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Construction of a pennant winner: Rays

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League Championship - Houston Astros v Tampa Bay Rays - Game Seven
MIZZOU!
Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

When it comes to constructing a team, the Dodgers and Rays don’t have drastically different approaches. After all, while you can’t exactly say that the Rays are a result of Andrew Friedman’s genius in 2020, it would be accurate to say that the current Dodgers GM had a large hand in providing the organizational philosophy that makes the Rays a successful franchise.

And yet, there is quite a bit of difference between how both teams constructed their roster. And it all has to do with money. The Dodgers can spend the money so they do. The Rays have been given a minuscule budget by their ownership so they have to do things like trade Tommy Pham and Evan Longoria, and the Dodgers would likely not do either of those things. They are forced to be aggressive on trades and try their best to keep their roster with as many league minimum guys as possible. Most good players price themselves out of the Rays budget by their second year of arbitration (i.e. Pham).

Draft

Being a cheap team that can’t spend money, you’d think the reason for the Rays recent success is because they are good at drafting. However, there are just five people on their roster who were actually drafted by the Rays. Of those five players, two of them were from the 2010 and 2011 drafts, which is not exactly what I would have guessed for a team that doesn’t pay its players past four years in the big leagues.

The 2010 draftee is Kevin Kiermaier, who was drafted in the 10th round, made his way to the big leagues by 2013, and ended up signing a 6 year, $53.5 million deal with four years to go until free agency after before the 2017 season. Unfortunately for the Rays, his bat quickly fell off a cliff and while he hasn’t exactly been bad, I think the Rays probably regret this deal. I’m sure they were hoping for more bang for their buck is what I’m saying.

They did a similar thing with 1st round pick Blake Snell, who signed a 5 year, $50 million deal before the 2019 season after a 1.89 ERA season in 2018. It’d be tempting to say something similar for Snell, except that it more illustrates how flukey his 2018 was, because he didn’t pitch that different in 2019. Higher K rate, same BB rate. His LOB% fell from 88% to 71% and BABIP against rose from .241 to .343. He also only made 23 starts in 107 IP so he was disappointing in that respect, but they’re still getting what they’re paying for despite a difference in ERA from 1.89 to 4.29.

The other three draftees are more what you’d expect from the Rays. Brandon Lowe was drafted in the 3rd round in 2015 and he’s still in just his second “full” season. Future starters Shane McClanahan (1st round, ‘17) and Josh Fleming (5th round, ‘18) are both pitching in their first season. In fact, in the case of McClanahan, his first MLB action is in the playoffs. I am not kidding you when I say that is the extent of players drafted by the Rays.

Amateur Free Agents

Okay, so they’re not reliant on their own draft picks, at least not directly. Surely they’ve signed international free agents who’ve contributed. Not really? They’ve signed just two players from different countries who’ve contributed to the 2020 squad. One of those players made three starts and needed Tommy John surgery. Yonny Chirinos was signed out of Venezuela in 2012. The other player, Diego Castillo, was signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2014. So that’s three starts and sort of their closer. They don’t have a closer, but he does have two saves in the playoffs and had four in the regular season.

Trades - Dumping Stars

I’m going to divide trades into different categories, because as you can probably guess, they make a lot of trades. They don’t seem to develop many of their own guys and they don’t sign many free agents, which pretty much just leaves trades. The Rays are really excellent at trading their star players at the right time - because they basically have to be. The Rays are paying two players $10 million or more. Cody Bellinger is being paid $11.5 million in his first year of arbitration and he was a Super Two player. A decent portion of their roster is getting rid of players who are about to be paid like Bellinger before they hit free agency.

Let’s start with the obvious trade: Chris Archer. At the 2018 trading deadline, the Rays traded Chris Archer for Austin Meadows, Tyler Glasnow, and Shane Baz. Meadows had a tough 2020, but was worth 4 fWAR last year. Glasnow has made only 33 starts as a Ray, but has been worth 4 fWAR in that time. And Baz is the 110th ranked prospect by Fangraphs. Archer meanwhile has been worth 1.5 fWAR as a Pirate. Meadows has four years of team control left while Glasnow has three. This trade will haunt Pirates fans for years.

