ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays deserve your love. If not your love, at least your respect.
Year after year, they put a winning product on the field even with the odds stacked against them. And, trust me, the percentages are definitely not in their favor.
While Major League Baseball is loath to admit it, economics matter when it comes to winning. Over the last 15 seasons, 64 percent of the playoff teams were in the top half of the league in payroll. So it goes to follow that only 36 percent of MLB’s postseason teams were among the bottom half of spenders.
Care to guess which franchise had the most postseason appearances from that lower end of the economic scale? You got it. The Rays have made the playoffs eight times, which puts them in a gated community of Dodgers, Yankees, Cardinals and Braves teams.
When you look at it from that perspective, the Rays way of doing things should be celebrated. Even emulated and venerated.
But should it also be recalculated?
As much success as they’ve had in the regular season, the Rays have been less proficient in the postseason. Which makes total sense. The higher you climb, the harder it is to breathe.
But is it possible that the Rays have hit a plateau?
The Rays do not see it that way. Nor,baseball operations president Erik Neander said, are they satisfied to think that way.
“If you say to me, over the next 10 years I can guarantee you one World Series win, but it’s going to come with eight seasons of winning no more than 75 games,” Neander said. “Or, over the next 10 years, I can guarantee you nine 90-win seasons but never a World Series. Which way do you go?
“Take the World Series. One hundred percent, no question. We take the World Series. But the problem is you don’t get that guarantee.”
There are a handful of teams that have used analytics to stay competitive while spending less money than their division foes. The Rays are the most heralded, but Oakland has been using this formula for years. Milwaukee, Minnesota and Cleveland have also had success with similar strategies.
Between them, those five franchises have 28 postseason appearances since 2008. They also have zero World Series titles. For comparison’s sake, the Cardinals, Yankees and Red Sox also have 28 postseason appearances over that same period. And they have combined for four World Series titles.
High-revenue teams may have embraced analytics to varying degrees, but those strategies are supplemented with as much as $100-150 million more in annual salaries.
Of the 14 World Series champions since 2008, not a single one was in the bottom half of payroll. The closest were the Astros (No. 15) in 2017 and the Royals (No. 13) in 2015.
So, to pose the question in another way, is there something the Rays need to do differently?
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“The end goal isn’t making the playoffs; the end goal is winning a World Series,” said general manager Peter Bendix. “And so we’ve asked ourselves — and we will continue asking ourselves — how can we get over that hump? What can we do to build a team capable of getting through 162 games, but then also getting through the sprint for 13 (postseason) wins? That’s a question we’ll continue to ask ourselves.”
There are some obvious answers. Spend more money and you have a better chance of winning. The Cubs signed free agents Jon Lester, John Lackey, Jason Heyward, Dexter Fowler and Ben Zobrist, and traded for Aroldis Chapman at the deadline. They nearly doubled their payroll in two years, going from $94 million to $186 million. They also won the 2016 World Series.
You could also build through the draft. The Royals picked in the top-five of the draft four times in five years and turned those picks into Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer and Luke Hochevar. They won the World Series in 2015.
Circumstances being what they are, neither of those options has been available to the Rays. They do not have the revenues to justify a payroll the size of New York or Los Angeles, and they have won too consistently to pick high in the draft.
That does not leave a lot of room to maneuver. They still believe run prevention is their best chance for success, and so that will not change. They also believe they’re better off taking as many shots at the postseason as possible, and so they will continue to juggle the roster to keep one eye on the future.
But, if the moment is right and the player is available, they will step out of their comfort zone to take a bigger swing than they normally might.
Giving up pitching prospect Joe Ryan to get Nelson Cruz at the trade deadline in 2021 is one example. Pursuing Freddie Freeman last offseason is another. So was signing Tyler Glasnow to a $25 million salary in 2024.
Of course, the flip side to this whole notion of changing their methods is this:
The Rays came within two wins of a World Series title in 2020. When you’re that close to the brass ring — or in this case, the gaudy diamond ring — why reconsider a winning formula?
“In the effort to win a World Series is there a better way to approach it,” Neander asked rhetorically. “It’s a very fair question, and it’s a question that’s appropriate to ask until the day comes when we win one.”
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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