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When we collectively flipped the calendars two weeks ago, it looked like we were in line for the most boring September—at least in terms of playoff races—in recent memory. A couple key injuries here, a couple of sweeps there, and all of a sudden, there's a glimmer of hope for some late-season drama.

One place where such drama exists is the American League wild-card race, as the Red Sox' roster suddenly resembles a M*A*S*H unit while the Rays have gotten hot, sweeping the Red Sox over the weekend. The teams are also set to match up for a four-game set at Fenway beginning on Thursday. Boston remains the overwhelming statistical favorite—being up four with 15 to play is a sizable mountain—but one is forced to wonder what the standings would look like if the Rays spent more time this year focusing on the present as opposed to the future.

You probably have that guy in your fantasy league. The one who is always drafting and trading for all of the hottest names in the prospect world and talking about how good his team is going to be three years from now. Jump to those three years later and he's still trading for prospects, and still talking about the future. The Rays have had one of the better minor-league systems for years now, and their future is bright, but just like that fantasy player, they took their eye off the ball, and it's going to cost them a playoff slot.

Outfielder Desmond Jennings, who has added a dynamic presence to the top of the lineup, has been one of the keys to the Rays' recent run. Of course, he was fully capable of providing big-league value on Opening Day, but there was the service time issue, the need to get that extra year down the road, so the team opened the season with Sam Fuld as an everyday outfielder. Fuld was a career minor leaguer in his late 20s who nobody saw as anything more than a fifth outfielder. But he was nothing short of magical during the first three weeks of the season, hitting .350/.411/.525 in his first 21 games while making diving catches and being an all-around great guy. He has returned to being Sam Fuld again, hitting .204/.277/.305 in 253 wasted plate appearances. Just think, what if Jennings got those plate appearances… what do the standings look like now?

Then there is left-hander Matt Moore. When it was announced on Sunday night that he would be joining the big-league team, Rays fans were excited. That is more than understandable, as he's arguably the best pitching prospect in the game. Still, the only reason he is up is because of some health issues in the bullpen. On any other major-league team, he'd likely have already been in the majors. Andy Sonnastine made four starts for the Rays this year, and Tampa Bay lost all four games as he allowed 16 runs in 18 1/3 innings. Coming back from labrum surgery, J.P. Howell has put up a 6.44 ERA in 42 games, including giving up a crucial go-ahead home run to Matt Wieters last night. Give either those four starts, or those 42 relief appearances to Matt Moore… what do the standings look like now?

Trading to improve the team during the season? The Rays almost act like that's a federal offense. They made no deadline deals this year, were barely even the subject of rumors, and even last year their one big pickup was Chad Qualls. Even in their magical 2008 season, they did nothing to improve the team other than bringing on Chad Bradford in August. Tampa's ability to stick to whatever the master plan here is admirable, but at the same time, the lack of flexibility has to hurt. Yes, the team might have lost some prospects in the process, but who knows what that extra arm or bat might have done for the Rays in October three years ago, and if they found a more reasonable shortstop or catcher this July, or another power arm for their inexperienced bullpen… what do the standings look like now?

But let's not shroud ourselves solely in speculation; there are numbers to back up the case. Rays left fielders pre-Jennings combined to produce 2.14 wins according to Baseball Prospectus' measurements. Replacing 400 of those at-bats with Jennings' pro-rated production, and the team picks up 1.6 additional wins. It's fair to say that Jennings isn't really a player with an OPS somewhere around 900, but it's nearly impossible to say that this move did not cost the team at least one win. As for Moore, even a conservative PECOTA projection would have him worth 0.3 wins in innings that Sonnanstine started, and while that might not seem like much, Sonnanstine's horrible starts were worth -0.6 wins, so there's another full win swinging in the right direction, while if Moore replaces Howell's innings, the end result is also right around one full win. One win for Jennings, one win for Moore, and one win theoretically for an actual trade in July, and the Rays head into this weekend's series nearly even with the Red Sox, as opposed to needing a sweep or close to it to keep things close.

The Rays are a smart and well-run team, and a model for others on how to not only survive with their budgetary limitations, but to flourish. Still, playoff opportunities don't come every year, especially in a division with the Yankees and the Red Sox, and the Rays have seemingly refused to capitalize on them, none more so than this year to feed an over-arching desire to remain competitive long-term. There is being competitive and there is winning championships, and by focusing entirely on the former, the Rays are potentially costing themselves the latter.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

