Is this the best team in Rays’ history? Well, it depends

Rays Tales | Based on regular-season success, it could be. But do postseason results matter?
With players like Randy Arozarena, who has a shot at Rookie of the Year, among other young players making their mark, is this one of the best Rays teams?
With players like Randy Arozarena, who has a shot at Rookie of the Year, among other young players making their mark, is this one of the best Rays teams? [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Oct. 2, 2021

NEW YORK — These Rays are the winningest regular-season team in franchise history. But are they the best team?

First, define best.

You can argue that success in the regular season, over the grind of six months, is a more telling measure than the randomness and luck that factor into October matchups.

Or take a bottom-line view, meaning this team has to get to the World Series to even join the conversation with the 2008 and 2020 squads that made it. That means the 2010 team, which might have had the most talented Rays roster, would not be in the discussion since it lost in the first round of the playoffs.

Related, how do you factor in the 2020 team that went 40-20 in the abbreviated season? If simple math is fair, that team would have gone 108-54 over a full season and we wouldn’t be having this debate.

Or do you look at the quality of the players?

The 2008 team had the AL Rookie of the Year (Evan Longoria), 12 past or present All-Stars, three of the franchise’s best-ever position players (Carl Crawford, Ben Zobrist, Longoria), and a future Cy Young winner (David Price).

The 2010 team, which won 96 games, had much of the same group, but with a better bullpen anchored by Rafael Soriano.

The 2020 team was more like this one, a compilation of complementary parts, plus with three frontline starters (Tyler Glasnow, Charlie Morton, Blake Snell) and a more stable relief corps.

But what this group has done is prove itself repeatedly, meeting pretty much every test, holding the best record in the American League for months, going into the final weekend leading the majors in runs scored and the AL in ERA.

Rays shortstop Wander Franco has certainly been impressive during his first MLB season. Will he have the sustained star power to become the team's next marquee name?
Rays shortstop Wander Franco has certainly been impressive during his first MLB season. Will he have the sustained star power to become the team's next marquee name? [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

And that’s after the front-office decisions to part ways with Morton and Snell before the season, a litany of injuries that sidelined their top returning starter (Glasnow) and reliever (Nick Anderson, who returned in September and is sidelined again), and an ongoing roster churn (a franchise-record 61 players), including a transition to a younger — albeit quite talented — core.

Principal owner Stuart Sternberg, who took control after the 2005 season and has overseen the Rays’ emergence with seven playoff appearances in 14 years, said on Tuesday’s pre-game radio show the current group is atop his list.

“Last year was extraordinarily special,” Sternberg said. “We look back to 2008, it was special. I guess there’s a difference between the best team and the ones that are necessarily maybe the most enjoyable and most surprising, which ‘08 certainly was. But as far as the ballplayers and on the field and the organization and the coaching staff and everything, I think it is. I hate to say it, but fair to say that this is the best team we’ve fielded.”

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Bally Sports Sun analyst Brian Anderson, the former big-league pitcher (and apparent part-time philosopher) who was on the Rays coaching staff in 2008-09 and went into the booth full time in 2011, agreed.

“This is the best team in franchise history because this group has taken the Aristotle quote ‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts’ to another level,” Anderson said.

“This is the most versatile roster top to bottom that they have ever had and there are so many ways that they can beat you, from both a pitching and hitting perspective. They also have one of the deepest benches in the sport. They have to be a nightmare to prepare for.”

What happens in the future will impact the legacy of this team.

They could well have the 2021 Rookie of the Year in Randy Arozarena, but may not have a player finish in the AL MVP voting top 10 or even get a Cy Young vote.

But maybe 20-year-old shortstop Wander Franco replaces Longoria as the franchise icon and annual MVP candidate. Maybe one of the Shanes (McClanahan or Baz) wins a Cy Young. Maybe there’s a handful of All-Stars elected rather than late appointments.

Shorter term, maybe a month from now they’re hoisting the organization’s first championship trophy. No debate needed.

Rays rumblings

Erik Neander’s new contract, which included the title change from general manager to president of baseball operations, runs for five more seasons. Also, though not announced until September, it was agreed to before the All-Star break. ... The most interesting decision in setting the playoff roster will be the final bullpen spots. ... … One takeaway from last week’s Montreal sign imbroglio: Can’t think of too many other time Rays officials publicly admitted they made a mistake. … Paul Newberry of the Associated Press called the split season plan “a really, really dumb idea” and on par with “New Coke. Hair in a Can. The Godfather Part III. Auto-tune. The Ford Pinto.” … The always interesting-to-read Jayson Stark, writing in The Athletic, picked Arozarena as his top AL rookie and Kevin Cash to repeat as AL Manager of the Year. Colleague Keith Law said Franco, despite playing only 68 games through Friday, should be the obvious choice as “the most promising” rookie and “nobody comes close” to him. ... Third-base coach Rodney Linares will have a busy winter, managing the Escogido team in the Dominican league. … You’ll hear and read a lot over the next couple weeks about the Rays having one of the lowest payrolls in the majors, somewhere, depending how you count, in the $70 million range. Then consider how little they got from their second- to fourth-highest paid players: Yoshi Tsustugo, $ 7 million; Chris Archer, $6.5 million; Glasnow $4 million. … ESPN’s Jeff Passan tweeted “Franco still can’t drink legally and he’s already one of the 25 best players in the big leagues.” … Pitcher Riley O’Brien, who the Rays traded to Reds in August 2020 for reliever Cody Reed, made his big-league debut last week.

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