Unconventional Wisdom: The Rays Flip the Switch
It is rare in baseball to talk about team cohesion. In contrast to the other major sports, there are relatively few interactions between players on the same club. The pitcher stands out on the mound all there by himself and throws the ball; the hitter stands there in the batters' box all there by himself and hopes to hit it. There is no baseball equivalent of
But there is such a thing as a baseball team that is less than the sum of its parts. This is a team that would be constructed less with an eye toward winning in the near-term, and more with an eye with stockpiling talent for the future. There are a couple ways to identify such a team. They probably have an excess of players at some positions, and a deficit at others. They probably do poorly at a couple of the little luxuries that good teams get right -- having a decent bullpen, for instance (nobody has much need for a closer if there are few wins to close out), or playing good defense (the effects of which are hard to quantify, and therefore, easy to short-cut).
Until this season, the Tampa Bay Rays had been such a team: the baseball equivalent of the L.A. Clippers. Consider a couple of the categories I just mentioned. In 2007 the Rays were an awful defensive team. In fact, they may have been the worst defensive team in baseball history. We've tracked each team's
The bullpen? Tampa Bay relievers combined for a 6.16 ERA last season, which was also among the worst figures in baseball history. Having a bullpen that bad usually makes teams do crazy things, like deciding to pay $10 million for
Team balance? The Devil Rays had five players who had a legitimate argument for making the All-Star team last year: Upton,
Put differently, the Rays had an awful lot of room to make additions by subtraction. The difficult part about baseball is supposed to be locking up blue-chip assets such as Upton and Kazmir at below market rate; The Rays had done plenty of that. But they hadn't really bothered to sweat the small stuff -- to dump some of their dead weight, to make sure they had guys who were up to the job defensively, or to tend to their bullpen.
Until this winter, that is, when the Rays decided to transform themselves from a sort of hedge fund for undervalued assets into a real, functional baseball club. The lynchpin move behind that transition was trading
The Rays also decided to sign
But a quick run through their offseason checklist reveals that sometimes the best-laid plans go even better than expected:
Is the Rays' success likely to continue in the second half? Odds are that it is. Certainly the Rays have had a couple of breakout performances -- take
The whole point is that the improvements the Rays have made are structural. Yes, it is a lot of fun when you're a team like the White Sox, and you have guys like
The handful of transactions the Rays made this winter were not by any means overly complicated; in retrospect, they almost seem obvious. But they were moves made by a team that had the self-confidence to look in the mirror and like what it saw. The Rays put aside the fact that they had never won more than 70 games in a season and recognized that, on a talent-for-talent basis, they had a 40-man roster that was the envy of many clubs in baseball. They recognized that guys like Longoria would be ready to start contributing immediately, and that it was not too soon to start competing.
These things are tougher than you might think, as honest self-assessment is elusive to many teams in baseball. The more commonly-seen problem is for a club to overrate the amount of talent it has, and either compromise its future for a team that needs a lot of help rather than a little (take this year's Mariners), or fail to improve on a roster that is due to regress to the mean (take this year's Rockies). But there are also teams that take too long to flip the switch and make a run at competing; the Rays turned things on at just the right time.