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The 2020 season* will be different. The Rays don’t care.

Asterisks aside, the Rays spent too much time building to contend to be concerned with naysayers.
Should the Rays be cautiously optimistic about expectations for this season, which many may view as watered down given that only 60 games are on the slate?
Should the Rays be cautiously optimistic about expectations for this season, which many may view as watered down given that only 60 games are on the slate? [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jul. 16, 2020

As the Rays looked at the original 2020 season, they very much liked the view.

They were coming off a season of great success and valuable experience. Had spent money and prospects to fortify their roster. Were positioned to reap the benefits of having rebuilt their farm system into the game’s best.

“There’s no question,” principal owner Stuart Sternberg said during a March 8 spring training game. “It’s as lined up as things could possibly get.”

That window for grand success they worked so hard to create is still wide open.

But as they head into the abbreviated 60-game season, and the litany of things that will make it different and — at least to some — discounted, they acknowledge the framing has changed.

“There’s no question,” Sternberg said July 8. “There’s definitely an asterisk.”

But how big? How bold? How binding?

Related: Rays fans prepare, with caution, for shortened season

A season of 60 games is only 37 percent of a full 162-game schedule, which hardly seems representative of the marathon challenge a normal season presents, and thus could dilute the accomplishment.

“I don’t think it devalues what gets accomplished this season, but at the same time it’s certainly not a regular 162-game schedule,” Rays infielder Joey Wendle said.

Joey Wendle and his Rays teammates reached the postseason last year. This year, they'll have a shorter distance to get there, playing  only 37 percent of what would have been a full 162-game schedule.
Joey Wendle and his Rays teammates reached the postseason last year. This year, they'll have a shorter distance to get there, playing only 37 percent of what would have been a full 162-game schedule. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

But with the significance of each game — and every pitch, swing and play — magnified close to a postseason level, roughly 2.7 times on the full-season scale, the intensity and level of competition could make each victory increasingly more rewarding.

“The World Series is the World Series,” infielder Brandon Lowe said. “Some people are going to look at it that it was only a 60-game season. But it’s only a 60-game season against the best players in the world. It’s still going to hold its value to hopefully anyone who’s in that situation.”

The Rays still feel they can be in that situation. Barring losing a series of key players to injury (a usual caveat) or illness (a most unusual one), they have the quantity and quality of arms, depth and versatility of position players, and drive and determination, plus the flexibility of mind, to deal with all the coronavirus-related rules, restrictions and regulations that will make this season more challenging.

Related: Experts say the Rays are World Series-bound. Do you agree?

One increasingly popular line of thinking is that the Rays, because of their dazzling assortment of arms, roster depth and creativity, will benefit from the adjusted format and have a better chance to win the championship.

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Internally, they see it the other way, that their edge is diminished because the condensed schedule can increase the opportunity for teams that couldn’t stay in the fight over a full season.

“Basically, you’re starting Aug. 1 with every team tied for first,” Sternberg said. “I don’t think we’re better off because of it; I think we’re worse off. Because at the end of the day I thought we were better than most all other teams. In a shorter time span, that’s against us.”

• • •

Manuel Margot takes batting practice during a spring training workout day at Charlotte Sports Park in February.
Manuel Margot takes batting practice during a spring training workout day at Charlotte Sports Park in February. [ WILL VRAGOVIC | Tampa Bay Rays ]

The Rays have worked for years to put themselves into this situation.

With their glorious run of making the playoffs four times (and the World Series once) from 2008-13 an increasingly distant memory, they set out on a plan to get back.

They first retooled their drafting process and rebuilt the farm system to produce the flow of high-ceiling, low-priced players essential to their success. Then it was a matter of timing up the arrival of the waves of talent with the core they had.

Though they did their usual roster churn in ditching veterans whose current or future salary exceeded the value of their production, there was a clear focus on acquiring players to help them win now, signing pricey (for them) free agent Charlie Morton for last season and shifting their trade strategy more to deal prospects for veterans. Then after making the 2019 playoffs, they added free agent Yoshi Tsutsugo and traded for veterans such as Hunter Renfroe, Manuel Margot and Jose Martinez, all while keeping their payroll among the majors’ lowest.

Related: 2020 MLB preview for every team in 60 words

“This didn’t come out of the blue for us,” Sternberg said. “We had been lining up last year, this year, next year, the year after to be a time for us to really bang the drum here and make a difference and have some significant success.”

The idea is to make that success sustainable, so they’re in position, if things break right, to contend every year.”

“The nice thing actually about the position we’re in is we can prepare for a two-, three, five-year window and that’s great,” Sternberg said. “The bad part is that you don’t want any one year to sacrifice those multiple years. We could sacrifice the next four years by going all-in this year, whatever that entails, but it’s not going to happen.”

Rays manager Kevin Cash looks out from the dugout while taking on the Houston Astros in Game 3 of the American League Division Series last October. Can the Rays win it all this year?
Rays manager Kevin Cash looks out from the dugout while taking on the Houston Astros in Game 3 of the American League Division Series last October. Can the Rays win it all this year? [ DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times ]

Even competing in the rugged American League East, they’ll usually feel good about those chances, especially under manager Kevin Cash, who gets them to buy in to whatever challenge is in front of them.

“This is what we’ve got,” Cash said, “and we need to make the most of it.”

Even this year, with all that’s different.

“You’ve got 30 teams right now with the same record, just the way when we show up in spring training,” veteran centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier said. “We usually play 162 games, but if every team is asked to play 60 games as of right now in 66 days, then we all have the same opportunity.

“And we’re here to win. That’s what you come to do each and every year. You win as many ballgames as you can with your team and you hope you’re fortunate enough to lift up your trophy at the end of it. We know how hard that it, but it’s very attainable.”

Related: Rays’ Stuart Sternberg: Maybe this season can be even more special

No matter if there is a qualifier to the season.

“I don’t care if there is an asterisk next to ‘World Series champs 2020,′” Kiermaier said. “The asterisk gives you a little description down low — ’60 games played due to coronavirus’ — I’ll take that any day of the week. And our teammates would do the same.

“This is our 2020 season, and, yes, it’s different than any other year. But, still, the goal doesn’t change by any means. There’s going to be a lot of excuses thrown around there by a lot of different people and teams. We’re going to try and limit those around here. Try to get everyone on the same page sooner than later and make sure everyone wants to win as bad as me, and I know our guys do. Motivation is nothing we need to worry about. Once we get on that field, we control our own destiny, and I can’t wait for that moment.”

No asterisk needed.

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