When was the last time you packed for a vacation not knowing when it would end? While it was not vacation, the Tampa Bay Rays packed for their road trip against the New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays, beginning on September 24th, clinging to the first Wild Card spot in the American League. After falling into a tie for the second Wild Card spot, the Rays beat Toronto on the last day of the season to clinch a tie for the second spot with the Texas Rangers. Determined not to let their season end, they beat Texas in Texas in the tiebreaker game to see who would play in the Wild Card game. They then beat the Cleveland Indians in Cleveland to set up a Division Series matchup with the Boston Red Sox.
Tampa Bay is a baseball anomaly. They have never had a large payroll, due in part to their geographic location and midsize fan base. After years of futility, their farm system, which is one of the deepest in baseball, has continued to produce key contributors. Some of the homegrown players were drafted by the Rays and have been in the system since their careers began. Others have been acquired by Tampa Bay through trades as minor leaguers or international free agency. Either way, traces of their homegrown talent are found all over the Major League team.
Their starting rotation, led by ace David Price (10 – 8, 3.33 E.R.A.), all came up through the Tampa Bay farm system. While Price did not duplicate his 2012 Cy Young Award winning numbers in 2013, Matt Moore (17 – 4, 3.29 E.R.A. and 2013 All-Star) and Alex Cobb (11 – 3, 2.76 E.R.A.) picked up the slack. The back end of the rotation includes Jeremy Hellickson (12 – 10 and 2011 A.L. Rookie of the Year Award winner) and Chris Archer (9 – 7, 3.22 E.R.A.), who both have tremendous upside. Other important homegrown talent includes third baseman Evan Longoria (32 homeruns), who is the leader of this team, and utility man Ben Zobrist (2013 All-Star).
The Rays’ front office is one of the best in baseball. The free agents they sign, such as first baseman James Loney, catcher Jose Molina and close Fernando Rodney, fill the few holes that their farm system does not. Loney batted .299 while providing solid defense at first base. Molina was a steadying presence for the young Rays pitching staff. Rodney recorded 37 saves and was a shutdown force in the back of the bullpen.
They also make clutch trades. Needing an outfielder and knowing that they had a surplus of pitching, the Rays acquired Wil Myers from the Kansas City Royals in exchange for pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis during the 2012 – 2013 offseason. Myers is on his way to winning the A.L. Rookie of the Year Award following his strong season and provided much needed power for the Rays lineup. In August, the Rays acquired outfielder David DeJesus for their stretch run, adding a valuable veteran presence. These parts are all woven together by manager Joe Maddon, who is known for getting the most out of his players and putting them in positions to succeed.
As the perpetual underdog, Tampa Bay continues to be an incredible story. They are among the lowest spenders in Major League Baseball but have been one of the most successful teams in recent years. While Tampa Bay may not beat a very good Red Sox team in their upcoming Division Series matchup, they are built for sustained success. Expect them to continue competing at a high level for years to come.
Statistics and numbers taken from baseball-reference.com and mlb.com and are current as of 10/3/13.