ST. PETERSBURG — He’s gone now, and that’s regrettable. Like Evan Longoria, Carl Crawford, Ben Zobrist and so many others before him, Kevin Kiermaier is putting his Tampa Bay uniform in a trunk.
Like it or not, this is the secret to the Rays’ success. On a roster where every penny counts, sentimentality is a luxury the franchise cannot afford.
The Rays are often aggressive when it comes to signing younger players to long-term deals, but they are unsparing when it comes to evaluating cost vs. production as the paychecks grow larger.
This is the strategy that has led to the fourth-best record in baseball over the last 15 years despite spending less on payroll than 28 of the 29 other teams since 2008.
In the team’s early days, Tampa Bay often chased feel-good stories. They brought Wade Boggs home. They brought Fred McGriff home. Tino Martinez and Doc Gooden, too. They also lost 90 games a year.
Once Stu Sternberg bought the team, the Rays flipped the script. Schmaltz was sacrificed for efficiency. And now the Rays are winning 90 games a year.
The genius of the current front office is undeniable, although not necessarily infallible. The Rays have made mistakes along the way. It could be argued that Kiermaier’s contract was one of them.
Was a $53.5 million deal too much for a defensive specialist in centerfield? Should they have traded him when they had the chance? For that matter, did they deal Longoria one year too soon, or one year too late? Should they have traded Crawford before he left via free agency?
In Tampa Bay’s universe, knowing when to cut bait is just as critical as the initial investment of a long-term deal. With the benefit of hindsight, let’s look at some of the biggest moves in Rays history and ponder the timing of the inevitable breakups.
162-game average with the Rays from 2012-18: 10-13, 3.69 ERA
162-game average post-Rays from 2018-22: 5-11, 4.78 ERA
The timing: Archer was a two-time All-Star, had averaged 200 innings for four consecutive seasons, was just 29 years old and had three years remaining on his contract. You would think he was the kind of pitcher to build around, but he was also maddeningly inefficient. The Rays dealt him to Pittsburgh at midseason, and he’s never been the same pitcher again. Meanwhile, the Rays got Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows and Shane Baz in return.
The verdict: One of the greatest moves ever.
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162-game average with the Rays from 2002-10: .296, 14 HR, 78 RBI, 54 SB
162-game average post-Rays from 2011-16: .271, 11 HR, 59 RBI, 24 SB
The timing: Tampa Bay allowed Crawford to get to the end of his deal and tried to re-sign him during free agency but didn’t come close to matching Boston’s 7-year, $142 million offer. The question is whether the Rays should have traded Crawford a year or two sooner when they could still get something in return. It’s one of those rare instances where the Rays sacrificed the future to go for broke in a single calendar year. Considering they won 96 games and the AL East title in 2010, it’s hard to argue with their logic. For Boston, meanwhile, it was a historically bad signing.
Verdict: Rolled the dice.
162-game average with the Rays from 2004-09: 13-10, 3.92 ERA
162-game average post-Rays from 2009-21: 11-11, 4.12 ERA
The timing: One of the stranger episodes in Rays history. Tampa Bay signed Kazmir to a 4-year, $28.5 million deal in May of 2008, started him in Game 1 of the World Series in October of 2008 and traded him to Anaheim by August of 2009. The front office had seriously soured on Kazmir’s dedication to the game and did not want his nonchalance to rub off on David Price. It doesn’t look like they got a haul in return, but eventually spun off some pieces and ended up with Sean Rodriguez, Logan Forsythe, Brad Boxberger and Matt Andriese.
The verdict: Addition by subtraction.
162-game average with the Rays from 2013-22: .248, 15 HR, 56 RBI
162-game average post-Rays from 2023: TBD
The timing: For a team that routinely trades veterans as their salary increases, Kiermaier is an anomaly. While there were whispers of potential trades as far back as 2018, “KK” remained in Tampa Bay until the final guaranteed year of his contract (the team turned down a $13 million option for 2023). Was that a mistake? Not to fans who appreciate his defensive brilliance as well as his engaging personality. And from an analytics standpoint, his combined 4.5 WAR for 2021-22 was just about the going rate for his $23.5 million in salary the past two years. Still, not knowing what the Rays were offered in trades, it feels like he should have been traded a year ago.
