What Would the Rays Do?
If you’ve read this site long enough, you will have seen that phrase from me. And by “long enough”, I mean “for at least a week”. The Rays are the model organization for any small market team. They’ve found a way to win with a much smaller payroll, in the biggest spending division in baseball, while also removing the word “window” from their vocabulary. They’re able to sustain this success because they make smart baseball moves left and right. They don’t over-value names, they value talent, and they’re not afraid to trade an established player for prospects and replace that player with an unestablished, but talented prospect.
I don’t think every move has to be like the Rays. They would never have gone for Jose Abreu, and I would have been fine with the Pirates going after the first baseman. But when it comes to uncomfortable moves like the idea of trading Francisco Liriano for a huge return, then replacing him with an unknown, I’m in. Maybe I’m more comfortable with risk, or maybe I just remember what people were saying about Liriano, A.J. Burnett, Charlie Morton, and even Gerrit Cole, before they were established. No one thought Liriano or Burnett would be top of the rotation starters, people felt Morton shouldn’t have been in the majors, and there were questions that Gerrit Cole could be an ace because he wasn’t putting up earth shattering numbers in the minors.
I feel the Rays are the model team because they aren’t afraid to look for the next Liriano or Burnett. They aren’t afraid to turn to the next Cole. And usually they will trade the established player for a big return, then replace that established player with someone they got from a previous big return.
But there’s one common argument against the “WWTRD” motto: the Rays have zero World Series titles.
I see this every time I bring up that the Rays are the model organization. With the World Series starting tonight, I wanted to bring up two trends in major league baseball.
Trend #1: The World Series Winners
Since 1994, only one team has won a World Series while having a payroll in the bottom half of the league. That was the 2003 Florida Marlins, and they were a bit of a special case. They bought a World Series team in 1997, then immediately sold everyone off for prospects. Those prospects led to a very talented 2003 team, which was supported with some smart spending/owners collusion (they got Ivan Rodriguez on a one year deal when Rodriguez was looking for multiple years and couldn’t get an offer, which was a trend that off-season which led to the Pirates landing Kenny Lofton, Reggie Sanders, and Jeff Suppan).
This World Series trend isn’t going to end in 2013. The Red Sox and Cardinals both have a payroll in the top half of the league, with Boston in the top five, and St. Louis around number ten.
Trend #2: The 2008-2013 Standings
Here are the best teams, ranked by total wins, from 2008-2013, courtesy of FanGraphs:
1. Yankees – 564 wins
2. Rays – 550
3. Phillies – 538
4. Cardinals – 538
5. Rangers – 536
6. Red Sox – 535
7. Angels – 530
8. Braves – 528
9. Dodgers – 519
10. Tigers – 517
Notice the Rays in second place. Now let’s look at those ten teams in terms of average payroll per year.
1. Yankees – $211,472,857
2. Rays – $57,938,875
3. Phillies – $141,184,717
4. Cardinals – $103,345,108
5. Rangers – $89,833,681
6. Red Sox – $152,812,160
7. Angels – $130,741,186
8. Braves – $92,932,660
9. Dodgers – $127,173,005
10. Tigers – $129,314,557
No other team is close to the Rays in average spending. They are by far the lowest of that group. The Yankees won 14 more games than the Rays over that six-year span, and did it by spending $211 M per year. So $154 M per year basically bought the Yankees two extra wins over the Rays each season, on average. That’s $77 M per win, which is about what Tim Lincecum got in his recent extension. The Rangers and Braves were the only teams under $100 M, although they were spending an average of around $90 M per year.
Which Trend Defines the Rays?
The Pirates need to follow the Rays model for the simple reason that the Pirates have the same financial constraints as the Rays. The Pirates are actually in a better situation than Tampa Bay, and they can spend a bit more, but they can’t average what the rest of those top ten teams spend. Plus, if the methods used by the Rays work with an average of just under $58 M, then they’d work with whatever the Pirates could spend.
So which trend defines the Rays? Is it the fact that they have zero World Series titles? How much should that count against them, since the World Series has a pretty established trend of going to big spenders? To put the top half in perspective this year, the number 15 ranked payroll heading into the year was $90 M. The next 14 teams spent $104 M or more.
Then there’s trend number two. The Rays have been one of the most successful teams over the last six seasons. The only team with more regular season wins has been the Yankees. The Rays have been successful, despite spending much less than all of the other top teams from 2008-2013.
There are two ways to look at this situation. Number one is that it’s possible for the Rays to win the World Series, and they just haven’t done it. I’ve never bought into the idea that teams can be built for regular season success, but not playoff success. You win in the regular season by winning a lot of 3 and 4 game series. Teams that make the playoffs are often playing above .500, even if they’re playing contenders. I don’t think a team that wins 90+ games a year will find it impossible to go 3-2 or 4-3 in a series in the post-season. So the fact the Rays haven’t won the World Series doesn’t mean anything. They’re getting to the playoffs almost every year, and eventually that will lead to a win. We are only talking about six years. To put that in perspective, the Yankees were out-spending everyone for an eight year period from 2001-2008 and didn’t win a World Series.
The second way to look at this is buying into the idea that the Rays can build a team that can win in the regular season but can’t win in the playoffs. This doesn’t explain how they’ve won in the playoffs before without winning the World Series. What does this really say? Does it give any hope for lower spending teams to win a World Series? Is there some solution out there for lower spending teams to win in the regular season, and win the World Series? If there is, no one has found it yet.
The fact is that winning the World Series is the goal for every team, but it’s not the measure of success. The Rays are successful. Undermining everything they’ve done by saying they haven’t won a World Series is just ignoring how extremely difficult winning a World Series can be. Not only do you have to be good enough to get in the playoffs, but you have to get hot at the right time, and have a good enough team to beat the other top teams in the game in a series that doesn’t always allow the best team to come out on top.
The best chance at winning a World Series is making the playoffs on a consistent basis. That’s what money buys for the Yankees, Red Sox, Cardinals, and so on. The Rays have found a way to do this without money. The Pirates need to be more like the Rays, because they can’t spend like the Yankees, Red Sox, or even the Cardinals. So that’s why the Rays are the model franchise for any small market team. It doesn’t matter that they haven’t won a World Series. What matters is that they have a chance to actually compete for the World Series almost every season. Eventually, that will lead to a World Series win. If the Pirates also want to do this, they need to find a way to make the playoffs as often as possible, with no windows of opportunity, but sustained success. The best way to make this happen is to ask one simple question: What Would the Rays Do?
Links and Notes
Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.