ST. PETERSBURG — Twenty-five seasons later, the game has changed. And you can thank, or blame, the Rays for much of the rebellion.
Shifts. Positional flexibility. Catcher framing. Long-term contracts for rookies and vanquished sentimentality for veterans. Re-imagined pitching staffs and re-emphasized defense. Baseball operations departments with Ivy League pedigrees and mathematical wizards with input in game-time decisions.
The Rays did not necessarily invent all of these concepts, but they came close to perfecting a lot of them.
Along the way, they won a lot of games, a handful of divisions and a couple of pennants. They also convinced a lot of owners, general managers and fans to buy into a more evidence-based way of approaching a game that had often had a staid and romantic way of doing things.
In retrospect, that may one day be viewed as Tampa Bay’s greatest contribution to baseball. Owner Stuart Sternberg and his outside-the-box collection of thinkers revolutionized a sport simply by asking the same old questions and daring to chase new answers.
But that was never their goal. At least, not the revolutionary aspect.
They were just seeking a more efficient and dependable way of winning with a franchise that did not have the economic advantages of some of the other teams in the American League East.
“We knew we couldn’t win the same way that other teams with greater financial resources do if we tried to follow their formula,” said team president Matt Silverman. “We developed a culture of entrepreneurship, of creativity, and of calculated risk-taking that, as it started to succeed, snowballed into something that’s been surprisingly successful for a long period of time.
“There’s a genuine sense of curiosity and an interest in testing. We will test the status quo, we will challenge the status quo. Not for the sake of doing it, but for the sake of trying to find ways to stretch our payroll, stretch our resources and win more games than we should.”
They have done that. They have won more games per dollar spent than any other team, and it’s not even close. They have achieved much of what they once envisioned, but one goal remains elusive.
For all of their success, the Rays have fallen just shy of winning a World Series. They fell three wins short in 2008, and two wins short in 2020.
So have they overlooked something? Is there a flaw in the plan? Is there a secret to winning the World Series that the Rays have yet to uncover?
“Until we win one,” Silverman said, “that’s going to be the question.”
Since 2008, seven teams have made the postseason at least seven times. Six of those teams have gone on to win a World Series. The Rays are the lone outcast. Is that just bad luck, or is there an inherent shortcoming in their design?
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Besides, obviously, having a payroll that is dwarfed by most other contenders.
“The better teams tend to win more often in the playoffs than the lesser teams,” Rays general manager Peter Bendix said. “Last year is a great example. The Astros were the best team in baseball, and they won the World Series. But the Phillies almost beat them, and they only won 87 games.
“You want to be the best team in baseball because you’re going to have the best odds of winning the World Series. But the difference between those odds and the Phillies with 87 wins is not as big as the difference in the talent levels between those two teams.”
From Andrew Friedman to Silverman to Erik Neander to Bendix, the Rays have always had the philosophy that the 162-game regular season is the greater challenge and the postseason is more of a crapshoot. In an analytical sense, that’s true. The best team will almost always prevail over six months, but aberrations are possible in a seven- or five- or three-game playoff series.
Now, you can lessen the chances of a postseason anomaly by building an overwhelming roster, but the Rays do not have that luxury. They’re trying to get to October every season — because you can’t win it if you’re not in it — but if they overspend in any single season they will pay the price in future seasons.
They made that gamble in 2021 by trading for Nelson Cruz in July, and his postseason performance did not match expectations. That cost the Rays a pitching prospect — Joe Ryan — who would have come in handy last season and in the years to come.
“I think the misconception is that all we’re trying to do is make the playoffs, that if we make the playoffs it’s a successful season,” Bendix said. “We’re trying to win the World Series, and we think the best way to do that is make the playoffs as often as we can. But we’re still trying to win the World Series.
“If you told me we could trade 10 prospects and that would guarantee us the World Series this year? Sign me up. We’re doing that 100 percent. But it doesn’t work that way, right?”
So the Rays will keep challenging conventions. They will keep evolving. They will keep pushing the envelope.
And, if all goes well, the next 25 years will deliver that final answer.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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