PORT CHARLOTTE — The biggest question regarding the Rays is whether last year’s 90-win campaign was a fluke. Assessing where they stand in the American League East is no easy task, especially since their 2018 season was only good enough for a third-place division finish — seven games back of the second AL wild-card spot.
Through shrewd trades, savvy signings and a return to their player development base, the Rays have put themselves in position to remain competitive for an extended time, and even outlast some of their division rivals.
The Blue Jays and Orioles are in the midst of rebuilds. The Red Sox will be tested by free agency, potentially losing several key pieces over the next two offseasons. The Yankees’ young core will begin to get more expensive beginning next season.
Meanwhile, the Rays return the majority of last year’s group and still have the lowest payroll in the majors at a projected $55.4 million, according to spotrac.com. They have one of the game’s best and deepest farm systems, and recently they began investing long-term in some of their top young players.
This time last season, the Rays were being accused of attempting to tank because they were trading veteran pieces, acquiring young controllable players while trimming payroll. The Rays have been ahead in the game of gauging when to get premium trade value for veteran players, and last year’s trades of Evan Longoria, Steven Souza, Jr., Jake Odorizzi, Corey Dickerson and Chris Archer later on as the deadline reloaded the Rays system with depth.
The team’s payroll fell as a result. Pitcher Charlie Morton ($15 million) and center fielder Kevin Kiermaier ($8 million) are the only Rays players making over base salaries of more than $4.5 million. The Yankees have 15 players who make more than that. The Red Sox have 12.
Last week’s five-year, $50-million extension for reigning Cy Young award winner Blake Snell keeps him under team control through the 2023 season. And while it’s the largest deal given to a pre-arbitration player, it keeps Snell at a reasonable market salary.
While Snell’s deal and the six-year, $24-million contract given to rookie Brandon Lowe last week add commitments to future payrolls, the increase is nominal now, and it still allows for the Rays to account for some unpredictable raises that could come when players like Joey Wendle, Daniel Robertson, Tyler Glasnow and Willy Adames approach arbitration earnings. That allows them to keep their core group intact.
Snell will receive a base salary of $16 million in the final year of his deal in 2023, which would have been his first year of free agency eligibility. The $15 million that the Rays are paying Morton in each of the news two years is a Rays record, but it’s still less than the $19.75 million in David Price’s last year of arbitration after the Rays had traded him.
“Obviously, where our expected payroll is right now going into 2019, it’s lower than its been in a while, but a large part of that is because we have a lot of really talented young players that are at that part of their career service-wise,” Rays general manager Erik Neander said. “That being said, if they perform at the way we expect them to, this is a very good group that is young and those kind of groups get very expensive as time goes on.
“What might not be used today, there’s always a balancing act, and consideration given that we want this to be sustainable. We value continuity and would like to have more than we’ve had the last handful of years and keeping flexibility as we go forward while retaining our own talent is certainly a part of that.”
What should make some of those difficult decisions easier is the next wave of young talent on the horizon. They Rays’ farm system ranks second in the majors, according to Baseball America. Not only do they have nine top-100 prospects — headlined by shortstop Wander Franco, who could be the game’s top prospect by next season — but they are rich in pitching and position players.
A key to that development is players who can contribute in a variety of ways, whether its position players able to play around the diamond or relievers who can pitch in different roles and lengths, to help provide cover in the case other players don’t necessarily meet expectations.
“We feel like we’ve put a lot of time and energy the last several years into putting ourselves into a position where we don’t have to hit on every single guy and they don’t have to develop and reach their full potential in order for us to be successful,” Neander said.
Meanwhile, the Yankees have $160 million committed next year to veteran players, and that’s before sluggers Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez receive raises in their first arbitration seasons.
Though the Red Sox just signed ace Chris Sale to an five-year, $145-million extension, right-hander Rick Porcello and shortstop Xander Bogaerts become free agents after this season, and superstar Mookie Betts and outfielder Jackie Bradley, Jr. are slated for free agency after 2020.
The Blue Jays have a strong farm system, and even though their top prospects will reach the majors this season, they are still a few years away from being considered a contender. The Orioles are in the opening stage of a rebuild that is handcuffed by the bad long-term investment made in first baseman Chris Davis, who will be in a fourth year of a seven-year $161-million deal that will impede their already slow progress.
“You can’t be too consumed with the surrounding factors outside the organization,” Neander said. “We know there are teams in our division that year in and year out are going to be at the very top competitively. I think, first and foremost, you have to take care of your own business internally.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at [email protected] Follow @EddieintheYard