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JimmyJack
9/15
All great points, Kevin. Maybe the Rays should be less concerned w/the 2% and focus more on the big picture - the 98%. Not that I read Jonah's book...
tnt9357
9/15
I wouldn't be too hard on the Rays for not replacing Howell. It's not like anyone would expect a bust like Wieters to hit a big home run to win a game. :-) More seriously, this is in line with a concept that can't be said enough times: Present value matters a lot, and overwhelms future value more often than we statheads like to think. A great example is the Trade Value list at FanGraphs, where so much of the list changed between years.
moonlightj
9/15
Maddon made some uncharacteristically bad matchup decisions in those last two losses. Why anyone is pitching to a red-hit Wieters these days instead of taking chances vs MarKKK Reynolds is beyond my understanding.
MrNegative1
9/15
Moe Jaddon really did make some odd calls over the last two days, let's hope Joe Maddon manages the Rays vs the Red Sox.
markpadden
9/18
Maybe Maddon read this: http://www.fanduel.com/insider/2011/05/27/how-important-are-hot-streaks-for-hitters/
antonio
9/15
The Rays wouldn't even be in the playoff conversation had the Red Sox not swooned in recent weeks. On July 30th, the Rays were 10.5 games behind Boston and 8.5 games behind New York. It's hard to fault them for not rushing out to trade for Carlos Beltran, Heath Bell or Ubaldo Jiminez. The team probably decided that it was best to regroup for 2012 and beyond - not an unreasonable approach, given their young core and excellent farm system. The Rays look like they could be very competitive for the next several years. As for Desmond Jennings and Matt Moore, Kevin's point is well taken, but as a Jays fan, I've seen prospects implode when called up too early (Snider, Drabek), so I think it's reasonable for the Rays to want their prospects to be well-seasoned, not only for service time issues but also for developmental purposes. I probably agree that Jennings should have been called up earlier, though. Fuld may be a legend, but he's been ineffective for many months now.
georgeforeman03
9/15
While I agree with this (no one was saying that the Rays were a Desmond Jennings + Matt Moore away from contention two months ago), Kevin was calling for Jennings to be in the majors earlier this year and well before he actually appeared. So I'm inclined to give him some benefit of the doubt when calling out the Rays with 20/20 hindsight.
Kstrongbb
9/15
I think the Rays biggest mistake is in the trading area. You need to trade volatile high value prospects for proven commodities to fill the weak spots. Rays have consistently avoided this approach.
bradleyankrom
9/15
The Rays don't really target players outside of that zero-to-three years of service window, and it's difficult to get teams to deal their prospects/young players for yours (why we rarely see prospect-for-prospect deals).
mrdannyg
9/15
Jim Bowden would suggest the Rays should've traded a relief prospect for Prince Fielder.
mhmosher
9/15
Great points on that type of fantasy owner. I used to be one. It's much better to take advantage of "that guy".
briant1
9/15
How is being 10.5 games out of first place, behind the Red Sox and Yankees no less, constitute a "playoff opportunity"? July 31st is when Friedman had to decide to fish or cut bait, as he doesn't have the luxury to watch what's happened the last month and a half. Maybe I'm crazy, but I don't want my GM making decisions on the assumption that the Red Sox rotation is going to fall apart some time after the all star break. That includes both trade deadline deals and starting the service clock on promising rookies.
vonckx
9/15
you know, it's okay for teams to make trades before july 31. like, say, the all-star break when they were 5 out.
briant1
9/16
Actually they were 6 out at the All Star break. And the Twins were 6.5 out. What does that tell us, exactly? That anyone roughly 5 out in July should be a buyer? Does that seem reasonable to you? Retroactively suggesting the Red Sox swoon was inevitable, or even predictable, seems unfair to me. I don't remember anyone making a fuss at the All Star break, or the trading deadline, when the Rays ended up not being buyers (I don't follow the Rays, so I certainly could have missed it). It's easy to sit back now and say what the should have done, but at the time it seemed perfectly reasonable for the Rays to hold onto their younger assets in anticipation of another run soon.
markpadden
9/20
Well said. This article is pure hindsight. The advantage play was to do exactly as the Rays did -- until MLB changes the rules.
dwachtell
9/15
Another point is that at the trade deadline, no one was calling for them to be buyers -- the most persistent rumor I was reading was moving Shields to Cincinnati for some combination of their blocked prospects (Grandal, Alonso, etc.).
Shkspr
9/16
I assume there will, of course, be a companion article written several years from now in Jennings's walk year discussing how much worse off the Rays would be if Jennings had been called up earlier back in 2011 and had left via free agency the previous winter.
doctawojo
9/16
Just as a matter of process, backward-looking analysis that rips a team for not taking certain forward-looking steps bugs me.
okteds
9/16
To be fair, this piece is a critique of an entire organizational philosophy, not just one or two specific moves/non-moves.
randolph3030
9/16
To defend Kevin, not that he needs it, he does, in general, argue to bring guys up when they are ready. I do seem to recall that he has been rather loud in his recommendation of the Jennings/Fuld switch (sorry no evidence). I don't recall specific instances of him calling for Moore to be brought, but either him or Parks said something to the effect of "Alex Torres is fine, but why not give those starts to Moore" on the podcast. Just wanted to make the point that these opinions, though written through hindsight in this piece, had been expressed by the author at the time. Also, to head off the sub-comment, I believe he's explained the difference between Hosmer/KCRoyals and Jennings/Rays situations.
misterjohnny
9/16
I'd love to know what their playoff odds were by day for the month of July. I bet it sucked.
moonlightj
9/16
Coolstandings had the Rays at 17.3% chance to make the playoffs on July 15th
padresprof
9/17
Yes, but is the point to actually make the playoffs? I thought we were all aware of the great con based on the leaked financial documents of the Rays, Pirates, etc - that the lesser teams make more money if they stay out of the playoffs.
antonio
9/17
And on July 30th?