To deny that the Tampa Bay Rays organization has made a full 180 since dropping the "Devil" in Devil Rays, slimming down to simply "The Rays," is an understatement. As the Devil Rays, Tampa lost 90 or more games in every season of their existence. Since changing their name, image, ownership, front office, and whatever else you can think of, Tampa has not lost more than 78 games in a single season. Rarely does a professional sports franchise experience such a significant turnaround, but since Stuart Sternberg and company took over in East Florida he and his cohort have done just that.
The Rays continue to operate in a small market town with a less than appealing stadium. Despite not putting together a losing season in 6 seasons, the 2013 Rays occupy the second to last spot in average attendance at home games. The team attracts on average 17,936 fans per game, more than 1,000 fewer than the team average in 2012 when they were last in average attendance. This is a franchise that deserves better, but one that continues to play indoors, on turf, in front of a crowd made up of the players' extended family and friends. It's quite pathetic.
"What they've accomplished has been built around pitching, and Maddon's astute usage of starting pitching, an organizational throwing and conditioning program that averaged nearly 150 starts a year out of their top five starters, and Maddon's creativity in patching together bullpens."
Before trading James Shields and Wade Davis, the Rays had an incredible wealth of pitching, both in the big leagues and in Minor League prospects. Gammons mentions that the Rays utilize position players at multiple positions, such as the amazing Ben Zobrist.
"In lieu of going out and trading for or signing power hitters, and faced with the reality that they could not afford to keep players like Carl Crawford and B,J. Upton from entering the free agent market, Friedman and Maddon put a premium on flexibility."
Gammons discusses the Rays ability to find an abundance of pitching talent, whether it be in the rule-4 draft, international market, or by way of a trade. He also delves into the mistake the organization made when choosing shortstop Tim Beckham over Buster Posey in the 2008 draft. It's still possible that Beckham becomes a solid MLB player, but when comparing him to Posey, Beckham currently stands at a massive disadvantage. Still, it is undeniable that the Rays have had much more success finding pitching than hitting. Even still, from 2008 to 2013, the Rays rank 3rd in MLB in wRC+ behind only the Yankees and the Red Sox.
1) Yankees - 111
2) Red Sox - 107
3) Rays - 105
It seems as though the Rays understood that while 9 hitters make up a lineup, only 5 make up a starting rotation, meaning that if a team is to maximize its money, time, and effort, it should expend it on pitching over hitting. That philosophy gives a franchise with few options as many as possible. An injury to a starting pitcher can prove difficult to overcome, but with a well-stocked farm system full of talented hurlers, the Rays continuously have solid replacements. In addition, when another team loses a pitcher to injury, the Rays can utilize this to their advantage through a trade.
At the end of this article, Gammons makes a prediction.
"What Friedman, Maddon and the Rays have done is to maintain one of the best management jobs of the last decade. They did it without developing a position player since Jennings, but beginning with this June's draft, they will have to begin to draft and develop position players if their run with the game's elite is going to continue."
According to Marc Hulet of Fangraphs, 7 of the Rays top 15 prospects are position players while 8 are pitchers. Jason Parks at Baseball Prospectus put 4 of the Rays top ten prospects as position players. Now, both put top prospect Wil Myers #1, but still, it's a pattern that shows more recent success finding top-rated pitching. Still, as I mentioned above, I don't think the Rays must draft top position players; they need to draft the best players available, regardless of position.
Prospects, like money, can easily act as currency, and if the Rays cannot sign pitchers David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, or whoever fills their shoes in the future, the organization will find a suitable team with which to trade, and acquire hitting prospects or current MLB hitters they can afford. I think that while every organization makes some mistakes, the Rays make very few, and to begin to give the Rays advice on how to run their team, no matter how theoretical boarders on heresy.
Still, the Rays recently placed David Price on the disabled list with a triceps issue after Price has been worth as many fWins this season, 0.6, as Twins righty Kevin Correia, which isn't very good for last years AL Cy Young award winner. Still, according to Baseball Prospectus' pitching guru Doug Thorburn in fellow BPer Paul Sporer's 2013 starting pitcher guide:
"The Rays just know pitching, with all of their pitchers reeking of extreme mechanical efficiency. Hellickson, McGee, Moore, and Price are all products of the Tampa system, and each pitcher has elite-level pitching mechanics, a trend that is so glaring as to defy any explanations of luck. Price is perhaps the best example, as he has improved his mechanics throughout his four years in the majors, and the lefty's stuff and his statistics have advanced accordingly."
If Price's injury issues are serious, the Rays have pitchers to fill in, but the possibility of acquiring the haul they expected in a trade for the southpaw may diminish. ESPN's Buster Olney, who compares Price to a previous AL CY Young award winning lefty, has artfully written about this.
"In the end, the Twins wound up taking a deal with the Mets that netted far less than they would have expected for a Cy Young-caliber pitcher, because of all those concerns about his arm."
"... Today, the Rays are in a similar situation. Price's resume has had rival teams talking internally about the enormous package of prospects it would take to land the left-hander, but now they will want their concerns to be assuaged before they make a deal for him and offer the huge contract extension."
While Price may not end up turning into Johan Santana, the comparison exists, so it's something to consider. Unless this injury or the next few that come debilitate Price and end his career abruptly, the Rays cannot afford his next contract, and would do best to deal him.
Still, Tampa Bay epitomizes the blue-collar franchise. They get almost no fan support, have little money to utilize, seem stuck in a piss-poor stadium, but work incredibly hard, never give up, and come out on top. How Disney hasn't made a movie about this franchise yet amazes me, but scares me into thinking it's inevitable. Don't mess with Tampa Bay, they make great trades, draft well, develop well, and always find their backs up against the wall, making them the scariest and most impressive franchise in baseball.