'System' keeps Rays winning

The brain trust, from left: Stuart Sternberg, Matt Silverman, Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon.
The brain trust, from left: Stuart Sternberg, Matt Silverman, Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon.
Published April 2, 2013


5 major postseason awards (more than any team)

. David Price, AL Cy Young, 2012

. Joe Maddon, AL manager of the year, 2008, 2011

. Jeremy Hellickson, AL rookie of the year, 2011

. Evan Longoria, AL rookie of the year, 2008

12 players made AL All-Star team (more than any other team)

Jason Bartlett, Carl Crawford, Matt Joyce, Scott Kazmir, Evan Longoria, Dioner Navarro, Carlos Peña, David Price, Fernando Rodney, James Shields, Rafael Soriano, Ben Zobrist

Source: Rays

12 players made AL All-Star team (more than any other team)

-Jason Bartlett, Carl Crawford, Matt Joyce, Scott Kazmir, Evan Longoria, Dioner Navarro, Carlos Pena, David Price, Fernando Rodney, James Shields, Rafael Soriano, Ben Zobrist

Source: Rays

They've said goodbye to a four-time All-Star in Carl Crawford, a pair of aces in Scott Kazmir and Matt Garza, a team MVP (Jason Bartlett), a lock-down closer (Rafael Soriano) and a proven clutch hitter (Johnny Damon).

And this year, that group of alumni now includes starter James Shields and centerfielder B.J. Upton.

The losses would seem staggering.

Except the Rays keep winning.

As remarkable as their five-year run of success has been, with three postseason appearances and more victories than only the Phillies and Yankees since 2008, it's even more amazing that they've maintained it with one of the game's lowest payrolls by constantly making over their roster.

To do so, they have developed a framework in which they have to operate — "The system," as manager Joe Maddon calls it — and the dedication to stick to it, no matter what.

"It's incumbent upon us to appreciate the challenges and operate within them," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "One of the things I'm most proud of is that we've been able to remain committed to our plan. It takes a tremendous amount of discipline because there are times when it is very tempting to deviate from that plan, but I feel very confident that had we done that in '08 or '09 we wouldn't be sitting where we are today.

"It's almost become a cliche that we have one eye on the present and one eye on the future, but it really is everything for us. … There are times when the decisions we make are more short-term focused and other times when the moves are more long-term focused, but it's appreciating the balance between them and never losing sight of the runway of talent that we have coming."

So that's why they let free agents walk — to save money and add draft picks. Why they deal established veterans for prospects.

And why, in a season when the American League East looks as wide open as ever, they were willing to trade one of their top starters, Shields, for a 22-year-old outfielder, Wil Myers, who has the potential to be a star but may not be of much help this year.

"I want to believe that the over-arching theme here," Maddon said, "is that the system works."

"Look at seasons when they've won with a low payroll," said former outfielder Jonny Gomes, now with Boston. "Normally, you would call that a fluke. But when you've done it over and over like these guys do, it's not a fluke by any means."

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As much as team officials talk a lot about developing The Rays Way of doing things, they don't like talking very much about the plan.

"They're very good," players union chief Michael Wiener said. "Their baseball talent selection has worked well. They've been creative in terms of economics and contracting. … They are a well-run team. They are a smart team. That has to be admired and has to be respected."

Certainly they are intelligent, organized, prepared, creative, thorough and forward-thinking: like their aggressive posture in signing young players to long-term deals to limit costs and gain extra years of control.

They have developed some unique philosophies and priorities: like their offseason approach of considering any move that best improves the team rather than targeting only a specific need.

They devote tremendous time and energy into injury prevention: like their shoulder exercise program for pitchers that not only is individually tailored, but mandatory and monitored.

They have a cutting-edge computer system — named Uncle Charlie — run by a crew of researchers and analysts (some working off-site) who process and analyze massive amounts of data on topics ranging from umpire's strike-calling tendencies to forecasting when pitchers are likely to break down.

