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Don’t Praise the Rays for Not Spending

The Rays find ways to win despite having one of the most cost-effective payrolls in MLB, but don't commend them for neglecting to invest in their roster.

Welcome to The Opener, where every weekday morning you’ll get a fresh, topical column to start your day from one of SI.com’s MLB writers.

The most remarkable thing about the Rays this season—and pretty much every year they are competitive—is how much better they would be if they were willing to spend money.

Tampa Bay, who had won 11 straight before losing to the Royals, 2–1, Tuesday night, have surged into first place in the AL East and have greatly improved its odds to return to the postseason for the third straight year. They enter play Wednesday with a 57.4% chance to make the postseason, according to FanGraphs, up from 26.6% when the season began. They’ve done so with the fifth-lowest payroll in Major League Baseball, a fact that is pointed out far too frequently as a form of praise.

Yes, the Rays certainly are good at what they do. What they do, of course, is find a way to win games despite their paltry payroll. They develop talented young players into solid big leaguers and then trade them before having to pay them what they’re worth. What they do also benefit from is the false narrative that their scrappy organization continues to overcome economic forces well beyond their control.

The Rays of today are presented much like the Athletics of Moneyball fame. The 2011 film, based on the Michael Lewis 2003 book, uses an Aaron Sorkin script to peg Oakland’s survival in the league as a modern David-and-Goliath struggle. It’s thoroughly entertaining—and ridiculously misleading. While the 2002 A’s did succeed in part because they embraced analytics at a time when few other organizations did, they also boasted one of the best rotations in baseball and had shortstop Miguel Tejada, who won the AL MVP that year, and other stars in their lineup.

It’s true that the Rays win while spending little on their roster. But it’s also true that the Rays are worth $1.055 billion, according to Forbes, and the club’s principal owner Stuart Sternberg’s net worth is $800 million, according to Celebrity Net Worth—roughly 17 times the payroll of the Rays’ current 26-man roster, per Spotrac.

The Rays could invest more in their roster, but they don’t. They’ve found a way to win on the cheap. They are hailed as one of baseball’s smartest organizations for their cost efficiency, and members of their front office routinely are hired by other clubs. Last year, they went to the World Series for the second time in franchise history, defeating the Blue Jays ($110 million payroll in 2020), Yankees ($223.9 million) and Astros ($165.1 million) en route to the AL pennant. They lost to the Dodgers ($216.8 million) in the World Series.

That’s impressive, considering the Rays had a payroll of $56.6 million last season, but it’s also disheartening. For as good as they are at what they do, one of the things they haven’t done is win a World Series. Certainly, the teams that spend the most money aren’t always the ones that win championships. But, increasing payroll gives teams a better chance at winning a title because they can sign better free agents and keep their best players from signing elsewhere.

The Rays aren’t interested in spending more money. They don’t sign the top free agents, and they usually trade their better players before they reach free agency so they don’t have to pay them. If they make the playoffs, that’s great; if they don’t, at least they saved millions of dollars while losing.

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Winning isn’t the top priority for Sternberg. If it were, he’d allow his front office to increase payroll to make a run at a championship. General manager Erick Neander, scouting director Rob Metzler and manager Kevin Cash, among other front office members and coaches, have brought Tampa Bay about as far as it can go under its current financial constraints.

In a lawsuit filed this week by the Rays’ minority owners, Sternberg is accused of “depriving the minority owners of their profits from the team while simultaneously requiring them to pay taxes on that would-be income,” according to the Tampa Bay Times. He also allegedly acquired additional control of the team in order to sell it to a team of Montreal investors. The plaintiffs are requesting, among other things, that Sternberg and his company no longer have an ownership of the team.

If only the Rays could be so lucky.

Quick Hits

• Vladimir Guerrero Jr. hit his league-leading 16th home run of the season Tuesday night. The Blue Jays beat the Yankees, 6–2.

• Yankees righthander Corey Kluber, in his first start since throwing a no-hitter last Wednesday, lasted just three innings before leaving the game with right shoulder tightness. He will have an MRI Wednesday.

• The Cardinals' defense crumbled in the highly anticipated pitching matchup between former high school teammates Jack Flaherty and White Sox ace Lucas Giolito. St. Louis made three errors in the first two innings, leading to five Chicago runs. Flaherty was removed after just 3 2/3 innings, having allowed seven runs, three of which were earned. The White Sox won, 8–3.

• Jacob deGrom returned from the injured list Tuesday night against the Rockies. He pitched five innings of one-run ball and struck out nine. The Mets won, 3–1; deGrom picked up a no-decision.

• Clayton Kershaw returned to the mound at Minute Maid Park in Houston Tuesday night for the first time since Game 5 of the 2017 World Series when the Astros roughed him up for six runs. This time, he went 7 2/3 innings and gave up one run while striking out six in the Dodgers' 9–2 win.

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