After the 2019 season, the Rays traded Tommy Pham and Jake Cronenworth for Xavier Edwards and Hunter Renfroe. This has not turned out as well, but for a different reason than expected. Cronenworth was worth 1.5 fWAR in the short season while Pham was replacement level. Renfroe was supposed to replace Pham but has been below replacement level (-0.4 fWAR). Edwards is the 68th ranked prospect by FG, but has never had an ISO above .100 and his highest level is High A.

Way back at the 2014 trading deadline, the Rays traded David Price before he entered free agency in a three-team trade. The Rays received Drew Smyly, who gave them a fantastic seven starts to end the year, and then 12 good ones in an injury-plagued year before a disappointing final year with the Rays. They also got Willy Adames, who was a top 100 prospect at the time and became a top 20 one before debuting in 2018. He’s currently their starting SS and an above average player.

The trade does not end there, in fact it becomes a trade tree of its own. Smyly was in fact traded himself after that disappointing final year. In return, they got Ryan Yarborough, who has been a solid back of the rotation starter for the past three years for the Rays. They also got Mallex Smith with Yarborough. After being a bench player for one year, he was a 3.5 fWAR player and the Rays immediately traded him to the Mariners. They received Guillermo Heredia, current starting catcher Mike Zunino, and prospect Michael Plassmeyer (who I’ve been told, my parents know through being friends with his parents, although not close friends).

Prospect for Prospect Trades

Obviously, the Rays acquired Randy Arozarena for Matthew Liberatore. I know Jose Martinez is not a prospect, but I think Arozarena was the main target for the Rays and we know that Liberatore was the main target for the Cardinals. They also traded catching prospect Edgardo Rodriguez.

I am once again going to stretch the definition of a prospect for prospect trade, but the Rays traded Jonah Heim for Joey Wendle. Wendle, to that point in his career, had played in just 36 MLB games, but the reason I’m stretching here is because Wendle was not a prospect. He was 28 and had 36 career MLB games.

At the 2019 trading deadline, the Rays traded Nick Solak for Mizzou grad Peter Fairbanks. It was a sign they did not believe in Solak, who entered this season as the 109 prospect by FG. He had a 77 wRC+ this year (but has a career 95 in 91 career games when you combine it with last year). Fairbanks is just a reliever. After the 2016 season, the Rays traded Taylor Motter and Richie Shaffer, who had both seen MLB time but barely any, for Andrew Kittredge, Dalton Kelly, and Dylan Thompson. Kittredge, currently on the IL, is basically depth for the bullpen.

Pre-arbitration trades

Through his first 179 PAs, Ji-Man Choi was an 81 wRC+ hitter, and he was also limited defensively being only a first baseman. The Rays traded what I think was a year and change of Brad Miller for Choi, which has obviously proved to be a good trade. Choi has been an effective left side of a platoon for the Rays.

Before the season, the Rays traded reliever Emilio Pagan, with four years of team control, for prospect Logan Driscoll and Manuel Margot, who had entered arbitration for the first time. Somewhat of an unusual trade for them, trading for someone who just started making money. Margot was solid this year, but he has really exploded in the playoffs. Pagan did not have a very good season.

At the trading deadline in 2018, the Rays traded Matt Andriese, who functioned as a starter/swingman in parts of three seasons for the Rays, for backup catcher Michael Perez. In 93 PAs, Perez has -0.6 fWAR this year. The Rays also made a couple deadline deals this August. They traded prospect Lucius Fox for outfielder Brett Phillips from the Royals. They also traded a pitching prospect for reliever Cody Reed, who pitched 2.2 IP before getting hurt.

In December 2018, the Rays made a three-team deal with the Indians and Mariners. They were clearly the third team in the trade, with Edwin Encarnacion and Carlos Santana swapping places. The Indians got Jake Bauer from the Rays, the Rays got Cole Sulser and Yandy Diaz. Diaz has been considerably better than Bauers although he does have the unfortunate tendency to get really mad at pitchers who walk him for some reason.

At the trading deadline last year, the Rays traded reliever Ryne Stanek and outfield prospect Jesus Sanchez for elite reliever Nick Anderson and journeyman Trevor Richards. Richards barely played this season while Anderson has continued being an elite reliever. The Rays traded Nathan Eovaldi right before he was eligible for free agency for Jalen Beeks, who has been fine and is currently out after Tommy John surgery.

