Entering the 2008 season, the Rays made several key moves to set up their remarkable run to the World Series. Two of those moves, though, might have been a case of addition by subtraction. Delmon Young, the Rays’ first overall pick back in 2003 fresh off a second place finish in the 2007 Rookie of the Year voting, was a player that no one possibly thought was on the trade market, but suddenly he was gone, traded to the Minnesota Twins along with Brendan Harris and Jason Pridie for Jason Bartlett, Matt Garza, and Eddie Morlan. Then Elijah Dukes, the promising prospect who had hit just .190 as a rookie in 2007 but did slam 10 home runs, was shipped out as well, traded to the Washington Nationals for Glenn Gibson. Replacing Young and Dukes were lesser talents but better clubhouse presences like Gabe Gross and Eric Hinske, and between Gross, Hinske, Evan Longoria, Cliff Floyd, Troy Percival, James Shields and others, the Rays created an extremely positive clubhouse atmosphere that was pivotal in their rise from a perennial bottom dweller all the way to the World Series. Was character the only factor for the 2008 Rays? Absolutely not- it was the most talented team the Rays had put together by a longshot and that was the principal reason the Rays were so unbelievably better than they had ever been before. That being said, the team dynamic was still a significant factor in the Rays’ improvement, and after they had seen such amazing results with it that season, you would think that it would be something that the Rays would attempt to continue. Instead, the Rays have proceeded to do the exact opposite.
How could a team focused on developing leadership in the clubhouse acquire players like Matt Bush or Josh Lueke with such troubled pasts? You can say that those are minor league players whose maturation off the field was going to be as key to their development as their improvement on the field, but we’re not talking just any immature young player but a player with a history of drunken incidents (culminating with him going to jail after a hit-and-run incident) and a player who was accused of rape and pled it down to a lesser charge, still spending 30 days in prison. Even moving beyond Bush and Lueke, why did they sign Manny Ramirez? And even after Ramirez bombed out so spectacularly, the Rays acquired another enigmatic personality this offseason, Yunel Escobar! It’s gotten to the point where you see media outlets say that the Rays don’t care about players’ clubhouse presences when evaluating whether to acquire them. What happened? Why have the Rays reversed course so severely?
The biggest reason that the Rays could not continue to set a premium on character is simply money. The Rays can’t be too picky regarding which players they’re willing to acquire because few talented players fall into their price range and if they focus too much on clubhouse presence, an already thin market for players they have a chance at would only dwindle. In an ideal world, the Rays would sign as many high-character guys as they can, but it’s simply impossible within their budgetary contraints. However, at the same time, the Rays have realized that players with attitude problems are an underexposed inefficiency.
We don’t live in a world where players are evaluated surely on their level of performance and upside to improve. A player’s character is something many teams value as high as anything else, with the Arizona Diamondbacks trading Justin Upton and Trevor Bauer being recent prominent examples. Players with histories of attitude problems carry an additional element of risk to go along with the risks that accompany every baseball player. But if you’re willing to take on that risk, the reward can be an impact major league player at a fraction of what he would be worth based on talent alone. Real or perceived character issues drop players’ values significantly in the eyes of teams and bring talented players down to contract levels that teams like the Rays can afford. And when the Rays see an opportunity to sign an undervalued player, they tend to pounce.
Character can work in both directions. Players who are known as great “clubhouse guys” can manage to stay in baseball long after their primes- how else would Mark DeRosa get a guaranteed contract this offseason? But at the same time, those players are not necessarily as good for a team on the field as they are in clubhouse. The Rays signed several character guys in 2008, but Troy Percival didn’t have much left as a big league player and neither did Cliff Floyd. Carlos Pena may have been another leader in the Rays’ clubhouse, but Rays fans watched him fall apart as well this past season. You don’t play someone millions of dollars to play baseball simply because he’s good guy. They need to perform, and performance has to come first. For many teams, there are exceptions- legendary players entering the twilights of their careers get retained by their teams for just about however long they want to play, and even lesser stars receive a great deal of leeway from their teams even after their performance drops off. But simply put, the Rays can’t afford that. They need to find a way to put a contending ballclub on the field season after season and they don’t have time to be sentimental. It’s sad to see them go back on their ideals and sign players we wouldn’t want our kids to emulate. But the most important thing for the Rays is winning, and lessening the importance of character in their evaluations is something that helps them do exactly that.