Image credit: Willy Adames (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)
Going back to the beginning of the 2018 season, the Rays were being called a lot of things.
A December 2017 trade of franchise player Evan Longoria and a series of deals the opening week of spring training that saw veterans Jake Odorizzi, Corey Dickerson and Steven Souza Jr. shipped out for lesser returns made the Rays a popular topic of industry-wide conversation—and consternation.
They were labeled a “disgrace,” an “embarrassment” and “unwatchable” by some members of the national media, accused by others of being “stripped for parts,” of “giving up” on the season, and, most egregiously, of tanking.
And those were some of the more polite descriptions.
After a 3-12 start, the local newspaper raised the question if this could be the worst Rays team in the franchise’s 20-year history.
Team officials pushed back a bit on the tanking allegations but primarily asked for patience. They insisted they had a plan, one that first led to more deals at the 2018 trade deadline—Chris Archer, Wilson Ramos and Nate Eovaldi were the biggest names to go. Further, the organization said it required time and roster space for young players it had been accumulating and preparing to transition to the major leagues.
Despite the Rays’ challenging start, the club won 90 games in 2018.
More importantly, Tampa Bay built the foundation that, combined with a handful of additional offseason moves, would lead to continued success.
In 2019, the Rays, with many of those young players in key roles, got off to a major league-best start and rallied under manager Kevin Cash’s guidance to win 96 games and earn a wild card entry to the American League playoffs, their first trip to the postseason since 2013.
Along the way, Tampa Bay weathered a string of injuries that stripped its rotation to one full-time starter, rebuilt its bullpen on the fly and needed contributions from a team-record 57 players.
Beating the Athletics in the AL Wild Card Game and taking the eventual pennant-winning Astros to five full games in the Division Series made it even better.
And now the Rays are being named some other choice things by the national media. Tampa Bay is Baseball America’s Organization of the Year for 2019.
“What comes to mind is 2019 being a validation of sorts,” senior vice president and general manager Erik Neander said, “or a continued validation building on 2018, of an incredible amount of teamwork from all facets of our organization for the processes that were installed years ago, for the efforts and decisions made by many.
“Validation in a sense for the multi-year effort that brings things to that point and the incredible amount of teamwork that went into constructing a roster able to win 96 games using 57 players.”
Making it more rewarding, Neander said, was the path they took to get there, and how promising the road ahead looks, similar, they hope, to the 2008 to 2013 stretch in which the Rays made the playoffs four times in six seasons.
In other words, the Rays hope 2019 is just the start of something.
“When we backed it up a little bit to refocus on strengthening our system and just our organizational talent base, it was done with a goal of experiencing sustainable success,” Neander said. “We were fortunate enough to experience a run like that previously in this organization’s history, and we’re eager to get back to that point.
“With respect to where we’re at, it’s incredibly difficult to win 96 games. A lot of things have to go your way. It’s incredibly difficult to win 90 games; we did that the year before.
“Having said that, with the relative youth of our roster, the players who are coming back—there are constant challenges we face given the division we play in and some of the revenue disparities—but I do believe part of what made the final outcome of this season a little bit easier to stomach, relatively speaking, is we believe we are well positioned to reach that point again.
“And if things go our way we feel like we should have the ability and the level of competitiveness to go further.”
Neander’s boss, principal owner Stuart Sternberg, is confident the Rays can—and will—go further. He notes the quality of players the organization has on the major league roster and the five-star talent they have stockpiled in one of the game’s top farm systems, headlined by 18-year-old shortstop Wander Franco, the No. 1 overall prospect in the game.
“There’s so much to build on right now,” Sternberg said after the ALDS Game 5 loss in Houston. “The experience has been good and we know we basically control our own destiny going forward.
“We’ll have some work to do in the offseason, like we always do—and I’m always confident of us doing some really good stuff in the offseason. We’ll have less to do than some other years because of all the work we’ve done to get to this point. I think given the group we have here and in the minors, we’re set up pretty good certainly for next season, and beyond that a little bit . . .
“We’re coming right into the sweet spot . . . You don’t want it to end like this (with an ALDS defeat), but you couldn’t write a better script for how it looks for 2020 and ’21. You’ve got a good, sizable amount of players who will be a significant part of our championship team next year.”
Technically, the roots of the Rays’ current success go back nearly 10 years, to the 2010 draft, when Midwest area scout Tom Couston convinced his bosses to use a 31st-round pick on a junior college outfielder named Kevin Kiermaier, who has turned into a three-time Gold Glove winner and a key part of the Rays’ pitching-and-defense model.
High school lefthander Blake Snell was drafted the next year. Jose Alvarado and Yonny Chirinos were international signees in 2012. The first of 24 trades that impacted the 2019 roster was made in July 2014, when part of the return then-baseball operations chief Andrew Friedman got for trading ace David Price to the Tigers was shortstop Willy Adames, then an 18-year-old in the low Class A Midwest League.
What also makes the Rays’ resurrection noteworthy is how it was carried through three different regimes.
