It’s fitting in some ways and a shame in others that the AL wild-card game was a matchup of the A’s and Rays, the baseball equivalent of the two Spider-Men pointing at each other meme. On one side: a plucky, small-market team running a low payroll, rolling out a roster of no-names, playing in a crappy stadium and stuck in a division with an insanely talented juggernaut that nonetheless perseveres to 96 wins and a playoff spot. On the other side: a plucky, small-market team running a low payroll, rolling out a roster of no-names, playing in a crappy stadium and stuck in a division with an insanely talented juggernaut that nonetheless perseveres to 97 wins and a playoff spot. And yet only one of Oakland or Tampa could survive.
That it’s the Rays moving on feels like a particular affront to the A’s, who pioneered the strategy of building a team with the pieces no one else wanted, dumpster diving to turn trash into pearls. They’re not the only ones running that particular game, but few franchises have perfected it quite like the Billy Beane Athletics, who’ve spent the last 16 years held up as the model of winning efficiently instead of extravagantly. This is their corner, and on Wednesday, they could only protest feebly as Tampa showed up and muscled them off it with little effort.
The Rays did so almost literally, given the presence of Yandy Diaz, who is built like an NFL defensive end and whose two homers—one leadoff to open the scoring, the other in the fourth to widen the gap, both opposite-field rockets—helped make this win happen. Diaz is the kind of piece they’ve unearthed seemingly annually over the last decade: another team’s trash becomes their treasure. Boasting biceps that wouldn’t be out of place in a 1980s action movie, the Cuban infielder was a Statcast darling as a member of the Indians for how routinely balls would leave his bat at the speed of sound. Yet Diaz pounded many of those missiles straight into the dirt, and his defense was a mess, and with a locked-in left side of the infield, Cleveland had no space for him.
Tampa did, because Tampa always does, because Tampa’s goal is to have a roster with six different options at every single position. Diaz came to Florida in a three-way deal (another Rays staple) in the offseason, earned a role as a regular corner infielder, and promptly whacked 14 homers in 79 games. An injury knocked him out for most of the second half, but there he was on Wednesday, hitting leadoff against southpaw Sean Manaea—the three plate appearances he’d collected since the end of July outweighed by the .976 OPS he posted this season against lefties. That proved to be the right call, because of course it was.
With a roster like Tampa’s, every button needs to be pushed at the exact right time, and all those little bets like Diaz need to pay off, or else the whole structure collapses. That’s what happens when your payroll is just $63 million, dead last in baseball and a fifth of what the Red Sox expended to finish with 84 wins and third place in the AL East, looking up at the Rays. I don’t mention that to celebrate it. That Tampa can succeed despite spending about as much on 40 players than the Yankees did on Giancarlo Stanton, Masahiro Tanaka and Jacoby Ellsbury is a testament to the front office and coaching staff, and also an indictment of how baseball works nowadays. The team is owned by a man worth hundreds of millions of dollars and has a TV deal worth over a billion. The persistent issue that is Tropicana Field and its fan-unfriendly location obviously impacts the bottom dollar, but it’s not the reason that the Rays do what they do. They’ve found a way to win on the cheap, and if you can do that, why spend more?
(The answer is that spending more is what theoretically helps you do things like avoid the one-game elimination round that leaves you matched up with an Astros team that might be one of the best in MLB history, but that’s a discussion for another day. And all of this applies to Oakland as well, and plenty more teams, albeit to differing degrees.)
Regardless of the financials behind them, this is the road the Rays have chosen, and they walk it better than almost anyone, the A’s included. They exploit all the inefficiencies, turn over every stone, get ahead of the analytical and statistical curve and stay there. Consider the stars of Wednesday night’s win:
- They picked up Avisail Garcia—a bust of a former top prospect with the White Sox who was dumped last winter after six years of mostly failing to meet his potential on the South Side—and plugged him in as their semi-regular rightfielder. The result: 20 homers, a 111 OPS+ and a booming two-run blast in the second inning that nearly put a hole in the Coliseum’s distant centerfield wall.
- They snagged Tommy Pham, a multi-tool star with the Cardinals, on the cheap at last year’s trade deadline thanks to the bad blood between him and St. Louis’ management; as a Ray, he’s hit .287/.385/.485 and smashed a long homer of his own in the fifth.
- They signed Charlie Morton, already very good with the Astros, and somehow managed to make him better, and watched as he fired high-spin curveball after high-spin curveball through five unspectacular yet solid innings for the victory.
- Their last three pitchers of the night—Diego Castillo, Nick Anderson and Emilio Pagan—are probably unknown to most everyone outside Hillsborough County, and even there, they’re far from household names. They strung together four shutout innings, striking out eight.
The downside to scrapping and clawing like this is that it puts an inevitable ceiling on what you can accomplish: There’s a reason that this is the Rays’ first postseason trip since 2013, and it’s not just because the Yankees and Red Sox (and, briefly, Orioles and Blue Jays) stood in their way in the East. You can only do so much with so little, and that Tampa has done this much with that little counts as some kind of minor miracle. It’s hard to win championships like that—and no, being the Kings of $/WAR doesn’t count. But on Wednesday night, it was enough to get the Rays past their compatriots in low-cost achievement and earn a date with the Astros in the Division Series, and who knows? Maybe Tampa can go from here to where few small spenders have ever been before.