The Rays say they don’t try to be different, that it just happens in their ongoing battle to win more games with limited resources, leading to innovative strategies and significant roster churn. And they do quite well, reaching the postseason eight times in the last 15 years, including four straight.
Add in the quirkiness of Tropicana Field, attendance woes and other issues, and they are truly one of the most interesting teams in the majors. Here, to mark their 25th anniversary, are 25 things — good and bad — that set them apart:
As much as any of the myriad strategic innovations the Rays have tried, the opener plan literally changed the game — for better or worse depending on your perspective.
Hatched from conversations principal owner Stuart Sternberg and Wall Street colleagues/future top Rays executives Matt Silverman and Andrew Friedman started before they took control of the team in October 2005, the Rays in May 2018 unveiled the plan most other teams would soon copy.
Rather than run out an inadequate option as their fourth or fifth starter and hope they could find a way to get into the fifth or sixth innings, the Rays would change the way innings were distributed.
Their plan was to use a reliever to get the first three to six outs, then, at a favorable spot in the lineup, bring in a pitcher — sometimes of opposite-handedness to flip the opposing lineup — to work bulk innings. And if that worked and the Rays had the lead, they would then be aggressive in bringing in their top relievers.
It worked perfectly in its official debut, as righty Sergio Romo struck out the side in the first, then lefty Ryan Yarbrough took over and allowed only four hits and one run over six-plus innings. Overall, the Rays have used an opener 151 times and are 91-60 (.603) in those games.
Raymond and DJ Kitty
Maybe it’s just that one furry, odd-looking mascot would be enough. Please.
Processing and analyzing
Wanting to include as many smart people from their organization in the decision-making process, the Rays in 2019 introduced Jonathan Erlichman as the game’s first process and analytics coach. Erlichman, a Canadian who didn’t play baseball beyond T-ball, is in uniform and in the dugout during games. They have been to the playoffs four straight times since he moved into that role.
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Given the sparse crowds at Tropicana Field, the Rays look for ways to create noise and energy. One strategy that paid off can be traced back to 2006, when the team played a clip of the popular Saturday Night Live skit featuring Christopher Walken as a record producer insisting a song needed “more cowbell.’’ Fans started bringing their own cowbells to shake, and the team would do cowbell giveaways.
As much as the Rays regularly churn their roster, they occasionally pick up a veteran at the tail end of his career. Sometimes it works out well for both parties, sometimes not. Among the players who finished their big-league careers as Rays: Roberto Alomar (spring training), Tampa-raised Hall of Famers Wade Boggs and Fred McGriff, Hideki Matsui, Manny Ramirez, Ozzie Guillen, John Rocker.
The Rays also have had a collection of big-name players who had such small roles you may not remember they once played in Tampa Bay: Julio Franco, Jose Bautista, Juan Guzman, Dwight Gooden, Hideo Nomo, Norm Charlton.
Former manager Joe Maddon was always looking for a theme, an inspiration or at least a T-shirt idea. He kind of got all three when he came up with 9 = 8 going into the 2008 season. The basic premise is that if players go hard for nine innings they can end up one of the then-eight teams that make the postseason. Deeper, it also suggested they could do so by getting nine more wins via better pitching, hitting and defending. That year they clinched their first playoff berth with their 93rd win, 27 more than the year before.
The Rays’ traditional lighting of the Tropicana Field roof orange after wins is one that has great appeal … and hopefully continues in some form in their new stadium.
A polarizing figure
Original owner Vince Naimoli deserves immense credit for his diligence and investment in finally securing a a franchise for Tampa Bay in the 1995 expansion process.
But he turned out to be a big part of the problem given a series of missteps that alienated fans and sponsors, a boorish personality and hard-charging style. Tales of his insistence on cost-saving methods, harassing employees and getting into confrontations abounded. That included trying to stop media from bringing concession stand food into the press box and seeking to have a scout who wandered into the executive bathroom just off the press box banned for life.
Also, he once had all the Tampa Bay Times newspaper boxes that were in and around the stadium (as part of a sponsorship agreement) stacked on the loading dock because he didn’t like a parody article in that day’s edition.
Another polarizing figure
Current principal owner Stuart Sternberg gets divergent reviews depending on the audience. Some tout him for the team’s continued unlikely success and community involvement while others taunt him for the routinely low payrolls and absence of an agreement for a new stadium. The team’s performance since he took over in October 2005 is unquestioned.
What’s old is new again
The original Devil Rays uniforms with the multi-hued logos were dismissed and ridiculed at the time, then ditched after three seasons for a dark green color scheme. But now they’re back as throwback jerseys and caps, and have become hot items, with the team planning to wear them for Friday home games.
