So, how did they do it?
The team that lost 96 games last year to cap the worst first decade of any expansion team? That despite a hefty increase still had a payroll barely one-fourth its main competitors? That headlined its offseason by trading one of the game's top young stars for two of lesser reputation? That signed one veteran who'd been retired (Troy Percival) and another who had talked about it (Cliff Floyd)? That had a bullpen so bad it wasn't just the worst last year, but among the worst all time? That had trouble throwing and catching the ball, and struck out more often than any team in AL history? That once celebrated not finishing last with a champagne toast? That was more often fodder for late-night talk show hosts than ESPN highlights? How in the world did the Rays do it?
An orchestrated master plan
Like any new crew, principal owner Stuart Sternberg, president Matt Silverman, executive vice president Andrew Friedman and manager Joe Maddon had a plan when they took over after the 2005 season.
Their accomplishment was sticking with it after 197 losses, considerable criticism and only meager attendance gains their first two seasons. "Necessary predicates," Silverman said, for the present-day success.
Unable to compete financially, they have to be smarter, more creative, less prone to err and more (to use their favorite phrase) opportunistic than their rivals.
And it took time. Merging their business backgrounds and baseball acumen (some acquired), they came up with their own methodologies, such as hybrid scouting philosophies to find undervalued players, and creative financing packages to get young players signed to long-term contracts.
Naturally, they are reluctant to share all the details.
Friedman, for example, won't get too specific about the profiles (scouting and data) they've developed for hitters, resulting in beyond-expectation performances from low-cost acquisitions such as Carlos Pena, Eric Hinske, Gabe Gross and Willy Aybar.
He's only slightly more open in acknowledging their efforts to diversify the strengths of their bullpen, such as adding groundball-inducing Chad Bradford in August.
"It's not something that can be easily described," Silverman said. "And there's certainly some special sauce involved."
At the end of 2006, they sensed hope, but didn't put it on a timetable. By halfway through 2007, they saw a window opening as soon as this season. A solid 20-20 finish, plus the positive impact of the acquisition of veteran reliever Dan Wheeler, was validation enough.
"That gave you all the confidence to go forward," Sternberg said.
Assessing a relatively young core of Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton, Scott Kazmir and James Shields, plus holdovers Pena and Akinori Iwamura, they started, uncharacteristically, making deals, and spending money, for the present.
The brassy November trade of Delmon Young for Jason Bartlett and Matt Garza was huge, followed by the additions of Percival, Floyd and others. The payroll went up more than 80 percent, though still was a modest $43-million, second lowest in the majors.
The Wheeler and Young deals showed the Rays were no longer on the treadmill of waiting to get better. "We were going to be aggressive to make the pieces fit together and construct a 25-man roster that could start to compete," Friedman said.
Maddon reinforced it in spring training with the introduction of the 9 equals 8 concept — 9 players playing 9 innings to become one of 8 playoff teams — which became a way to get the players to believe the playoffs were a realistic possibility.
Sternberg used the analogy of the groundskeepers at Augusta manipulating nature by freezing some azaleas to get them to bloom at the same time, and he felt confident that with their crop, they would be better.
Although, the Rays admit, they didn't expect to be this good this soon.
"We put the organization on the path toward success," Silverman said. "It was just a question of when we would be able to win, and not if we could win."
Some lucky breaks
There was an extensive amount of planning, research, analysis, data processing and decisionmaking involved.
And there was a fair dose of fortunate circumstance, paired with a heavy helping of luck.
"We were fortunate," Sternberg acknowledged.
They were confident they'd be significantly better than last year's 66-96 squad, at least breaking the .500 barrier for the first time. But they also felt there were better teams, at least five capable of winning 100 games — the Angels, Indians, Red Sox, Tigers and Yankees.
But only one, the Angels, did. The Yankees failed to get to 90. The Indians and Tigers didn't even have winning records. Their failures, for whatever reasons, created the opportunity the Rays talk so much about.
"We never expected to be in first place, that I can say," Sternberg said. "We got fortunate other teams were doing what they were doing. That's the way it is."
And that was the simple stuff.
Explaining how the Rays responded is the hard part.
"They had an intent to make things better here in Tampa Bay," Pena said, "but for them to come and say this was planned piece by piece and it was premeditated and meticulously put together, I think it wouldn't be true. … All of us wanting to be in such a place as Tampa Bay is right now, all of a sudden we're kind of like magnetized. We came together naturally, gracefully, almost effortlessly. It's one of those things you can't put your finger on. …
"This is the stuff that happens in Little League. This kind of environment, you're like, 'Man, this is cool, just having a great time in Little League.' That's the way it feels."
Smells like team spirit
It was obvious the team needed some better players. But first Maddon needed better people on the team.
He wanted more accountability and increased trust, less selfishness and fewer peripheral distractions. And, having been reared in the Angels' organization, he knew where it had to start.
"It was changing the culture," he said. "We're talking intangibles. We're talking about the chemistry. We're talking about all the things that can be changed if you make a concerted effort, if you build relationships, if you talk to people, if you communicate.
"If they believe you really care, then you can change it. If they don't get that from you, it will never change."
There were subtractions, such as the trades of Delmon Young and beleaguered Elijah Dukes. And additions, such as the signing of clubhouse leaders Pena and Percival. Wheeler's late July 2007 arrival to bolster a sagging bullpen helped rebuild some confidence. The massively attended November introduction of the new team name, uniforms and colors created more than a new look.
"The name change and the event itself signaled the beginning of this era," Silverman said. "Gone was the stain of the devil, and of the Devil Rays. It cleaned the slate."
Still, the sum was greater than the parts.
"It's the changes that have developed among the group, the way we interact," Maddon said. "The relationships are much healthier. There's much more direction toward success. It's a more open, honest, trustworthy environment."
A case for the defense
One of the primary reasons the Rays are so good this season is because they acknowledged how bad they were last season — last in the majors in ERA, runs allowed, bullpen ERA and opponents batting average and second to last in fielding percentage.
"We did a good job of assessing the weaknesses of our roster at the end of the '07 season, and we aggressively attacked those weaknesses," Friedman said.
They bolstered the bullpen by paying to keep Wheeler, adding Percival and Trever Miller, converting starter J.P. Howell and getting lucky with Grant Balfour.
They improved the infield defense by acquiring Bartlett (their team MVP) from the Twins, upgraded the rotation by getting Garza and shifted Iwamura to second from third, making room for the sooner-than-expected arrival of rookie Evan Longoria.
And they addressed the lack of clubhouse leadership by bringing in true pros such as Hinske, Floyd, Miller and Percival.
"How did we do it?" said Crawford, the most veteran Ray. "We did it with that veteran presence we always wanted, and that bullpen and an emphasis on tough defense and pitching."
How did it work? The Rays finished the season third in ERA, runs allowed and opponents average, fifth in bullpen ERA and tied for eighth in fielding percentage.
And third in victories.
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com.