Friedman left after the 2014 season, lured by a big-bucks opportunity with the Dodgers.
Team president Matt Silverman took over baseball operations and launched an aggressive plan to rebuild the somewhat depleted farm system, overseeing 36 trades, involving nearly 100 players, in a three-year period.
“Matt shepherded a transition of sorts as we shifted our focus to increase the depth and the talent in our system,” Neander said.
After the 2017 season, Silverman returned to the role of president and turned the baseball business over to Neander and Chaim Bloom, who worked as his top lieutenant until being hired in November to run baseball operations for the Red Sox, who are hoping Bloom can bring some smaller-market sensibilities to their operation.
“Being recognized for an award like this is the outcome of many, many years of hard work led by the entirety of our staff, top to bottom,” Neander said. “There are a lot of visibly challenging decisions along the way, and a lot of decisions behind closed doors that certainly led to the moments we had this year.
“This was the ultimate team achievement. This was a true team effort in every sense of the word. The fingerprints of our staff, top to bottom, were found somewhere on our major league roster and our major league season. If this wasn’t a team effort, I don’t know what is.”
About that there can be no doubt, given how much went into making the Rays great again.
The work done by the Rays’ research and development crew and the pro scouting staff to identify players is particularly noteworthy. The organization added outfielder Austin Meadows and righthander Tyler Glasnow from the Pirates and outfielder Tommy Pham from the Cardinals in 2018 trades.
Following that season, the Rays acquired reliever Emilio Pagan, third baseman Yandy Diaz and catcher Mike Zunino in trades. Tampa Bay then added catcher Travis d’Arnaud and reliever Nick Anderson as the 2019 season unfolded.
The Rays’ player development staff deserves credit for getting young players ready to contribute in Tampa Bay. Examples include second baseman Brandon Lowe, first baseman Nate Lowe and undrafted third baseman Mike Brosseau, all of whom were rookies in 2019. Two-way player Brendan McKay, the fourth overall pick in 2017, was also ready to pitch in.
Ownership deserves credit for accommodating the addition of free agent starter Charlie Morton on a two-year deal at a franchise record $15 million per, despite their overall financial limitations, evidenced by their major league-low $63 million Opening Day payroll in 2019.
Cash, the manager, deserves credit for keeping the team confident and prepared despite the staggering number of injuries and, in concert with pitching coach Kyle Snyder, implementing the unorthodox “opener” strategy they unveiled in 2018, and a matchup-based bullpen they used early and often, some days forcing opposing hitters to face a different pitcher in each at-bat.
Neander and the front office deserve credit for swinging in-season deals, particularly for Anderson, who recorded a 0.66 WHIP and struck out 41 batters in 21.1 innings over 23 appearances after the trade.
“It’s across the board,” Neander said. “The work that goes into keeping a season like that afloat requires remarkable effort and contributions from everybody we have.”
There will be similar collaborations going forward because the Rays will be looking to integrate more players from their once again promising farm system.
Besides Franco, the Rays have seven other players ranked among the Top 100 Prospects, headed by McKay, a lefthander/DH, and also including lefthanders Matthew Liberatore and Shane McClanahan, righthanders Brent Honeywell and Shane Baz, catcher Ronaldo Hernandez and second baseman Vidal Brujan.
And they feel like they have more coming after that group, with prospects once again stashed at every level. As much as the moves and decisions in the major leagues are most obvious, the work the Rays did in restocking and rebuilding the minor league side of the organization was just as integral to their 2019 resurgence.
A farm system that for years had been considered among the game’s best, and for several years ranked No. 1 by Baseball America, had fallen to 20th in 2014 and it took until 2018 to get back into the top 10.
Knowing how vital it was to have many young, talented and inexpensive players coming through their system, the Rays used a three-pronged approach to revitalize the farm. First, they improved their yield in the draft by adjusting and advancing their processes. Second, they expanded their financial commitment to the international market Finally, they increased their pro scouting coverage specifically at the lower levels of the minors to maximize their returns in trades.
The process is ongoing as the Rays continue churning their roster, always looking to flip older, more expensive players for younger, less expensive ones. The 2018 Chris Archer trade with the Pirates illustrates this. Meadows and Glasnow were the headliners, but the Rays also had robust reports on Baz, then a teenager in the Rookie-level Appalachian League.
Of the 28 players on the Rays’ two playoff rosters in 2019, 19 were acquired by trade, as were nine of the other 13 on the season-ending roster or injured list.
With all the criticism the Rays took during their restructuring of the roster, their social media department finally decided to clap back. A tweet posted Oct. 5, 2018, was headlined “90 wins later” and included several of the critical comments before shifting to highlights. They doubled down this spring with another post sampling additional criticisms and skepticisms, with players responding with a catchphrase that was also atop the post:
“We’re not listening.”
With another 96 wins this season, another banner to hang at Tropicana Field, a bright future ahead and now the Organization of the Year award, the Rays have shown they know what they’re talking about.