The verdict: Thanks for the memories.
162-game average with the Rays from 2008-17: .270, 32 HR, 101 RBI
162-game average post-Rays from 2018-22: .250, 24 HR, 81 RBI
The timing: This was a complete salary dump. Longo was one of the best bargains in MLB during his original 9-year, $44.5 million deal, but by the time his 6-year, $100 million extension kicked in, he was becoming a fiscal liability and heading toward health problems. The Rays agreed to pay the Giants $14.5 million of the $87 million still owed to him, plus they took on Denard Span’s contract before flipping him a few months later. It could be argued the money saved on Longoria’s deal allowed the Rays to sign Charlie Morton a year later.
Verdict: Traded at the perfect moment.
162-game average with the Rays from 2019-20: 15-6, 3.33 ERA
162-game average post-Rays from 2021-22: 12-6, 3.83 ERA
The timing: The $30 million for two years committed to Morton in 2019 was the most money the Rays had spent on a free agent since Greg Vaughn in 2000. And it was worth every penny. The only question was whether the Rays would pick up an option for a third year in 2021 for another $15 million. They did not, and you could argue that was their worst decision in recent seasons. While the Rays won 100 games in 2021, they went into the postseason without a veteran pitcher they could depend on, and got clocked by the Red Sox.
The verdict: Would you spend $15 million for a pennant?
162-game average with the Rays from 2008-14: 16-9, 3.18 ERA
162-game average post-Rays from 2014-22: 15-8, 3.49 ERA *
The timing: Since the Rays were still considered contenders going into 2014, they tried threading the needle and holding onto Price before he was due to become a free agent in 18 months. When they struggled early, they dealt him to Detroit in July for Willy Adames and Drew Smyly. Would they have been better off trading Price after the 2013 season? Maybe, but Adames turned into a heck of a player and Smyly was flipped for Ryan Yarbrough and Mallex Smith (who was later traded for Mike Zunino).
The verdict: Between a rock and a hard ace.
* As a starter.
162-game average with the Rays from 2006-12: 14-11, 3.89 ERA
162-game average post-Rays from 2013-18: 10-12, 4.17 ERA
The timing: Shields had a pair of options worth about $23 million remaining on his deal. Because the Rays had an abundance of starting pitching, they opted to get younger and save money by dealing him to Kansas City for Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi. Did it work? Tampa Bay won 92 games and earned a wild card in 2013, and Odorizzi was a functional and cheap replacement for several years. So maybe that would have been a wash. Except the Rays also included Wade Davis in the deal and he turned into a valuable closer for a short time.
Verdict: Could have done better.
162-game average with the Rays from 2016-20: 13-9, 3.24 ERA
162-game average post-Rays from 2021-22: 10-11, 3.79 ERA
The timing: At age 28, Snell was theoretically in his prime. But his numbers were trending in the wrong direction and an inability to keep his pitch count under control was frustrating. With $39 million remaining on his contract for the next three years, the Rays moved him to San Diego before the wheels potentially came off. The jury is still out on the return (Francisco Mejia, Luis Patino and minor league prospects Blake Hunt and Cole Wilcox) but you don’t hear many complaints about Snell’s absence. You might quibble and say the Rays could have moved him a year sooner and gotten a bigger haul, but he wasn’t far removed from his 2018 Cy Young days.
The verdict: Tough call, but probably the right one.
162-game average with the Rays from 2006-14: .264, 17 HR, 78 RBI
162-game average post-Rays from 2015-19: .271, 15 HR, 71 RBI
The timing: This had more to do with the team’s shortcomings than Zobrist’s play. The Rays were coming off their first losing season in years and knew they needed time to reload. Thus, Zobrist was expendable heading into the last year of his contract. The problem is the return was insufficient. John Jaso, Daniel Robertson and Boog Powell were all on the move again in a few years.
Verdict: Should have gotten more for a unique commodity.
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