The past five seasons, the Rays have become the poster-children for how to go from worst to first in baseball- and stay there. Armed with a young yet dominant starting rotation that has been the envy of the rest of baseball, a few core position players surrounded by low-cost veterans that always seemed to work out, and then an uncanny ability to take relievers off the scrap heap and turn them completely around, the Rays have had an incredible run and look to keep it going this season. The names have changed through trades and free agency, but Andrew Friedman and the Rays have perfectly-executed so many of the deals they have made and always somehow find a player to fill whichever position is left vacant. For any team currently among the bottom-feeders of baseball, the Rays have to be their role model. But while Houston Astros assistant general manager David Stearns appreciated everything the Rays have done, he told ESPN’s Jayson Stark that the Rays’ method will not be enough to bring his team over the top.
“But I think emulating exactly the way they do things isn’t really what you want to do. You want to find the next advancement and to be ahead of the curve yourself. But the amount of success they’ve had is incredibly enviable. And I think any organization would strive to emulate that level of success. But I think it’s dangerous for someone who doesn’t know exactly how they’re doing things to say, ‘We need to copy the Rays’ strategy.’ I think developing your own strategy and developing your own philosophy is really the best way to go about it.”
The message is simple: while the Astros would love to go on a Rays-esque run beginning in a few years, what worked for the Rays the past several years may not be what will work for Houston now. Whenever a team finds an advantage in baseball, they can ride for a few years- but then everyone else catches up and they have to innovate again. For example, we’ve seen teams copy the Rays’ previously much-maligned policy of signing players to a team-friendly extensions very early on in their careers, with a couple examples being the Royals’ extension of Salvador Perez for 5 years and just 7 million dollars and the Brewers’ extension of Jonathan Lucroy for 4 years and 11 million dollars. As they hope to contend, the Astros’ aren’t going to copy the Rays’ gameplan of stockpiling as many young starting pitchers as possible and then signing as many as they can to extension while trading any extraneous ones to fill needs- they’re not the same team as the Rays are going to find a solution that works perfectly for them.
It isn’t just the last-place teams that need to come up with their own solutions- the Rays have to find a way to stay ahead of the curve themselves or they’ll be in trouble. They have enough monetary disadvantages that they have to compensate in every other aspect of their ballclub to have any hope of keeping this run going. And over the past year, they’ve changed up several aspects of their team in an attempt to do just that. In this past year’s draft, they selected a college player, Richie Shaffer, with their first round draft pick for the first time since 2007, recognizing that their strategy of selecting high school players early has not yielded desired results. They’ve traded pitchers like Scott Kazmir and Matt Garza in the past- but this offseason they traded two MLB starting pitchers in one deal for the first time in an effort to yield the type of prospects that they need to keep their future looking bright, with Wil Myers right at the forefront of that. With both Shaffer and Myers, the Rays are acknowledging that while pitching will always reign supreme in their minds, they have to refurbish their supply of core position players to score enough runs to give themselves a chance. They’ve been signing high-upside bullpen arms for a long time- but this offseason they signed a starting pitcher, Roberto Hernandez, to a similar type of deal, realizing that while they’ve avoided free agent starters in the past, the reward for a good bargain could be even more significant. And while their money may not go very far on the free agent market, they decided to go all-in on the international free agent market, incurring penalties from major league baseball from going far over the 2.9 million dollar maximum but coming away with a massive haul of talent in the process. Whether all these changes to their team will have the desired effect remains to be seen. But realize that the Rays are never going to sit back and just ride on the coattails of their previous success. They know that what they have done up until now has been improbable, and they have every intention of seizing all the opportunities they can get to make this five-year run of success turn into something a whole lot longer.