The Prestige of Small Payroll Baseball – Tampa Bay Rays 2008-10

This is the 4th and final article in a series of articles examining how small payroll teams have found success in recent years.  The goal is to try and determine what methods were successful in an attempt for the Pirates to emulate them.  The Minnesota Twins were the first team studied, the Texas Rangers were the second team,  and the San Diego Padres were the third team, in case you want to see the methodology of these articles.

The Pledge

The Tampa Bay Devil Rays (as they were called in their formative years) started play in 1998 along with the Arizona Diamondbacks.  But unlike their expansion brother, the Devil Rays never tasted the sweet smell of success until 11 seasons into their history in 2008.  In fact, the Devil Rays were fairly embarrassing and incompetent on the field, acting more as a repository for aging and faded veterans…which fit in nicely with being in the retirement capital of the state of Florida.

The Devil Rays inaugural GM was the amazingly incompetent Chuck Lamar.  Lamar could never decide if the Devil Rays were to be built from the ground up with a youth movement (rushing BJ Upton and Dewon Brazelton) or be a team of gritty veterans (Wade Boggs, Gerald Williams, Greg Vaughn, Jose Canseco, Fred McGriff).  So he failed at all facets of the majors.  But Lamar was good at building a farm system.  The Devil Rays, due to habitually being at the top of the draft, were able to draft many of the pieces that helped fuel their recent run of success from 2008-2010.

The Turn

In October 2005, however, their fortunes changed when young hotshot investment banker Stuart Sternberg bought the team from the Vince Namoli ownership group.  Sternberg installed an even younger hotshot in Andrew Friedman to be his VP of Baseball Operations, essentially the General Manager.   Once Friedman arrived, all it took was a key trade and have two face-of-the-franchise players to fall into their lap in the draft.  No problem.

In 2007, the Devil Rays bumbled their way to another sub-70 win season at 66-96.  In fact, the Devil Rays from their inception in 1998 to 2007 only had one season of more than 69 wins (70 wins in 2004).  After the season, Sternberg decided to exorcise the demons from the team and drop the “Devil” from the team name and change the uniforms.  It was meant to make the team a little more fan friendly.  Either that or he’s a real hard-core atheist.

So in 2008, everyone expected the same old level of incompetence from the new-look Rays.  The only problem was that they went 97-65 (a 31 win improvement from the previous year) and went to the World Series.  And by the way, they did it on a payroll of $43.7 million, good for 29th out of 30 teams.  How did they do it?

The Prestige

In 2003, the Rays drafted Delmon Young first overall.  Young was a highly followed draft pick from the time he was a young teenager.  He and BJ Upton (drafted 2nd overall the year before) were going to be the cornerstones of the future Rays.  But Delmon Young had serious attitude problems and never quite developed as expected.  So in November 2007, Young was traded to the Minnesota Twins, along with Brendan Harris and Jason Pridie, for Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett, and Eduardo Morlan.  In the first article of this series, I showed how by using WAR this trade was a complete slam-dunk for the Rays.

In the same year of 2007, the Rays (once again drafting 1st overall) took David Price with their pick.  Price barnstormed through the minors in his first full year of 2008 and was able to help the Rays down the stretch for their playoff run.  One year prior in 2006, the Rays had third baseman Evan Longoria fall into their laps as the 3rd overall pick.  Longoria arrived to stay in Tampa in late April 2008 and immediately signed the most team-friendly contract in all of baseball (6 years, $17.5M thru 2013 with club options from 2014-16).

The offense for the Rays in 2008 looked something like this (players 2008 season age in parentheses as well as method obtained):

Carlos Pena (30, FA in 2007) .247/.377/.494 (871 OPS, 129 OPS+)

Evan Longoria (22, draft 1st round 2006) .272/.343/.531 (874 OPS, 127 OPS+)

Cliff Floyd (35, FA in 2007) .268/.349/.455 (804 OPS, 111 OPS+)

BJ Upton (23, draft 1st round 2002) .273/.383/.401 (784 OPS, 108 OPS+)

The Rays also got a nice part-time contribution from Jason Bartlett (844 OPS, 120 OPS+ in 62 games).  Absent from this offensive stars list is Carl Crawford (26, draft 2nd round 1999), who had a down year in 2008.  He only put up a triple slash of .273/.319/.400 (719 OPS, 89 OPS+).

The pitching was an interesting mix of homegrown talents and players obtained in lopsided trades in the Rays’ favor.

James Shields (26, draft 16th round 2000) 14-8, 3.56 ERA, 215 IP, 208 H, 1.7 BB/9, 6.7 K/9

Andy Sonnanstine (25, draft 13th round 2004) 13-9, 4.38 ERA, 193 IP, 212 H, 1.7 BB/9, 5.8 K/9

Matt Garza (24, trade with MIN 2007) 11-9, 3.70 ERA, 184 IP, 170 H, 2.9 BB/9, 6.2 K/9

Edwin Jackson (24, trade with LAD 2006) 14-11, 4.42 ERA, 183 IP, 199 H, 3.8 BB/9, 5.3 K/9

Scott Kazmir (24, trade with NYM 2004) 12-8, 3.49 ERA, 152 IP, 123 H, 4.1 BB/9, 9.8 K/9

Kazmir, obtained in one of the all time lopsided trades from the New York Mets in a trade deadline panic move in 2004, provided the pizzazz to an otherwise workman-like rotation.  Veteran Troy Percival closed the door in the 9th inning with 28 saves.  The rest of the bullpen (JP Howell, Dan Wheeler, Grant Balfour, and Trevor Miller) all exceeded expectations for the Rays on the way to the World Series.  The Rays, as previously mentioned, broke future ace David Price in as a reliever during this stretch run.

