PORT CHARLOTTE — Three Februarys ago, Kevin Kiermaier and Chris Archer stood on different sides of the Rays clubhouse and shared similar frustrations about the direction the team was headed.
The offseason had been alarming enough, as the Rays let several veterans, led by pitcher Alex Cobb, become free agents and shockingly traded franchise player Evan Longoria.
As players assembled for spring training, the Rays kept dealing, shipping out three more key players for little back in the way of immediate help. They traded Jake Odorizzi, one of their top returning starters, and outfielders Corey Dickerson, a 2017 All-Star, and Stephen Souza Jr., their reigning team MVP.
Archer said it was clear the team wasn’t as good as it had been. Kiermaier said the next day he was “100 percent frustrated and very upset with the moves,” and couldn’t understand the reasoning.
The Rays maintained that exit velocity into the season, dispatching veterans such as Alex Colome, Denard Span (part of the return for Longoria), Nathan Eovaldi, Brad Miller and Matt Andriese. Then at the July 31 deadline, while acquiring outfielder Tommy Pham, they traded All-Star catcher Wilson Ramos and Archer, their most decorated remaining player.
Several things have happened since that day.
• The Rays have won the second-most games in the majors over that span, making the playoffs twice (after just missing in 2018) and reaching last year’s World Series.
• Their farm system has been universally ranked the best in the game, lauded for both the number of high-end prospects and overall depth at all levels.
• Archer, who re-signed as a free agent this year, and Kiermaier, their longest-tenured and highest-paid player, again have something to agree on.
“It’s a great time to be a Tampa Bay Ray,” Kiermaier said. “We have a lot of talent here at the major-league level. We have a great farm system. And I just think there’s going to be a lot of winning from now until further notice.”
Added Archer: “This is the best Rays baseball team I’ve ever been a part of. It’s unique. It’s rare. I don’t think any other organization is as equipped for now and the future as this team.”
This wasn’t a surprise, nor a pleasant coincidence, given the endless hours general manager Erik Neander and his staff have invested in restructuring the roster around a young core and restocking the farm system.
But the best thought-out plans rarely work out in this game, even less with financial limitations that require unpopular moves in a constant churn of the roster and limit the ability to compensate for injuries and evaluation mistakes.
“In order for us to be a successful organization, it takes a lot of big-picture planning, a lot of great people, and a lot of good fortune along the way,” Neander said. “We feel our talent on our major-league club and our talent base throughout our system is as strong as perhaps it’s ever been. And we’ve been able to win a lot of games at the major-league level the last few years.
“The challenge now is doing what we can to try to sustain that position, and that is a really big challenge. … We like where we’re at. And we’re up for all the challenges that come with trying to maintain it.”
Risk and reward
The Yankees and Blue Jays obviously will have a say in the Rays’ chances to win another American League East title. The leaguewide competition for the two wild-card spots will be thick. And the Dodgers already are favorites to win a second World Series.
Some of the Rays’ challenges are self-imposed, such as the restrictions that typically leave them among the lowest payrolls in the game, in the $60 million to $75 million range. As a result, they often part ways with their biggest names. (And like other teams, they are being impacted significantly by ongoing financial losses stemming from the pandemic, playing with no fans last year and starting with a limited capacity, about 25 percent, this season.)
You won’t find many other teams who just won a pennant trading one of their top starters, Blake Snell, and letting the other walk, as the Rays declined Charlie Morton’s reasonable $15 million option.
But the Snell trade brought back four potential future pieces, including a premium pitcher from the Padres, Luis Patino, who is likely to pitch key innings this season, and freed up $39 million over three years. The Rays used the money that would have gone to Morton to sign multiple starter options: Archer ($6.5 million), Michael Wacha ($3 million), Rich Hill ($2.5 million) and Collin McHugh ($1.8 million).
Between those four, returning starters Tyler Glasnow and Ryan Yarbrough, and creative handling, the Rays feel good about the rotation to begin the year. Backup catcher Francisco Mejia, also acquired from San Diego, is the only newcomer to a position-player group that will include a full year from postseason sensation Randy Arozarena. Add in a relatively intact bullpen and the Rays are confident they’ll contend for a third straight playoff berth, while being further motivated by the frustration of falling two wins short of the championship last year.
