Rays find that staying at the top is even harder than getting there
LIFE IS LIKE A GAME OF CARDS. THE HAND THAT IS DEALT YOU REPRESENTS DETERMINISM. THE WAY YOU PLAY IT IS FREE WILL.
That the Rays would be displeased with a 78-74 record on Sept. 23 would have seemed laughable two years ago, but that was before they surprised everyone by reaching the World Series last October, and in so doing became the very model of a small-market franchise. A lot has continued to go right in 2009. The Rays have received unexpected breakout seasons from shortstop
So why, then, are the Rays on track to win 83 games, 14 fewer than they did in 2008? Some of it, general manager
The Rays acquired then 22-year-old
That would be the acquisition of designated hitter
Upton seemed to be a future five-tool superstar back in 2007, when, as a 22-year-old, he hit .300 with 24 home runs, 82 RBIs and stole 22 bases in just 129 games. His power stroke, hampered by a torn labrum in his shoulder, deserted him last season -- at least until the playoffs, when he hit seven homers in 16 games after clubbing just nine in 145 during the regular season -- but he made up for that by becoming a much more selective hitter (his batting average dropped to .273, but his on-base-percentage only fell from .386 to .383).
The thought was that after undergoing shoulder surgery during the offseason, he would put everything together this year. That has not happened. Upton has yet to regain his power stroke (he has 10 home runs in 134 games so far), and he's no longer drawing many bases on balls (just 52 of them). As a result his OBP in '09 is a miserable .307, and his .669 OPS is the worst among the 59 outfielders who currently qualify for the batting title. Upton remains a superb center fielder -- his UZR of 11.6 ranks behind only the Mariners'
In July 2008 the Rays were legitimate contenders to acquire the Indians' Sabathia or the Pirates'
"We will always be opportunistic if we can improve our club," Friedman said. "But in our situation, we can't lose sight of the balance we have to strike between the present and the future. Our goal is to sustain a competitive team for many years, and the way we are going to do that is with our own young talent. We were pretty aggressive in conversations we had the past two years, but weren't able to line anything up that we felt like was in the best interests of the organization."
That philosophy has proven to be a good one for a club that has baseball's sixth-lowest payroll -- by necessity, due to its small market and a fickle fan base that came out in blue-Mohawk-wearing, cowbell-ringing droves during last year's playoffs, but this season has given the Rays only a modest attendance bump (from an average of 22,259 in '08 to 23,815 in '09).
The organization would surely have regretted sacrificing any part of their future for Martinez this season, as his contributions would not possibly have been enough to close the current 12 1/2-game gap between the Rays and the wild-card-leading Boston Red Sox. The Rays' white-knuckled grip on their prospects appears to have set them up to "sustain a competitive team," as is Friedman's worthy goal, for years, due to a core that remains young and cheap, a number of starting pitchers (including
Of course, the Rays happen to play in the American League East, a division that's also home to two clubs -- the Yankees and the Red Sox -- with the financial wherewithal to sign several of the game's most expensive free agents every offseason, and, if need be, to add more short-term-rental stars at every trading deadline. The reality for the Rays is that if they are to not merely compete with their wealthy division-mates, but to top them, they will have to have one of those seasons in which everything clicks perfectly, or nearly so.
Last year, in which they reached Game 5 of the World Series against the Phillies, was one of those seasons, and the Rays will always wonder whether the mid-season addition of Sabathia, even at the cost of some down-the-road success, might have provided that one extra boost to win them an improbable championship. Most seasons in the years to come, however, will likely look a lot like this one, in which a few unpleasant developments -- a down year by the starting pitchers, a slump by the center fielder, disappointing production from a key free-agent addition -- will leave the Rays competitive but unable to sustain a run past the Yankees or Red Sox, who can afford to spend money, and lots of it, to address their own unpleasant developments.
That the long-moribund Rays have become a competitive franchise at all represents a terrific accomplishment. But those playoff cowbells and that blue hairspray will likely gather dust on high shelves in the closets of fans throughout the Tampa area until another rare and special season like 2008 comes along, when the Rays are dealt a full house and play it perfectly. The economic realities of modern major league baseball mean that the Rays' margin for error will continue to be playing-card-thin. There will, in other words, be a lot more 2009s in the Rays' future than there are 2008s.