The Rays were at the start of the shift revolution, aggressively repositioning infielders to areas where data showed the ball was more likely to be hit. As other teams started putting an infielder in short rightfield or up the middle, the Rays sought new frontiers, putting three infielders between second and third for some right-handers and going with a four-across outfield. New rules this year will limit that, but creative-thinking teams such as the Rays will find the next way.
Another move by the Rays to narrow the competitive disparity was to make liberal use of platoons in the lineup construction. In simple terms, two players who did limited things well — such as one hitting right-handers consistently and the other lefties — were a much more affordable option than one star who could do both.
The Rays have an interesting group of managers: Larry Rothschild, Hal McRae, Lou Piniella, Joe Maddon and Kevin Cash. Cash has been the most successful. Maddon was the best talker. And Piniella the most fiery and colorful, with some legendary temper tantrums on the field that are missing from today’s game.
Ones who got away
The Rays don’t seem to miss often on player personnel decisions, but there are a few big names who got away, including: Buster Posey (who they didn’t draft first in 2008, taking Tim Beckham), Josh Hamilton (right, who they left unprotected in the Rule 5 draft after his repeated drug issues), and Trea Turner (who they got in trade from San Diego as a first-year pro and immediately flipped to Washington to get Steven Souza Jr.).
Birth of the Zorilla
In pioneering the use of players in a super utility role, the Rays made Ben Zobrist a star. Acquired from Houston in 2006 as a light-hitting shortstop, he literally grew into a dominant force, playing everywhere but pitcher and catcher during nine seasons, and piling up a 35.3 WAR that is third highest in franchise history.
The never-ending story
Like a dark cloud, the search for a new stadium has been hanging over the Rays since 2007, albeit with an end seemingly in sight soon one way or the other. The Rays have sought to have one built on the St. Petersburg waterfront with a sail-like covering, in a dome in Ybor City, elsewhere in Tampa as part of a proposed team-sharing plan with Montreal and now adjacent to the current site as part of a massive downtown redevelopment, while also keeping talks going with Tampa interests.
Reliever Renovation Co.
The Rays have had a remarkable run of success picking up relievers who were struggling or not being used properly and unlocking extreme success. This goes back to Grant Balfour in 2008, and includes Fernando Rodney and Rafael Soriano and even Jason Adam last year.
Proceed with caution
Making trades is getting tougher for the Rays, as the success they have had in making deals has resulted in other teams reluctant to engage. The 2018 trade that send Chris Archer to Pittsburgh for Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows and prospect Shane Baz has been the gold standard, though injuries and issues have limited the return. Getting Jeffrey Springs from Boston in spring 2021 was a heist. And now it looks like deals of spare parts for prospects Curtis Mead (from Phillies) and Junior Caminero (Guardians) could pay off huge.
Much like the Cleveland team has done, the Rays are always looking to lock up young players to long-term deals in an effort — albeit risky — to save money on later seasons. When they signed Wander Franco for a guaranteed $182 million in November 2021, he was the fifth player with less than a full year in the majors that they inked to a multi-year contract.
How is it that through 25 seasons, some people, including in the media, still don’t get, or care enough to know, that the Rays play in St. Petersburg and not Tampa?
Red carpet treatment
Among celebrities who have attended games at Tropicana Field: Paula Abdul, Stephen King, Chris Rock, Mitt Romney, Susan Sarandon, Cheryl Tiegs, Kate Upton and Dick Vitale. Among those performing Trop concerts: Joan Jett, Miranda Lambert, Avril Lavigne and Earth, Wind & Fire.
The ‘Hit’ Show
It seemed like a good idea, except for the jingle, after a rough first two seasons to bulk up the lineup. So the Devil Rays traded for Vinny Castilla and signed Greg Vaughn to join Jose Canseco and Fred McGriff with the expectation that the four sluggers would make a smashing, well-muscled team. Instead they often went down swinging, and the “Hit Show” should have added a consonant.
Real-life slide show
In their effort to keep payroll down, the Rays frequently churn their roster, which includes trading away their best and most popular players. That includes four of their top-six career WAR leaders: No. 1 Evan Longoria, No. 3 Ben Zobrist, No. 5 David Price, No. 6 James Shields. They also let No. 2 Carl Crawford, No. 4 Kevin Kiermaier and No. 9 B.J. Upton leave as free agents.
Remembering Dave Wills
Tributes have been and will continue to pour in for radio announcer Dave Wills, who spent 18 seasons in the booth before passing away unexpectedly March 5. The Rays will wear a batting helmet decal all season and start a scholarship program in his honor.
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