In 2009, the Rays took a step backwards by finishing with an 84-78 record and in 3rd place in the highly competitive AL East.  Although the Rays scored more runs than in 2008, they also allowed more runs, especially from the bullpen.  The Rays did see Crawford return to form (816 OPS, 116 OPS+), but BJ Upton took his place in having a disappointing year (686 OPS, 82 OPS+).  Pena (893 OPS, 133 OPS+), Ben Zobrist (28, trade with HOU in 2006, 948 OPS, 149 OPS+), Bartlett (879 OPS, 132 OPS+), and Longoria (889 OPS, 133 OPS+) all had monster years with the stick.  The only glaring weakness was Dioner Navarro at catcher with a 583 OPS/54 OPS+.

David Price (23) moved into the rotation in 2009 and had a solid debut going 10-7, 4.42 ERA, 128 IP, 119 H, 3.8 BB/9, 7.2 K/9.  Price gave hints of what was to come in 2010.  The Rays always walk a tightrope with their finances, so they decided to cut bait with Scott Kazmir in July 2009 by sending him to the LA Angels of Anaheim.  They may have pulled the trigger at the perfect time, as Kazmir started developing a series of injuries that have hampered his performance ever since.

The 2010 season brought both a sense of renewed confidence and a sense of urgency.  The urgency stemmed from the fact that the Rays entered the 2010 season with a $72.8M payroll, placing them 21st out of 30 in Major League Baseball.  With key free agents such as Carlos Pena and Carl Crawford looming at the end of the year, many saw this as one last chance to take a run at the World Series.

The 2010 Rays scored nearly the same amount of runs (802) but allowed 105 runs less than the previous year (649 in 2010).  This allowed them to finish 96-66, good for 1st place in the AL East.  However, they were eliminated in the playoffs by the Rangers (also an article previously discussed in this series).  On offense, the Rays were led by the usual suspects again in the form of Longoria (24, 879 OPS, 142 OPS+) and Crawford (28, 851 OPS, 134 OPS+).  The Rays rectified the black hole at catcher by using John Jaso (26, draft 12th round 2003) and he rewarded them with a 750 OPS/110 OPS+.  Pena (32, 732 OPS, 102 OPS+) and BJ Upton (25, 745 OPS, 105 OPS+) made contributions, but not up to what the previous expectations of them were.

The pitching was now led by a rotation that was 4/5th’s homegrown:

David Price (24, draft 1st round 2007) 19-6, 2.72 ERA, 208 IP, 170 H, 3.4 BB/9, 8.1 K/9

James Shields (28, draft 16th round 2000) 13-15, 5.18 ERA, 203 IP, 246 H, 2.3 BB/9, 8.3 K/9

Jeff Niemann (27, draft 1st round 2004) 12-8, 4.39 ERA, 174 IP, 159 H, 3.1 BB/9, 6.8 K/9

Wade Davis (24, draft 3rd round 2004) 12-10, 4.07 ERA, 168 IP, 165 H, 3.3 BB/9, 6.1 K/9

Matt Garza (26, trade MIN 2007) 15-10, 3.91 ERA, 204 IP, 193 H, 2.8 BB/9, 6.6 K/9

In addition to having three pitchers go over 200 IP, the Rays also had a lock down bullpen that was led by Rafael Soriano (30, trade with ATL in Dec 2009) with his 1.73 ERA, 45 saves, and 8.2 K/9.

The Rays are the model on how all small payroll teams can succeed.  Their key players are homegrown, but they have also made some fortuitous trades (including knowing when to give up on previously identified assets like Young and Kazmir) and some key low-cost free agent pickups.  However, the Rays going into 2011 will also be facing the other side of the small payroll cycle – the need to reload after players leave your team as free agents for greener pastures.  Pena will be at 1B for the Cubs, Crawford signed a huge deal with the rival Red Sox, and Soriano will most definitely be pitching elsewhere.  Sternberg has said that the team payroll in 2011 will be in the low to mid $50M range, nearly $20M less than this year.

The good news is that even with all of the young talent that has percolated through the system in recent years, there is still more talent left in the minors, especially on the pitching side of things.  Jeremy Hellickson and Jacob McGee could both be key pieces in the next wave of potential Rays’ success.  With all of the free agent departures, especially free agents that are both Type A and B, the Rays will potentially have 11 picks either in the first round, the supplemental round, or the 2nd round.  2011 may be another step back type of year for the Rays, but sunshine days will soon return to Tampa.

Author: Kevin Creagh

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