Tim Cowlishaw of the Dallas Morning News recently wrote that the Rays are the most remarkable franchise in sports. Big talk for a team that just five years ago was a cellar dweller and had many people talking that they wouldn’t contend until at least 2012. With four consecutive winning seasons under their belt with the 2012 season just now approaching, the Rays could very well be the most remarkable organization in sports.
As a biased Rays fan, I would certainly say the Rays are the most remarkable franchise in sports. Cowlishaw’s reasoning for the big honor is that Joe Maddon gets more out of his lineup card than looks possible. I would certainly agree with that statement. Just look at last year’s team. The Rays entered the year having lost some of their biggest keys to success in Carl Crawford, Matt Garza, Carlos Pena, and Rafael Soriano. With all that, they still won. Many thought the Rays would be a .500 team last year. The Rays long surpassed .500 in their remarkable trek to the AL Wild Card, winning 91 games and finishing exactly 20 games over .500.
The lineup top to bottom was not very good at all, on paper. The starting first baseman to start the year was Dan Johnson, somebody who had never started more than 100 games in a season. When he predictably bombed, Casey Kotchman, a guy who had fallen into an abyss after a good start to his career, stepped in. You wouldn’t have been surprised had he bombed as well. Against all odds, Kotchman hit .306 and hit 10 homers, both career highs.
Then, you move to the outfield. Matt Joyce emerged in right field, finally living up to his potential as a great hitter. Then, Sam Fuld, a mere afterthought in the huge Matt Garza trade, peeled himself off the bench and into the leadoff spot at the beginning of the season before the emergence of Desmond Jennings.
The Rays had some dud spots in the lineup, most notably catcher and shortstop, but they were still able to persevere.
That is just the team from last year. The 2008 team was even more remarkable because nobody expected the Rays to emerge as they did. The Rays have certainly been able to build the right way, almost completely from within. The Rays will enter the 2012 season with a starting rotation completely built from within. All seven of the potential starters have been drafted and developed by the Rays. Not many other teams can claim that. To make it even better, the Rays will have one of the best rotations in baseball next season, making it even more astounding.
Even looking at the lineup, you see that some of the Rays biggest offensive powers were developed through the draft. Evan Longoria, B.J. Upton, Desmond Jennings, and Reid Brignac were all drafted by the Rays. Even the guys who were not emerged with the Rays. Ben Zobrist was still a minor leaguer when the Rays acquired him, and it appeared he would be nothing more than a bench player before he emerged. Carlos Pena had been a good veteran, but never a scary power hitter as he is now.
The one piece that strays from the model is the bullpen. Most of the bullpen has been built through cheap contracts or trades. But even that is amazing. Kyle Farnsworth had been a good middle reliever throughout his career, but the Rays turned him into a formidable closer. Joel Peralta had been having injury troubles before the Rays picked him up and let him set-up for Farnsworth, making him great.
Then you look at the younger guys. Brandon Gomes was the third wheel of sorts in the Jason Bartlett trade after Adam Russell and Cesar Ramos. Now, he is the star of the trade, after emerging as a great middle relief option for Joe Maddon. The one guy in the bullpen who follows the Rays model of building from within is Jake McGee. McGee, originally a starter, will now the the Rays premier left-handed reliever, unless J.P. Howell returns to form.
The biggest thing about the Rays success is they have done it all with a limited payroll. Last season the Rays Opening Day payroll was $41.9 million, only greater than the Kansas City Royals. Just look at the AL East. The Yankees spent $201 million to win the division. That extra $160 million only bought them six wins. The Red Sox spent $161 million to finish third and miss the postseason.
This season, the Rays have splurged, expanding their payroll to somewhere in the ballpark of $65 million. The Rays will still be in the bottom third as it comes to payroll, and yet they are serious contenders for the World Series. They will still be at the bottom of their division for payroll, but yet they will fight to the bitter end for the division.
It is truly astounding how the Rays have won the past few seasons. In baseball there is only one franchise that comes even close to the Rays efficiency, that being the Arizona Diamondbacks. They came out of nowhere last year, winning their division with their $53 million payroll. The D-backs got a lot for their money, but they built more through trades than the draft. Their cornerstone, Justin Upton, was drafted by the team.
In other sports, I would say the Oklahoma City Thunder of the NBA come close to the Rays. All of their big pieces have been built in the draft. Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and James Harden were all drafted by the team. Their payroll, however, is a bit bigger than the Rays, relative to the other teams in the league.
You cannot find a team anywhere that can match the Rays success for the amount of money they spend. Also, they are one of the more successful franchises in player development, getting players from the draft to the big leagues in good time and they turn them into formidable players. Granted, my opinion is a little biased, but Tim Cowlishaw’s certainly isn’t. I agree with his assessment that the Tampa Bay Rays are the most remarkable franchise in professional sports.