Alex Cobb was in the loop and on board publicly with most of the moves the Rays were making throughout their offseason of massive change, as they followed the dueling defections of executive vice president Andrew Friedman and manager Joe Maddon by trading nine and releasing another key player from last year's disappointing squad. • But it was a couple of days in early February, when the Rays' top starter first met and worked out with new catcher Rene Rivera and outfielder Steven Souza Jr. — two key pieces that came back in the Wil Myers trade — that Cobb felt good about what his new bosses had been doing. • "They hyped up the guys they were bringing in," he said, "and these guys exceeded the hype that was put on them. Their talent and their personalities. • "So there's a trust factor between the front office and the players. They've got things under control. You look at it right now, what bigger obstacles could be thrown their way that haven't already? They've answered everything. … I think the players believe wholehearted that they have. There hasn't been a move they made that left us scratching our heads."
The reaction elsewhere was much different. Fans across Tampa Bay, players and staff with rival teams and even top baseball executives in the New York offices wondered just what the Rays were doing, whether they not only were giving away good personnel but also giving up on any chance to win again anytime soon.
"We watched," players union chief Tony Clark said. "We didn't really know what it meant."
While outsiders carried on about what the Rays lost and saw the franchise at a crossroads, team officials focused on what they still had and headed on the same path:
. The same brainy and creative 20-man baseball operations staff now run by Matt Silverman, who merely changed seats after a decade working alongside Friedman, and backed by the same cutting-edge computer system — still named Uncle Charlie — packed with proprietary data and research that is at the core of much of their decision-making.
. The core players, led by Evan Longoria and especially starting pitchers Cobb, Chris Archer, Drew Smyly, Jake Odorizzi and a rehabbing Matt Moore, to remodel around and improve on last season's disappointing 77-85 showing.
. An even greater sense of defy-the-odds purpose, not only driven to show that they were still committed to winning but determined to prove they can do so without Friedman and Maddon getting all the credit.
"We're all competitive guys," principal owner Stuart Sternberg said. "Matt might not seem it, but he is probably as competitive a person as I know. We're all competitive. And in addition to that, I felt that it was, in one respect, my obligation to give these guys as many tools as necessary to try and succeed and to do what they felt were the best things for the organization."
Discussions about cutting the payroll way back from 2014's franchise record $82 million and playing for future success quickly gave way to a dual-tracked plan: restock the organization with premium prospects while remolding the big-league team into a contender.
Their first offseason moves, trading Cesar Ramos, Jeremy Hellickson and Joel Peralta for prospects, were longer-term plays, and hiring 37-year-old first-timer Kevin Cash to manage seemed like a learn-now, win-later selection.
But as they came out of the winter meetings, the Rays made several deals where they opted for present-day improvements, getting veteran reliever Kevin Jepsen for Matt Joyce; the more established Rivera rather than a catching prospect in the Myers deal, plus flipping two top young prospects for Souza; and veteran DH John Jaso as part of the return for Ben Zobrist. To supplement, they signed shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera to a one-year, $7.5 million deal and veteran reliever Ernesto Frieri.
The result, they feel, is a better team — deeper offensively, more athletic, improved defensively and, until losing three starters short-term to spring injuries/illness, stronger armed while costing around $70 million, down a chunk from last year but more than they planned. And they succeeded in enhancing the farm system, up from 20th to 12th in Baseball America's latest rankings, thanks to the infusion of high-end talent.
"That's the balancing act that we're always performing, to keep our eye on the future but know that our club has the talent to compete," Silverman said. "We certainly identified that talent and wanted to make sure that we gave our players and our franchise the best chance to succeed this year within our parameters.'
And, while most predictions peg the Rays for last, others around baseball are starting to see what they were doing. The managers of the four other AL East teams pretty much said so, as did the new manager of the Cubs.
"People can say what they want," Maddon said, "but I think Matthew and the boys did a nice job putting it back together."
Silverman said the assignments might have been a little different, with Chaim Bloom and Erik Neander promoted to larger roles, but the process was the same.
"For the last 10 years we have been motivated by the charge of defying the odds," Silverman said. "For us to win and sustain success, it means we have defied our odds and defied our payroll.
"If there is any extra motivation this year, it's on the margin. We have great pride as a group in the effort we put forth, and that effort is as strong as I've seen it."
Archer, for one anyway, said that drive to show they can still win without Friedman and Maddon is very much front and center.
"For sure. Definitely. 100 percent," he said. "We gave the Rays just as much definition of the 'Rays Way' as they did, because they could have made those decisions and they didn't work out and the Rays franchise never becomes what it is. It's not just one-dimensional. Both ends, the players and the management, were equally impactful. And I would lean more on the performance. …
"I feel like for a little bit people forgot about that, especially with the reaction from fans on the street, on Twitter and other social media when those guys left. They thought it was over. But the players had to play and perform."
Longoria said whatever the motivation, he likes the atmosphere change has provided, noting a "renewed" sense of energy and excitement.
"Guys are kind of more, I don't know if intense is the word, it just seems like there's a little bit more purpose to everybody's work this year," he said. "That's not to say that wasn't there last year, it's just whether it's the new front office, whether it's the new coaching staff, sometimes some guys feel like, and, myself — I feel the same way, you kind of have some proving to do."
But what should not be in doubt is — stadium stalemate aside — where they are headed.
"Obviously the Rays were fortunate — Andrew was an extremely talented general manager and Joe Maddon a great manager," new commissioner Rob Manfred said. "I have to say I have a tremendous amount of faith in Stuart and Matt and the team that's here that they will find alternatives, that they're resourceful enough that losing one or two key people is not going to alter the performance of this franchise over the long haul."
"I wouldn't say they're at a crossroads," Boston manager John Farrell said. "I think what it speaks to, from afar, it would seem there is a very strong structure and system in place. And those are the things that stand the tests of time rather than individuals."
Contact Marc Topkin at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.