Whatever the Rays are doing, they're doing it right.
They've won 90 or more games in four consecutive seasons, and five of six, making the playoffs in four of those years. Tampa Bay hasn't finished under .500 since 2007, the second of two seasons the Rays finished with the league's worst record and thus received the No. 1 overall pick in the Draft.
But rather than wallow in that failure and complain about its small-revenueness, Tampa has become the model for any team with limited resources to follow -- not just to become competitive, but to consistently play into October.
The key to executing a philosophy under those circumstances? It might just be continuity among the decision makers. Andrew Friedman, the vice president of baseball operations, has been at that helm since November 2005, throughout the Rays' rise to the top of the American League East. Friedman named Joe Maddon manager about two weeks after he started his gig. Scouting director R.J. Harrison has been in his post since 2006, but has been a part of the organization since its inception. Farm director Mitch Lukevics is also an original member of the Rays team. He took over the player development department in 2006. It's a little easier to stay on the same page when everyone has been reading from the same book for so long.
"Continuity is really important to us," said Rays director of baseball operations Chaim Bloom, who started as an intern in 2005 and then joined the staff full-time the following year. "It's tough enough with the challenges we face to have success if everyone's not on the same page. Having people who have worked together for a while enables the trust factor to be very high.
"A free exchange of ideas brings out the best in everybody. We all hold each other to a very high standard, and because we have trust in each other, we're able to be very honest with each other."
Those honest conversations have helped the Rays cash in on most of their top of the first-round Draft picks, but their sustained success goes far beyond simply nailing a top-three selection. They've done an absolutely outstanding job scouting, drafting and developing pitching in particular, with many coming from later rounds in the Draft.
The Rays' limited resources have dictated that they can't keep every player they develop to the big leagues -- though they've been very adept at signing young players to long-term deals -- so they've become very astute at playing the trade market, bringing in bucket loads of young players in return for their proven stars, who in turn rise through the ranks to fill in the gaps.
This cycle of success is augmented by some fairly shrewd free-agent dabbling, never for big names, but for under-the-radar, role- or even scrap-heap-type guys who seem to have a habit of being very productive while in Tampa.
Here's a closer look at how the Rays' roster was built:
The core of the Rays still consists of players that came up from their own system. David Price has been everything Tampa Bay could have hoped for when the Rays took him No. 1 overall in 2007. The year prior, the Rays nabbed Evan Longoria with the No. 3 overall selection after Luke Hochevar and Greg Reynolds went in the first two spots. Having that dynamic duo as a very sturdy foundation has made it much simpler to construct the rest of the roster around them.
|Jake McGee||Draft||2004 (5th)|
|Jeremy Hellickson||Draft||2005 (4th)|
|Evan Longoria||Draft||2006 (1st)|
|Alex Cobb||Draft||2006 (4th)|
|Desmond Jennings||Draft||2006 (10th)|
|David Price||Draft||2007 (1st)|
|Matt Moore||Draft||2007 (7th)|
"For us, this isn't going to be a surprise, that really is the center of what we do and what we have to do to be successful," Bloom said. "We believe every roster spot, 1 through 40, is important, but to have those cornerstone players that can carry you from start to finish is huge. With the resources we have, we're not going to be able to go to market to get them. We have to develop them, and we have to get them while they're young. To have this group of guys to build around, it makes the rest of our job easier."
The Rays have a well-earned reputation for developing those young players, especially on the mound. And unlike Price and Longoria, many of them came later in their respective Drafts. Matt Moore was a seventh-rounder the same year Price was drafted, Jeremy Hellickson went in the fourth round in 2005 and Alex Cobb was taken in the same round a year later. Throw in outfielder Desmond Jennings as a 10th-round find, also in 2006, and it's clear that Tampa Bay has had success finding late-round value.
Drafting them and developing them is one thing. Keeping them is another. The Rays can't hold on to everyone, but they've been carefully aggressive in signing young players to long-term deals when they feel the situation warrants it. Longoria got a long-term deal just a week into his Major League career, one that's since been extended to keep him in a Rays uniform potentially until 2023. Moore got a five-year deal before he had even established himself as a big league starter. It's a good amount of money to guarantee for a resource-limited franchise, but the hope is that by the end of the deal, it turns out to be somewhat of a bargain.
"You're taking something of a risk and extending yourself," Bloom said. "Anytime you make a [deal] of this nature, it has to be right for both sides. Both sides are taking a risk. We want to have an environment where players feel comfortable making that commitment, and we want to feel comfortable with the players we're extending that to."
The Rays won't, and frankly, can't extend those kinds of offers to every player they feel has a long-term future at the highest level. This is another time where the organization has successfully spun the risk-reward wheel. There have been countless times the Rays have made the decision to take an established player, typically a pitcher, and swap him for good, young talent.
Acquired via trade or waivers
|Jose Lobaton *||2009||Padres|
Original Ray Aubrey Huff was traded for Ben Zobrist. Scott Kazmir turned into Sean Rodriguez and Alex Torres. It becomes cyclical, helping the Rays continue to be competitive. Case in point: The Rays got Matt Garza from the Twins in the Delmon Young deal. Established as a very good big league starter, he was sent to the Cubs for a host of young players, including Chris Archer and Sam Fuld.
"Any time you're trading established players for younger guys, I think you're running some risk there," Bloom said. "Established, above-average, in some cases, pretty elite Major League starting pitching might be the hardest thing in the game to find. It is a tough exercise. But we have to do it to sustain success for a number of years. We've been lucky to have the starting pitchers in house so we could trade some and still have success."
Perhaps the toughest deal they made was the one that came this past offseason, when they pulled the trigger on sending James Shields and Wade Davis to Kansas City for Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi (along with Mike Montgomery and Patrick Leonard). There's always some unknown in these deals, but once again, it's paid off already as Myers is a front-runner for American League Rookie of the Year whose presence is a big reason the Rays are playoff-bound.
"Regardless of how much talent a player has, if he hasn't accomplished anything yet, there's risk there," Bloom said. "Our pro scouting group did a great job with those deals. Trading James Shields was very difficult for us, with what he mean to this franchise. But it's something we felt we had to do in order to sustain success."
Acquired via free agency
|Jamey Wright||MiLB FA||2013|
Not surprisingly, given the revenue stream the Rays are given to make their play acquisitions, the team tends not to be big players on the free agent market. But that doesn't mean they haven't found value there.
Fernando Rodney and James Loney jump out from this year's club as free agents who have come in and given the Rays pretty good bang for their buck. The closer and first baseman made a combined $4.5 million in 2013, exactly the kind of value Tampa needs to find on the free agent market.
"Marquee free agents, it's very tough for us to compete for those guys given our resources," Bloom said. It's up to us to find good fits for how we think our club is going to be and take calculated gambles on some guys. We've been fortunate that it's worked out for us on a number of guys."