As it stands today, the Rays have about $59.8 million committed to their major-league roster for 2016; barring any earth-shattering deals or massive trades, they’ll run the second-lowest payroll in baseball behind the drastically rebuilding Milwaukee Brewers. Unlike the Brewers, the Rays are poised to compete in 2016. Just check out the PECOTA projected standings for this upcoming season: The Rays are projected for the second-most wins (91) in the American League, only one win behind the Cleveland Indians.
This kind of success on a budget requires hustle, planning, and more than a little luck (and, perhaps, an unusually friendly projection system). The hustle and planning we’ll get to in a little bit–-does this team love to make trades and sign early extensions or what?–-but the luck can always be an issue. The 2015 Rays were also projected to be a winning team by PECOTA, 86 wins to be exact. Though their Pythagorean record was that of a winning team, they only won 80 games in practice. Even if PECOTA projects these Rays to be a 91-win squad, a number of things will have to go right for the team to hit the projected win total.
Let’s go back to the team’s payroll, and how it compares to the league, for a few minutes. Saying a team has the second-lowest payroll in the league doesn’t do the Rays’ thrifty ways justice. Let’s try to come up with a few fun facts to throw this into relief.
· League-average payroll, as it stands today, is about $121 million. Theoretically, you could use that average payroll to pay the Rays twice over, plus have enough money ($1.4 million) left over to re-sign former Ray Daniel Nava.
· The Rays’ payroll is $16 million lower than their analytics + no money + bad stadium forebears in Oakland ($75.8 committed for 2016).
· The projected second-place team in the AL East, the Boston Red Sox, have a projected salary of $190.5 million, which is more than three times the Rays’ payroll.
· The Red Sox also have six different players under contract (David Price, Hanley Ramirez, Rick Porcello, Pablo Sandoval, Dustin Pedroia, and Rusney Castillo) projected to make more money over their Red Sox careers than the entirety of Tampa’s 2016 payroll.
So how do the Rays do it? What sort of Dickensian pauper-magic do they use in order to keep payroll low and the team competitive? Start with this: when it comes to free agency, the Rays only play when they have to. On their current 40-man roster, the team has only three players acquired through big-league free agency: James Loney, Steve Pearce, and Ryan Webb. That’s it. No other team in baseball has so few players acquired this way. The Rays’ approach to free agency is, and has been, to only acquire players through this method to fill gaps around the edges, never to acquire foundational players. They simply cannot afford to make mistakes on the open market. While other teams can paper over bad contracts (the Red Sox, perhaps?), a Hanley Ramirez contract would not only give the team bad performance, it would also eat over a third of the entire team’s 2016 payroll.
By essentially opting out of free agency as a means of acquiring players, the team is required to add outside talent through trade, and “inside” talent through player development. It’s a lot of work: The team has to make a number of moves to find guys that stick. They have to identify talent in their system early, and work to make sure they can keep the guys they want. It requires a not-insubstantial effort, and in these two ways that the team really shines.
Instead, this is a franchise that is remarkably active in the trade market. Sure, they’re not the Athletics–-a team almost entirely composed of trade acquisitions–but this squad has 19 players added via trade compared to 18 homegrown talents (and just the three free agents). The plan? When a player starts to get expensive–-with one caveat we’ll get to later–the Rays trade them away for players with team control left.
If you look at the Rays’ starting rotation, four names should jump out at you: Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Drew Smyly, and Erasmo Ramirez. These names all have something in common: The Rays transformed former starting pitchers nearing free agency into these four players. To wit: Chris Archer came to the team in exchange for Matt Garza, Odorizzi and Ramirez resulted from the James Shields trade (Ramirez indirectly, as the Rays swapped Mike Montgomery–-who came over in that deal–-for him), and Drew Smyly came out of the David Price deal. Put simply, the Rays have invented a way to transform their good starting pitchers of today into good starting pitchers of tomorrow. When free agency begins to near, the team acquires value, then (almost unfailingly) develops it into on-field talent.
This is also a team that does not acquire players unless they have multiple years of team control left, with very few exceptions (Logan Morrison is the only recent one that comes to mind). If that means they have to gamble on a Logan Forsythe (yay!), Nick Franklin (boo!), or Brad Miller (who knows!), so be it. Not every acquisition is a hit, but this is a team that keeps swinging on the trade market. But the Rays keep trying. Their hustle when it comes to acquisitions is almost unmatched in the league. While there’s more than a few deals that haven’t worked out so well recently (Nick Franklin, perhaps Steven Souza), the team tinkers often, changing out parts like a mechanic striving to keep a beat-up car running.
Finally, the Rays in many ways pioneered the concept of signing young talent to amazingly team-friendly extensions. If Evan Longoria is the OG of these extensions, he's not nearly the last, nor even at the moment the most relevant: Cy Young candidate and staff ace Chris Archer was inked to an extension in 2014 to a six-year, $25.5 million deal taking him through 2019 … not to mention two team-friendly options for 2020 and 2011.
Word now is that the newest Rays extension target is their top prospect, left-hander Blake Snell. Snell hasn’t yet pitched in the bigs, but he did have an emergent 2015 and ranked 21st on the BP Top 101. If the Rays ink him to a long-term deal similar to Archer’s, the team will be lauded as geniuses… again. If he doesn’t succeed, well, maybe he’ll follow the Matt Moore mold-–top left-handed pitching prospect who doesn’t quite succeed in the bigs the way we’d all imagined, derailed by injuries and ineffectiveness. But the trick here is that Moore’s contract, though not ideal, hasn’t hamstrung the team. Even when the Rays “miss” on their contracts (Wade Davis, perhaps, and Jeremy Hellickson for sure), paying out early keeps their losses minimal. The only real drawback is that they can’t choose from the entire menu of the league’s options: they’re stuck with the
devils Rays they know.
No, the Rays aren’t above paying for players they like. But we’re looking at a team that has only three free agents on the roster… one of whom projects to be the team’s worst everyday player by a wide margin (James Loney, projected for -0.7 WARP). When you’re the Rays, you don’t pay those players in cash, unless they were already your guys to begin with. Nah, the Rays pay in established big leaguers, using their trading abilities to get external talent when they can. The rest of the time, they try to identify the Longorias and Archers that they develop through their system, and lock them up early.
Eschewing free agency has kept the team from locking up franchise stalwarts like David Price, Ben Zobrist, and James Shields. It’s also kept them competitive in an environment that gives them very real disadvantages. Money can’t buy you happiness, but it sure as heck can buy you Pablo Sandoval. I’ll take the happiness, the low payroll, and maybe 91
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