Reliever Colin Poche had a decent debut last season for the Rays and is out with Tommy John as well. The Rays got him, Anthony Banda and Solak, plus another prospect for Steven Souza Jr. Banda was purchased by the Giants, and Solak was traded in a trade you read about above. This was another three-team trade, with Souza going to the Dbacks, and Brandon Drury going to the Yankees.

Free Agents

One of the few free agent expenditures the Rays have sought appears to have been wise. Charlie Morton, who I wanted at the time, signed for 2 years, $30 million with a club option for next year. It’s the Rays so I can’t say for certain that club option will be accepted, especially with declined stats from last year, although he’s been excellent in the playoffs.

Mike Brosseau was an undrafted free agent back in 2016, so I suppose the spirit of things would place him in the drafted category. The Rays purchased utility guy Yoshi Tsutsugo for 2 years, $12 million. He was not great this year, though it did come with a .230 BABIP so there was some unluckiness.

Two members of their bullpen were signed. Lefty Aaron Loup was the established one, signing for 1 year, $1.65 million. The other guy, John Curtiss was a scrap heap signing what I imagine was a minor league deal with 17.1 career MLB innings with a career 6.75 ERA. He had a 1.80 ERA and 3.35 FIP in 25 IP this year. They also signed former Cardinal Ryan Sherriff, who pitched 9.2 IP with just two strikeouts, so they’re probably going to try avoid using him in the playoffs despite the 0.00 ERA.

Other

The Rays purchased reliever Chaz Roe from the Braves, who had pitched for four teams before playing for the Rays with around two years of service time of actually playing in the majors. They drafted Ryan Thompson in the 2018 Rule 5-AAA draft from the Houston Astros. He debuted this year and has been nothing special.

Conclusion

I guess since we’re Cardinals fans, it wouldn’t be a surprise that the primary reason for the Rays success is trades, but it is a little weird how little the on field product comes from people they drafted. This is probably the cost of trying to compete. They know they have a hole here or there so they have to make trades - which they usually have because a player either reaches free agency or prices himself out of their budget. So they make a move for some marginal player they can maybe platoon. Sometimes it works out (Choi), sometimes it doesn’t (Renfroe).

In comparison, the Cardinals don’t really make that many trades. Most of their trades are “we don’t have room on the 40 man roster for this many players, we need to trade someone” and things usually go from there. Most of us can recite every trade the Cardinals have made for the past few years. That would not be the case if we were Rays fans. There’s simply too many to keep track of, although we would certainly remember the Chris Archer trade. He’s going to be their Kent Bottenfield, especially with the way they make trades.

Here’s a similarity the Rays have with the Cardinals though: they don’t have any elite players. Go ahead check their roster. There’s nobody you can call a star. You can pinpoint players who might have a 4 WAR season - you could do the same with the Cards. Potential stars? Sure. Snell’s 2018 looks increasingly like a fluke, Glasnow is going to have to learn to stay healthy, Meadows had a bad 2020, and there were some super fluky elements to Adames and Arozarena’s seasons that suggest maybe they won’t keep this up. Brandon Lowe had a fantastic regular season, but if you combine his season with the playoffs, doesn’t seem like he’s there either.

I find that fascinating. Actually the more I look at this roster, the more I wonder how they won the second most games in baseball. I’m not trying to be disrespectful. It’s genuine curiosity. There was a question posed on twitter “How many Cardinals players would start on the Dodgers?” Which is not a particularly useful question to me since there are certain players who “don’t have a spot” but the Dodgers would play them if you insert them on their current roster such as Paul Goldschmidt, Paul DeJong, Kolten Wong, and Harrison Bader. Like no, DeJong isn’t playing over Seager, but he’s certainly getting playing time.

But if you ask the same question for the Rays, it would seem that a lot more Cardinals could displace Rays than you would think possible for a team with that many wins. They do have a better rotation of course. I’m just saying. Joey Wendle, Manuel Margot, Mike Zunino, Hunter Renfroe, Yandy Diaz - Tell me you wouldn’t take Cardinals players over those guys. I’m sorry I’ve just having a realization and it just so happened to come in the middle of writing this, so I’m sharing this realization with you.

I hope the Rays can take advantage of this situation, because the next opportunity might come in 12 years.