Rays create blueprint for small markets
Surprising AL East champs built on speed, pitching, defense
CHICAGO -- Much has been made of Tampa Bay's worst-to-first climb as well as the Rays' first postseason series win. There's also no denying, as they prepare to face Boston in the American League Championship Series, the Rays have made history this year.
And yet for all their impressive strides on the field, the organization's biggest impact might ultimately be what it means for other small-market teams in the years ahead.
Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman and senior vice president of baseball operations Gerry Hunsicker have built a team that could be ushering in a new era, one that places a greater emphasis on speed, defense and pitching than most teams have in recent years.
The Rays have an ALCS team with a $44 million payroll -- the second-lowest payroll in the Majors -- and that, plus the organization's focus on young pitching, speed and defense over power and pricey free agents, may soon have other teams trying to copy Tampa Bay's model.
Perhaps their one-season run and convincing win over the White Sox in the AL Division Series should be viewed as nothing more than anecdotal evidence at this early juncture. On the other hand, certain facts are glaring:
The Rays entered the series with just three players with more than 100 career homers in Cliff Floyd, Carlos Pena and Eric Hinske. The White Sox had 10 with 100 or more, and A.J. Pierzynski had 98.
If you counted every home run hit by all 20 position players the Rays used in 2008 for their entire careers, that's still 231 fewer than just two White Sox (Ken Griffey Jr. and Jim Thome) and less than half of what the top 10 White Sox have hit in their combined careers.
The Rays had the second-most stolen bases in baseball. The White Sox ranked 25th out of 30 teams.
It was a textbook pairing of small ball vs. long ball, and the rabbits lapped the field.
Some might argue the series would have been closer if injured White Sox Carlos Quentin, Joe Crede and Jose Contreras had been able to play. We'll never know.
What we do know is the White Sox, with their $121 million payroll, couldn't compete with the younger, faster and more versatile Rays team. With home runs during the recently completed regular season at a 15-year low, look for more teams to take a long look at how the upstart Rays are doing things.
First time's the charm
The pendulum is never constant in baseball, and after years of being out of favor, we might be witnessing the swing back from power to running baseball.
"I'm not sure that I can answer that, but obviously there's less power in the game overall today than there was four, five years ago," Hunsicker said. "Power can be a component of a winning team, but if it's not there, you have to look at other things. We look for pitching, defense and speed as the three components we chose to build around, and that's a recipe that's worked forever."
Over the last three years, the Rays have gone about the task of stockpiling young arms and legs to fit their pitching, speed and defense blueprint.
Finding the right players is one challenge. Another is keeping them.
The Rays took a page from the Cleveland Indians' book in that regard. The Indians in the '90s started locking up certain young players to long-term deals. The reasoning was it would give the club the cost savings by buying out the young players' arbitration or first free-agency years and give the player security in advance of that lucrative window.
A long-term deal can backfire due to injury, poor performance or any number of reasons, but the Indians have been very successful in identifying which young players are worth the risk.
The Rays, however, went even further. In April, just seven games into his Major League career, Tampa Bay gave 22-year-old third baseman Evan Longoria a six-year, $17.5 million contract, plus club options that could keep Longoria with the Rays through 2016. The deal stunned many baseball observers, but following Longoria's AL Rookie of the Year-caliber campaign, that deal could prove to be one of the better bargains in baseball.
"We're not going to go out and be able to spend money tying up free agents to big contracts, so we've got to get more out of our dollar than the other team," Hunsicker said. "The only way we can do it is take the risk on the front end of that player's career and gamble that that player is going to be the player we hope he's going to be and tie him up with lesser dollars than we would if we waited to see ... he turned out to be the player that we hoped he would be at 10 times the cost.
"This is a high-risk business either way you look at it. The question is, do you want to take smaller risks on the front end or bigger risks on the back end? And we chose to do the former."
The Rays knew Longoria was just such a player, but it had to work both ways. Longoria could have said, as others did, that he would put in his time with Tampa Bay, but leave when he was eligible for free agency.
Longoria was willing to sacrifice some of that future money for present-day security. The Rays had correctly identified Longoria as someone who wanted to be a part of what the organization was trying to do.
"We all knew we had a special player -- he had extraordinary physical ability, he had great poise, he had all the great things you were looking for," Hunsicker said. "We all felt he would be a franchise player. We wanted to tie him up to a long-term deal, and he wanted it, too. It's not just the club that wants to make a commitment to the young player. You have to have the young players that want to make the commitment to sacrifice dollars down the road."
The Minnesota Twins, to some extent, are an organization with a philosophy similar to Tampa Bay's, and the Twins used their pitching, speed and timely hitting to come within a game of facing the Rays in the ALDS. But where the Twins have had to trade talented veterans they couldn't afford (like Johan Santana) or watch them leave (Torii Hunter, Carlos Silva), the Rays haven't had to face those decisions yet. By locking up Longoria and Scott Kazmir, they at least avoided two potential organizational crossroads.
Friedman and Hunsicker speak of the mind-set of the organization, and how that mind-set is to look for value and when you find it, lock it up. They use the same approach to the free-agent market, trade possibilities and of course when formulating the long-term plans for the roster.
They were willing to deal a young talent like outfielder Delmon Young, because they knew it would bring them the player they needed to fill a hole like shortstop Jason Bartlett as well as a solid starter in Matt Garza.
While they will dabble in the free-agent market, the Rays are built on young talent (average age, 27.4) and a fertile farm system. The core group of players should keep the team in contention for many years with a payroll in line with the budget.
That is crucial for a small-market franchise like the Rays.
"We know if we don't tie up the young players, it's going to be more difficult to keep them long range. They just get too expensive, too quick," Hunsicker said. "You find yourself in the same boat with other clubs ... after a player has three or four years in the big leagues, you have to trade them because you just can't afford them anymore.
"That fact that we've tied up a Longoria, a Kazmir, I'm sure that trend will continue as we acquire young talented players in our organization that we want to be part of our future. We have to do that."
Before long, they might not be the only team doing it.
Jim Molony is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.