The Tampa Bay Rays finished the 2020 regular season as the best team in the American League with a 40-20 record, ushering in a new wave of analytical thinking in MLB front offices. In 2019, they rode the best pitching staff in the MLB to a 96 win season and pushed the eventual AL Champion Houston Astros to 5 games in the ALDS. The 2020 Rays ranked 3rd in ERA and 5th in SIERA (Skill-Interactive Earned Run Average), and with a productive lineup that ranked within the top 10 in fWAR and wRC+. The Rays have the lowest payroll in baseball, but they have had success over the past couple of seasons.
They have also maintained the top farm system according to MLB Pipeline, featuring number 1 prospect Shortstop Wander Franco among a league-leading 6 top 100 prospects. The Rays had major contributions from their bullpen, throwing over 50% of their innings, with their starting pitchers only averaging 4.3 innings per start. This transition away from starting pitching and towards diverse bullpens with many options of lefties and righties, or power pitchers and finesse pitchers is part of the analytical new wave of baseball.
In 2020, the Rays rode new wave analytics to their second pennant and 1st since 2008. They had unbelievable performances from breakout stars, ALCS MVP Randy Arozarena, veteran catcher Mike Zunino and 36-year-old starting pitcher Charlie Morton. Three players who flew under other teams’ radars led to Rays to a World Series berth.
The Rays’ New Wave of Draft Talent
Unlike many recent successful teams like the 2017 Houston Astros and 2016 Chicago Cubs, the Rays have not drafted a lot of their young talent. In the Rays starting lineup, just two players were drafted by the team. In 2010, the Rays picked Kevin Kiermaier with their 31st round pick; ten years later in 2020, he was their 3rd most productive position player with a 1.3 fWAR, combining elite defense with a slightly below-average bat.
The Rays best player in 2020, Brandon Lowe, who led the team with a 2.3 fWAR and a 150 wRC+ (19th in MLB), was drafted by the Rays in the 3rd round in 2016. The Rays also picked up their ace, Blake Snell, in the 1st round of the 2011 draft. Since being called up in 2016, Snell has won a Cy Young award and made an All-Star appearance, while amassing 11.6 career fWAR in 556 career innings.
Notable international signings for the Rays include Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, Yonny Chirinos, Diego Castillo, Jose Alvarado, and top prospect Wander Franco. In December 2019, Tsutsugo was signed out of Japan for 2 years, 12 million. Chirinos and Alvarado missed the entire 2020 season due to injury and Tsutsugo struggled to adjust to major league pitching. In 2020, Castillo pitched 21.1 innings to a 1.59 ERA and 3.53 SIERA, while placing in the top 10% in exit velocity, xwOBA, and xERA.
The Rays have not made very many recent free agent signings but their most productive pitcher since 2019, Charlie Morton, was signed following his 2018 season. His two-year, 30 million dollar contract has provided great value to the Rays, as he has posted a 3.33 ERA since joining the team. After going undrafted in 2016, 2020 ALDS hero, infielder Mike Brosseau was signed by Tampa Bay.
New Wave of Trades
Unlike traditional contenders who trade their prospects for major league talent, the Rays have not hesitated to move on from significant producers on their major league roster. The new idea of pairing economics and baseball has brought the Rays to the forefront. Tampa Bay executives will make trades that they are winning in value, not always trading young guys and minor league talent to plug holes in their roster.
Although the Rays have been successful with their signings, it’s their trades that have put them in such an advantageous position. Former Rays Senior Vice President and current Red Sox GM, Chaim Bloom, and Rays GM Erik Neander worked out deals that have turned the Rays into a contender with an extremely bright future. After their contending window in the late 2010s and early 2010s, big pieces such as Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist, and David Price were shipped off, while manager Joe Maddon was replaced by Kevin Cash.
While the Rays didn’t get any notable pieces in return for Longoria, they were able to acquire SS Willy Adames in the deal that sent David Price to Detroit. The most notable of these trades, however, was the 2018 transaction that sent All-Star starting pitcher Chris Archer to Pittsburgh. In return, the Rays received OF Austin Meadows, SP Tyler Glasnow, two young stars, and pitcher Shane Baz, one of their many high ranking prospects.
This past offseason, the Rays made many moves that were questioned at the time, such as moving reliever Emilio Pagan coming off of his dominant 2019 campaign. They also traded their 2nd best position player, Tommy Pham and 2B Jake Cronenworth, to the Padres for outfielder Hunter Renfroe and middle infielder Xavier Edwards (#72 prospect) and young starting pitcher Matthew Liberatore for Cuban outfielder Randy Arozarena.
Although the Rays may have lost the Pham/Cronenworth trade with the Padres, it appears that the Pagan trade will work out for the Rays. The Arozarena trade with the Cardinals is shaping up to be an amazing move for the Rays, as Arozarena is mashing in the 2020 playoffs despite spending over half of the 2020 season at the Rays’ alternate site in Charlotte.
The Rays have gotten major contributions from Joey Wendle, who they traded a low-level catching prospect for, Yandy Diaz and Ji-man Choi, who were both acquired for major leaguers sold off at their peak value in Jake Bauers and Brad Miller.
Other impressive moves include trades for bullpen pieces that were seen as expendable for other organizations. Notably, the Rays were able to acquire relievers Pete Fairbanks, Oliver Drake, Colin Poche, and Chaz Roe for next to nothing, and they combined to pitch about 200 innings out of Kevin Cash’s bullpen over the last two seasons.
The New Wave of Baseball
Many of the executives that helped build this superpower have already left Tampa for bigger markets, where building a contender is aided by the large amounts of money in the organization. Former Rays GM Andrew Friedman has moved on to Los Angeles, where his Dodgers appear to be the favorite to win the National League for the foreseeable future. Former Rays VP Chaim Bloom was hired to be the GM of the Boston Red Sox following a disappointing 2019 season coming off of a World Series title in 2018.
The Friedman-built Dodgers have been able to remain a contender while maintaining financial flexibility and a great farm system. While Bloom hasn’t made too many moves in Boston, one of his first was trading 2018 AL MVP Mookie Betts to the aforementioned Dodgers.
In the 2020 ALDS, the Rays heroes included Mike Brosseau and Ji-man Choi rather than superstars like the Yankees’ Giancarlo Stanton and Gerrit Cole. Although the Yankees are also a very advanced analytical organization, they appeared to ditch the analytics in the ALDS, making moves like starting back-up catcher Kyle Higashioka over a great catcher in Gary Sanchez, starting Brett Gardner over Clint Frazier, or pulling Deivi Garcia after just one inning in Game 2. The Rays have found countless diamonds in the rough, turning other teams’ DFAs or minor-leaguers into productive everyday MLB players.
The Rays’ heartless strategy of decision making based on stats and analytics rather than names is a major reason why they are able to field a contender with such a small budget. Although the Rays don’t field a team of big-name stars like the New York Yankees or Houston Astros, they get similar production from their players. The Rays use platoon matchups and try to take advantage of their opponents’ weaknesses to beat teams with more star power.
With baseball shifting away from old stats and ideas like batting average and starting pitching, the Rays have been able to set the standard for the new wave of team building. Usually, with new innovations in baseball, teams with larger markets will start to adjust to said new wave, but small market teams like the Rays will continue to do what they can to compete. The Rays have a chance to win their first World Series in 2020, and it looks like they will be back for years to come.
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