OAKLAND, Calif. – Rays infielder Joey Wendle remembers the specifics of the speech, if not the setting.
It was his first or second spring after being traded from the Indians to the A’s in December 2014, and manager Bob Melvin was giving what amounted to the advance scouting report for the posse chasing Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
“We had a meeting when I was over there, and it was that, 'Nobody is going to see us coming, but we’re going to be winning baseball games pretty soon,’‘’ Wendle said. “And sure enough, it was last year and this year, and they’ve been winning some baseball games.
“It’s very similar to the feeling around here. People aren’t going to see us coming, but we’re going to be good.’’
Oakland and Tampa Bay are two teams that have some fans nationally wondering, as Butch memorably said (YouTube it, kids), “Who are those guys?’’ They face off in Wednesday’s AL wild-card showdown looking very much like each other in how they operate, deal with significant challenges and have remarkable success.
"Both are smaller market teams and kind of rely on being good at things that other teams might not necessarily have to focus on as much,’’ said Wendle, who the Rays got in December 2017 when the A’s discarded him. “Both organizations pride themselves on developing young players and going out to get undervalued players. Both have that kind of scrappy mentality.
"Both are smart organizations. Maybe they think things through a little bit differently than everybody else.’’
That has become increasingly obvious, as both teams find creative, enterprising and non-traditional ways to repeatedly, albeit somewhat cyclically, overcome hurdles, the biggest being competing with opponents who have significantly more financial resources.
While the Red Sox, Cubs, Yankees and Dodgers all had payrolls well in excess of $200 million this season, the A’s were well below ($92 million) and the Rays even more so ($63 million). The one thing neither has done yet is get a badly needed new stadium built, which remains a significant issue, and a threat to the teams’ future in both markets.
The Rays are back in the postseason for the first time since 2013, but made it four times in the six years before that. The A’s are playing in their second straight wild-card game and fifth postseason in the last eight. So how do they it? It starts with the philosophies that guide the organizations.
“I think the similarities start with culture,’’ said Sam Fuld, an outfielder who played for both teams and is now a Phillies coach. “Both really embrace the idea that giving players the freedom to be themselves will result in a better player on the field. And they both surround the players with really good coaches that perpetuate that culture.
“They also foster a culture of innovation and risk-taking. Whether it’s on-field strategy, transactionally, or on the development side, both organizations tend to — necessarily — take chances.’’
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And knowing sometimes those have to be high-risk and unpopular ones, such as the Rays trading franchise pillar Evan Longoria followed by their 2018 spring cleaning, or the A’s dealing All-Stars Yeonis Cespedes and Josh Donaldson.
“Both organizations have developed a willingness to make a decision that they believe is best for them based on the reflection (on their past moves) and what they learned independent of how it may be perceived,’’ said Rays GM Erik Neander.
Another element is having the support of their bosses in going about things in less traditional ways, and the camaraderie, and even us-against-the-world mentality that can foster.
“I think the thing that sticks out the most, in both places, is just how much everyone genuinely enjoys working together,’’ said Dan Feinstein, assistant GM of the A’s who was an exec with the Rays 2006-11. In Oakland, he credits longtime executive VP Billy Beane for creating that atmosphere, saying his “competitive spirit sets the tone for all of us, and he maintains a contagious passion for winning.’’
Rays people say much the same about principal owner Stuart Sternberg, who prides himself on developing a front office staff that develops and grows into front-of-the room roles much like top prospects matriculate. Ultimately, it’s about putting players on the field, and not big-name superstars, that can win games, and that, too, is part of the process.
"Both the Rays and A’s are organizations working with small budgets but are committed to winning,’’ said Giants catcher Stephen Vogt, who came up with Tampa Bay and spent five years with Oakland. “Every year they expect to win and put that expectation on their players. Both orgs do a great job of drafting and finding guys that buy in to their process, leading to a close knit, talented group that expects to succeed.”
Sternberg acknowledged that the Rays borrowed, more philosophically than specifically, from some of the A’s formative practices that were chronicled in the book, and movie, Moneyball. The A’s for a while were emphasizing on-base percentage, the Rays went in hard on run prevention, combining slick defenders and role-specific pitchers to limit other teams from scoring and off-setting a lack of offense, which costs more.
The idea, in a phrase, Sternberg said: “Finding the undervalued.’’ Because baseball is a copy cat business, other teams start doing the same and innovators like the Rays and A’s constantly have to evolve and figure out what works next.
“The (Rays) are really smart and I respect the heck out of what they’ve been able to do in turning their roster over in the last couple of seasons,’’ A’s GM David Forst said. “I do believe that we evaluate players similarly and take a similar and necessary approach to team building. I think we have been successful — despite our resources — because of a discipline in decision making and a commitment to our core beliefs that the Rays have similarly shown.‘’
The scoreboard, the standings and the postseason spotlight eventually show what teams can do it right. Even when the A’s and/or Rays succeed, they repeatedly have to prove themselves again.
“The biggest thing is that people constantly doubt the two organizations,’’ said Rays closer Emilio Pagan, who was on the A’s wild-card roster last year. “Every year they say, ‘Yeah, they had a good year last year, but is it sustainable?’ Or, 'They’re not going to be able to compete again this year, there are too many good teams.’ And every year they’re like, 'We don’t really care what you think, we’re going to show you how good we are.’‘’
Who are those guys?
Contact Marc Topkin at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.