When they need pitching help, they have a mound of young arms available, such as Patino, Shane McClanahan, Josh Fleming (if he doesn’t make the opening-day roster), Brent Honeywell, Joe Ryan, Shane Baz and Brendan McKay (recovering from shoulder surgery). That group might be better now than what some teams currently have in the majors.
If the Rays do need a boost on the player side, they have a treasure trove of top prospects, starting with consensus No. 1 Wander Franco and including Vidal Brujan, Taylor Walls, Josh Lowe, Kevin Padlo and Xavier Edwards.
Continuity is coveted
You can see why the Rays feel good about the present and the future.
“Wanting that balance and trying to strike it effectively is really challenging and comes with trade-offs that are very, very difficult to work through, to understand and to execute on,” Neander said. “That’s the goal. It’s an ambitious goal to compete and to do it in a sustainable fashion.”
Though they’ll adjust at times, such as the franchise-record $15 million salaries for Morton the previous two seasons, principal owner Stuart Sternberg eschews “all-in” moves, where they jack up the payroll or dip deep into their prospect pool to maximize winning in any one season.
“Our approach is one that we prioritize sustained competitiveness,” Neander said, “and trying to give each team a shot year in, year out and, candidly, at the expense of giving one single team perhaps an ever greater one. We just feel that our best chance to win a World Series is to be competitive in as many years as possible.”
Kiermaier, entering his ninth season with the Rays, said he now has a better appreciation for their methods — and their moves.
“I just learned not to question what Erik does; we trust him,” Kiermaier said. “They have a very good system for how they envision things. Sometimes it might not be the best for the present, but you will reap the benefits in the near future.”
Sternberg also feels pretty good about where they are and where they are going.
“I know we’ve got some depth in a lot of the areas, some younger guys behind them,” he said. “So I feel great about it, this year, the next year, the next few years. The key will be us maintaining, continue to build and grow our pitching around that. …
“If I can look a couple years out and know that we’ll be more than competitive, then we’re doing our job.”
Contact Marc Topkin at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.
Rays by the (big) numbers
Salaries, compiled from industry sources, for players on the Rays 40-man roster. Salaries for players not yet eligible for arbitration are determined by a service-time related formula in slight increments over the major-league minimum, $570,500 this year. Most have split contracts and are paid at a lesser rate when in minors.
OF Kevin Kiermaier, $11,500,000
OF Yoshi Tsutsugo, $7,000,000
P Chris Archer, $6,500,000
P Tyler Glasnow, $4,000,000
OF Manuel Margot, $3,400,000
P Michael Wacha, $3,000,000
P Rich Hill, $2,500,000
INF Brandon Lowe, $2,500,000
1B Ji-Man Choi+, $2,450,000
P Ryan Yarbrough, $2,300,000
INF Joey Wendle, $2,250,000
C Mike Zunino, $2,000,000
P Collin McHugh, $1,800,000
P Yonny Chirinos*, $1,175,000
P Chaz Roe, $1,150,000
P Oliver Drake*, $775,000
INF Willy Adames, $590,000
INF Yandy Diaz, $588,900
P Jalen Beeks*, $588,800
P Nick Anderson, $587,900
INF Mike Brosseau, $586,300
P Jeffrey Springs, $585,000
OF Brett Phillips+, $584,400
P Pete Fairbanks, $583,800
P Diego Castillo, $582,300
OF Austin Meadows, $581,400
OF Randy Arozarena, $581,200
P Cody Reed, $581,200
P Trevor Richards, $580,900
C Francisco Mejia, $580,500
P Colin Poche*, $577,800
P Ryan Thompson, $577,200
P Chris Mazza, $576,000
P Josh Fleming, $575,900
P Ryan Sherriff, $574,800
P Luis Patino, $573,000
P/1B Brendan McKay, $571,700
INF Vidal Brujan, $570,500
P Brent Honeywell, $570,500
OF Josh Lowe, $570,500
P Shane McClanahan, $570,500
INF Kevin Padlo, $570,500
P Drew Strotman, $570,500
INF Taylor Walls, $570,500
Non-roster players still in camp as of March 24: P David Hess, INF Dalton Kelly, P Andrew Kittredge, OF Miles Mastrobuoni, C Joseph Odom, C Kevan Smith, C Brett Sullivan
*On 60-day injured list
+Players expected to open season on 10-day injured list