the Rays intriguing is that their young guys–outfielders Steven Souza and Kevin Kiermaier and starter Alex Colome–have a chance to get better as they become more comfortable in the big leagues. Rookies have hit 13 of their 31 home runs and started 15 of their 36 games.
While they may be far from a perfect team, there may not be one in the AL East. Like the Yankees, Tampa Bay’s strengths may more than offset its questionable areas. if they end up back in the playoffs, it would be the fifth time in eight seasons, which qualifies as sustained success. And if they do, it would be the sweetest one since 2008 when they shocked the baseball world by going from 96 losses to 97 victories and an American League pennant.