The idea behind the extra 2% — finding ways to gain that little, but essential, edge on the competition — will always exist, in baseball as in business. It just won’t always belong to the Tampa Bay Rays.
And then you close the book. No, wait. There’s an epilogue:
Asked about trying to compete in the AL East [in 2010], [Andrew] Friedman lamented, “It was always nearly impossible, and it’s probably getting closer to impossible.”
Au revoir, Rays faithful!
Although neither passage is really a prediction, they’ve both still effectively come true. Not only is Tampa Bay about to miss the postseason for a third year in a row, they’re also barely holding pace in front of the Minnesota Twins for the worst record in the AL. The thing with the Rays, though—unlike most every other team whose fans must brave the grainy feeds of MiLB.com from here on out in order to feel a spark of hope—is that there is still an unshakeable sensation that the team remains a step ahead of us, and in ways that we don’t necessarily see. We are, as an audience, so used to seeing victories wrenched out of library-like Tropicana Field by the Rays’ auto-regenerating corps of stoic 25-year-olds that, in 2016, the team’s 34-54 record actually feels like some sort of riddle or puzzle. There must be some value or leverage in those scant wins that we just can’t see right now. I mean, right? They’re the Rays!
A not-insignificant amount of the Rays’ postmodern baseball cachet came directly from Keri’s book—a book that didn’t copy Moneyball, but indicated instead that Moneyball should be a genre of book: the comprehensive profile of the skillfully built team. The Extra 2% came out in 2011, although it appears to be written in 2010. In a way, 2010 was basically yesterday. The year ended with Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner holding a trophy aloft. What could be more contemporary? To re-read Keri’s book today, however, shows that baseball has slipped into some vortex in the space-time continuum and has grown by generations in the scant years that have passed. Keri writes, cutely, about 2010’s growing front offices:
Most major league teams now employ at least some kind of full-time statistician as a counter-weight to traditional scouting and player evaluation personnel.
Keri also notes that: “Tampa Bay is credited with being the first team to regularly shift against [J.D.] Drew.” And: “When the Rays repeatedly shifted against [Chase Utley] during the 2008 World Series, commentators wondered why they would do so against a relatively fast runner.” In the same way that The Ramones shirts have long been easily copped at malls, the Rays’ counter-revolution fizzled out not because it failed, but because it succeeded so wildly that the mainstream swallowed it whole.
So what happened? Where have those precious percentiles of competitive edge gone? Trying to outlast the nationally backed AL East behemoths in a divisional race from the cruddy Trop is baseball's version of an unsolvable theorem—only the Rays actually did untangle it, Good Will Hunting-style, proving that “closer to impossible” also means “possible.”
An unlikely suspect surfaces in The Extra 2%: Pat Burrell. In-between two improbable late-career World Series Championships (Phillies in 2008; Giants in 2010), Burrell signed a two-year, $16 million deal in free agency with Tampa Bay before the 2009 season, a contract that would last longer than his employment in Florida. Keri notes that Burrell was, at best, the Rays’ Plan C to replace an aging Cliff Floyd at DH, after failed pursuits of Bobby Abreu and Adam Dunn. It doesn’t feel unreasonable to say that the long line of dominoes that was first pushed with Burrell’s signing are actually still falling, even with Burrell comfortably ensconced in retirement. Keri writes:
That $16 million spent on a lineup cipher has had far-reaching effects. The Rays passed on high-priced talent at the 2010 trade deadline; they preannounced plans to slash payroll the following offseason; and flushing away that $16 million might even tighten future budgets enough to prevent them from signing a homegrown talent to a long-term deal or paying big bucks for draft talent. […] [S]pending millions on hitters who don’t produce and whiffing on the top of a draft are the kinds of moves that can scuttle a small-revenue team’s efforts to close the gap on their powerful foes — if not now, then over the long haul.
Here were are, in the long haul. From this perspective, the meaningful difference between the small- and big-market teams isn’t that the small-market team has no chance at making the most sizzling moves during Hot Stove season—is that not also the surest way to get saddled with contractual deadweight?—but instead that the big-market team can so quickly wipe the slate totally clean. (Perhaps this even explains some of Friedman’s moves with the Los Angeles Dodgers: Maybe he dropped the $15.6 million qualifying offer on injury-riddled Brett Anderson just to feel the freedom from responsibility, knowing that the ripples caused by the move would not expand past 2016.)
You could even say that the dominoes started falling in 2009, the first year of Burrell’s contract, when the Rays did not sign either of their first two picks in the 2009 Draft (LeVeon Washington and Kenny Diekroeger). Tampa Bay has netted less than one (1) WAR to date from the draft class, in the form of Andrew Bellatti and Dylan Floro. (Zac Rosscup, as a minor-leaguer, was included in the trade for Chris Archer.) Following the 2010 season, as part of their remarkable payroll–slashing effort, the team had to release virtually an entire intact bullpen into free agency: Joaquin Benoit, Grant Balfour, Rafael Soriano, Randy Choate, Chad Qualls. And these are just the moves we see. Probably the most devastating moments of the Rays’ 2009-11 budget crunch came when they couldn’t make a move—forbidden, in every practical way, from negotiating with a prized draft pick or amateur free agent, empty pockets turned out.
There’s more bad news. The Rays have since biffed it even harder than they did with Burrell. They signed James Loney.
Hired for a Rays-ian $2 million before the 2013 season, Loney’s ensuing .299/.348/.430 slash line constituted some of the strongest-yet evidence for Tampa Bay’s continued brilliance. Then the team bit hard, bringing him back the following offseason for three years and $21 million, heavily backloaded for the latter two years (2015, 2016). It was an honest mistake. Following two increasingly dispiriting offensive seasons from Loney, the Rays traded for Logan Morrison ($4.2 million) this last offseason before cutting ties with Loney before Opening Day, eating his $9.6 million salary. The Dodgers could assemble almost an entire (dysfunctional) lineup with this year’s dead money. With the Rays, another line of dominoes could have just been pushed over, with no way to stop it. The team went under-slot on their first four picks of last month’s draft, perhaps planting more withered seeds into the soil for the next long, long haul.
Then again, this being the Rays—who are blessed with more and more organizational continuity by the year—it’s really hard to know if things have gone unintentionally awry, or maybe the team is quietly working through one of the most efficient, clean rebuilding cycles we’ve seen lately. After all, when Tampa Bay had to let go of all those free agents after the 2010 season, they simultaneously grabbed a glut of supplemental picks in the 2011 draft, picking up Blake Snell in exchange for allowing Brad Hawpe to walk free. It will still be years before we figure out if the 2016 Rays were flailing around in the water or if they were lurking like an alligator—poised, ready to snap.