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Rays are in first, but are they more impressive than the Yankees?

If you think Tampa Bay has had a great start, consider how New York has nearly kept pace with a roster of walking wounded.
Yankees manager Aaron Boone, whown before a game against the Rays at Tropicana Field last September, has received great praise for juggling a lineup and keeping positive in the face of an unprecedented rash of injuries. JIM DAMASKE
Yankees manager Aaron Boone, whown before a game against the Rays at Tropicana Field last September, has received great praise for juggling a lineup and keeping positive in the face of an unprecedented rash of injuries. JIM DAMASKE
Published May 9, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — Here are two baseball teams separated by history. By economics. By expectations. And, as of today, by only a couple of games in the American League East.

Funny how the Rays and Yankees have arrived at this moment. Each unexpectedly, but for vastly different reasons.

Tampa Bay opened the season with the smallest payroll in the majors, and yet has owned the best record in baseball for much of the past six weeks.

Related: MORE Rays: The Yankees are coming to town, so just who is the home team here?

New York has had a historic run of injuries, and yet has remained steps behind the Rays while employing an odd assortment of castoffs and fill-ins.

Tell me, which is more impressive to you? Either way, you can make a pretty strong argument.

Because, really, it does not do justice to what the Yankees have endured to simply say they’ve been beaten up. They’ve lost more games to the Injured List than any team in baseball, but that’s a given.

The difference is the quality of the players. You could argue that seven of their top nine hitters have been on the IL at different points, along with three of their top five starting pitchers and one of their best relievers. In a study done by theringer.com, the combined value of players New York lost in April dwarfs any previous team in the last 20 years or so.

And to put it in monetary terms:

If you count the portion of Troy Tulowitzki’s salary being paid by Toronto, the Yankees currently have more than $100 million worth of players on the IL. Or, almost double Tampa Bay’s entire payroll.

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman has jokingly — or is it admiringly? — referred to recent lineups as the B Bombers.

“You’ve got to be impressed with what the Yankees have done with all their injuries, they’re pretty well documented,’’ Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “They’ve still put together a really good season. They’re very talented.’’

So, yes, I would understand if anyone was more impressed by what the second-place Yankees have done rather than the first-place Rays through the season’s first month and a half.

But I wouldn’t agree.

Because there are a couple of other factors that also warrant consideration. For instance, New York has feasted on some of the worst teams in baseball. Nothing wrong with that. You’re supposed to beat those teams on a routine basis, which is something the Rays have occasionally struggled to do.

But when the Yankees have faced teams that are currently in first or second in a division, they have been a very unimpressive 4-7.

The other thing worth pondering is just how much of a head start the Yankees have on the Rays when it comes to acquiring free agents and retaining their own players. Even with Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge, Didi Gregorius, Aaron Hicks, James Paxton, Luis Severino, Dellin Betances, Greg Bird and Tulowitzki on the IL, the roster ain’t quite Triple-A quality.

If you take away every hitter in the Bronx, and every player on the IL, just New York’s active pitching staff still accounts for more payroll than the entire Rays roster.

We tend to get spoiled by how efficient Tampa Bay is with trades and free agent bargains. So think of it this way:

The Rays began the season with MLB’s smallest payroll. In the last 20 years, baseball’s lowest-paid teams have averaged 72.6 wins per season.

Tampa Bay is currently on pace to win 103.5.

Post-game celebrations like this one after Tampa Bay's 6-3 victory over Arizona on Tuesday have been plentiful this season as the Rays have lost only one series all season. DIRK SHADD | Times
Post-game celebrations like this one after Tampa Bay's 6-3 victory over Arizona on Tuesday have been plentiful this season as the Rays have lost only one series all season. DIRK SHADD | Times

“Our baseball operations group takes great pride in putting together talented, versatile and hungry teams that can compete in the AL East,’’ said Rays president Matt Silverman. “They’re vigilant about maintaining a healthy pipeline of talent. And they are keenly focused on helping create an environment that allows our players to thrive individually and, most importantly, as a team.’’

The greatest caveat, of course, is we haven’t even completed the first quarter of the season. The Yankees will undoubtedly get healthier, and the Rays are starting to get banged up. Meanwhile, the Red Sox have fought their way back to .500 after a horrible start.

Related: MORE Rays: AL East insider says 'I don't think they have a weakness'

So is there a lesson to be learned from this weekend’s series?

You bet, and it’ll probably be to stay tuned because things are about to get even more interesting in the AL East.

Contact John Romano at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow at @romano_tbtimes.