Besides all they do, stressing flexibility on the field and off, there is also a guiding principle about what not to do — like not having a set payroll, not paying players for past performance, and only making trades when they get what they want rather than settling for the "best" offer.

"Anytime you have to do something, it's not advantageous," principal owner Stuart Sternberg said. "So we would much prefer to have the option to … make the decision out of desire rather than need."


The Rays don't do everything well.

For an organization built on scouting and player development, they've had a rough stretch in the draft, the only one of the 30 teams without a player to reach the majors from the past five classes. Their Latin American program, while much improved, has yet to produce a big-league player. Their inability to find productive DHs, or better catchers, is perplexing and vexing.

They do, however, a solid job in identifying what they are looking for — like a player who profiles with a specific skill set or a certain value based on price/contract status point — and take advantage of the narrower scope to increase their focus on legit possibilities. (For example, not wasting time/resources this offseason on free agent Josh Hamilton but doing extensive research on first baseman James Loney.)

They have also made an art of assembling a roster of players with positional flexibility, maximizing their roster as if they have an extra couple of guys.

But if there is an overriding priority — one thing etched in the brains of every scout, coach, computer nerd and team exec — and primary reason for their success, it is stockpiling starting pitching.

They quickly, and correctly, identified how overpriced that market is, and they have found a way to not only develop enough to fill their own rotation (Roberto Hernandez on Thursday will be the first free-agent starter of the Friedman regime) but create a surplus to use as commodity in trade. The pitchers they've dealt in the past five years would be a pretty dominant (and expensive) rotation: Edwin Jackson, Jason Hammel, Kazmir, Garza and now Shields.

"They do the one thing that every teams needs to contend, and that's develop starting pitching," said Red Sox manager John Farrell, who knows, having previously been Toronto's manager and Boston's pitching coach. "You can look at the last four to six years and say they set the bar in drafting and developing starting pitching. You get the sense that there is clear alignment through their scouting and player development in how that assembly line works, from finding it to developing it to transitioning it to the big leagues.

"They've pitched so … consistently that it keeps them in games. They can shed big-name players but they're going to find a way to find athletic guys they can mix and match, and that's the style of game they play. It's very clear from across the field, you know what kind of game you're going to play against Tampa."


Relationships are a big part of their success.

At the top, Sternberg runs the operation in an unassuming manner. In the middle, Maddon has created a relaxed and trusting clubhouse culture that players from Evan Longoria and David Price on down credit for getting the most out of them. And at the bottom is how the clubhouse staff takes care of all players.

As opposed to other teams, and even former Devil Rays teams, ownership, front office and the field staff are all unified, all working off the same agenda, with the same goal. The close friendship among Sternberg, team president Matt Silverman and Friedman — which pre-dates their arrival in Tampa Bay — creates a special dynamic at the top, eliminating the front office backstabbing that plagues many other organizations.

Even Sternberg is surprised how much difference that has made.

"We didn't put as high of a value on the natural relationships that the group of us have," Sternberg said. "It really does, I believe, breed success. That's the one thing we didn't take into account as greatly as I think it probably is when you're making decisions."

The congeniality is one thing, the continuity another. Since they usually know what the other is thinking, major issues can be addressed directly, and decisions reached without time wasted on polite preambles. It is especially efficient for Friedman and Maddon, who, amazingly, are the second longest tenured GM/manager tandem in the game.

"Joe and Andrew are as much on the same page as any situation I've ever been around," said former Rays senior vice president Gerry Hunsicker, with 35 years experience and now with the Dodgers. "They have a tremendous respect for each other. They can debate an issue and be on different sides, but when they come out of the room they're unified. That doesn't happen everywhere. There's tremendous connection between the executive division and the field staff. That is very special and a unique situation."

The benefit can be obvious.

"Players come and go but the anchor is always here in Joe and Friedman and their staff," Gomes said. "They haven't gone anywhere, which means a lot. You go to different teams' different camps, and they're continually trying to find the winning chemistry, trying to find the winning way of things,.

"It's found here. They got it. … They know how to do it."

Marc Topkin can be reached at