Former Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon celebrated this week with his new team, the Chicago Cubs, because they won their division series. Before this year, the Cubs hadn’t made the playoffs since 2008 and hadn’t won a postseason game since 2003. In the National League Championship Series, they will go up against the New York Mets, who are back in the postseason for the first time since 2006 and just the second time since their World Series appearance in 2000.
Those statistics may help put the Rays’ disappointing year in perspective. Since the franchise changed its official name to the Rays in 2008, it has made one appearance in the World Series in 2008 and has reached the playoffs three other times. The Rays won 90 games or more for four straight years from 2010 to 2013. They couldn’t match that record in the last two years, but they have always remained competitive. The Rays are one of only five teams, joining the Yankees, Dodgers, Cardinals, and Angels, never to lose more than 85 games a single time since 2008.
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That is not something that Rays fans should take lightly. The Phillies, who beat the Rays in 2008, remained competitive for a few years afterwards but have since fallen apart. They locked themselves into long-term contracts with players who were getting older and slower, and they haven’t been above .500 since 2011. Pittsburgh Pirates fans, meanwhile, needed to endure 20 years of futility before turning things around the last three years. The Rays’ turnaround will not take nearly as long. Despite using 18 rookies and being led by a rookie manager, the Rays increased their win total by three games in 2015 and gave their fans plenty of reason to hope for the future.
We know that the Rays don’t have the money to sign a top free agent like Chris Davis to boost their roster. On the other hand, we can expect young players to improve next year. Kevin Kiermaier, for example, achieved the highest WAR, 7.3, of any Ray since Ben Zobrist led the AL with 8.7 in 2011. Kiermaier is only 25 and still has room to improve. We know about his defense, but he can also be expected to keep developing at the plate and steal more bases.
Other young players who may be primed to take the next step include the entire rotation–everyone is 27 or younger–along with others like Steven Souza Jr., Curt Casali, Mikie Mahtook, Andrew Bellatti, and Enny Romero. Others like Richie Shaffer, Blake Snell, and Daniel Robertson are more likely to start next season at Triple-A, but they all have the ability to make an impact in the major leagues before long.
The Rays will also have $19.42 million in salary coming off the books that could be reinvested to help the team. Asdrubal Cabrera and John Jaso will need to be replaced, but the $10.25 million that had been owed to Grant Balfour and Jose Molina gives the Rays additional leeway as they hope to do so. The Rays also saved some money by trading away David DeJesus and Kevin Jepsen and could clear more by dealing James Loney or Desmond Jennings. And once the Rays figure how much they have to spend, we know that they get as much value per dollar as anyone in baseball.
Before we start warming up the hot stove league, let’s take time to appreciate the job that the Tampa Bay Rays have done keeping their team competitive. We can look forward to the moves they will make to get their team back on track in 2016 and continue their run of success. Two consecutive losing seasons are always frustrating, but there is reason to believe that they are heading in the right direction and that they will get back to where they want to be before long.