Wednesday, May 29, 2024
AL EastAmerican LeagueAnalysisMLBTampa Bay Rays

Rays Secret To Success? Not Much Of A Secret At All

Photo: Twitter, @RaysBaseball

The Rays are generally considered to be an efficient organization that excels in transforming another team’s scraps into surprisingly productive players. As they say, one team’s trash is another team’s treasure. But in this case, the “trash” is almost entirely former high-round picks who haven’t yet lived up to the hype.

A famous instance for Rays fans is the story of Travis d’Arnaud. After designating him for assignment, Mets GM Brodie Van Wagenen told reporters, “(backup catcher) Tomas Nido gives us the best opportunity to win.” After a half-week stop in Los Angeles, the Dodgers shipped him to Tampa Bay, who had gone through four catchers in one injury-plagued week. As Rays fans may remember, D’Arnaud was more or less the entire offense for a couple weeks in July, notably hitting 3 HR with 5 RBI in a 5-4 win at Yankee Stadium and hitting a grand slam off Dylan Cease en route to a 4-2 victory over the White Sox.

What helped the Rays get the results that the Mets couldn’t was that they showed patience and trust in d’Arnaud. After a miserable first 14 games in which he hit .175/.244/.225, he was still given chances to succeed. Much of that was determined on past success. Rays hitting coach Chad Mottola, who had worked with him when he was a top prospect in the Blue Jays’ system, was tasked with helping him emulate what made him succeeeful then. In the end, d’Arnaud caught all six of the team’s playoff games, none of which they would even play in if they had not taken a chance in mid-May. Considering d’Arnaud was the 37th pick in the 2007 MLB Draft, it’s not hard to imagine his talent would show sometime. But that’s what teams so easily gloss over, as was the case when the Mets chose a player the immediate higher-floor player over one with a much higher ceiling. This was a hyperfocused win-now team with little regard for the future that allowed the Rays an opportunity — even the Dodgers, who couldn’t resist claiming d’Arnaud despite having no room for him.

For the Rays, this is a rather common occurence. Of course, they usually have to pay more than cash considerations, but you get the point. Belief in talent goes a long way, and where better to find industry evaluations of raw talent than Draft records? While there can be productive picks in the later rounds, the players on the high end should theoretically exhibit a special level of talent more times than not.

Here is a breakdown of the 60-man roster by Draft placement (international signees are excluded):

First Round

Second Round

Third Round

Fourth Round

Fifth Round

Between Rounds Six and 10

Between Rounds 10 and 20

Beyond Round 20

Undrafted

20% of the Rays 60-man roster is made up of first round draft picks, and 80% were selected before the 10th round. All of a sudden, all the credit can’t just fall on GM Erik Neander and his staff (although they do deserve a lot of it). The players on this roster truly are talented, whether they have the name recognition or not. Without even including international signees like Wander Franco, Yonny Chirinos, and Diego Castillo, an overwhelming amount of Rays were once considered to have some serious potential by the industry as a whole.

Unfulfilled Potential: Disappointment… Or Opportunity?

Many of the high-pick players who are not homegrown simply did not fulfill their potential with their previous teams. Using Renfroe as an example, he has struck out too frequently to justify his power thus far in his career. In his favor this year is his health, which was mostly a non-issue in the first half of last season when he hit .252/.308/.613 with 27 home runs. In the offseason, he had three lower leg issues fixed in one surgery, and he has the opportunity with the Rays to not be overworked. The team has enough outfield options to keep everyone fresh, and Renfroe could always DH to get his bat in the lineup whenever necessary.

In no time, Pittsburgh’s disappointing middle reliever, Tyler Glasnow, became an impact starter in Tampa Bay. The Pirates actually gave up on him as a starter. To be fair, he was not very good for them. Mostly attributing to his poor performance was a sinker that opposing hitters crushed for a .431 average and .696 slugging percentage in 2017, and the following year he was demoted to the bullpen. On August first of that year, Glasnow was given the start at Tropicana Field only one day after the infamous deadline deal that also sent Baz and Meadows, two former first round picks, to the Rays for Chris Archer. More importantly, the sinker was canned in order to embrace his elite four-seam/curveball combination. Glasnow was arguably the American League’s best pitcher last year before his injury—and he was even better when he came back. All it took to restore his potential was a small repertoire adjustment and building his confidence back up. It is common for the Rays to be dissatisfied when players don’t have as much confidence in themselves as the team does; in other words, they want their players to know they’re great.

Even Charlie Morton had room for improvement after his two renaissance years with the Astros, highlighted by his four-inning save to win the 2017 World Series. By many measures, last year was the best of his career. He pitched more innings and had a better strikeout rate than ever before, his best walk rate since 2012, and his best home run rate since 2016—yes, even in the juiced ball season. The most impactful improvement is that Morton threw his curve over 10% more than he did in Houston. Even though the results of the pitch were slightly worse, that doesn’t matter. It’s just a product of throwing it more, and the curve still stood alone as his best pitch.

What holds true for all players who break out in a Rays uniform is that they are encouraged to enhance their best qualities while being able to let go of what brings them down. They are the absolute opposite of a one-size-fits-all organization. An example of one of those is the Pirates, who shockingly failed to make anything of Glasnow, Morton, and Gerritt Cole. With a team made up of unique players, it makes sense to personalize their instruction in order to make each player the best they can be. Every once in a while, a promising young player will say some thing along the lines of “I don’t want to be the next Ben Zobrist; I want to be the first Joey Wendle,” (this is just a made up example, not a real quote). It’s great to talk the talk, but the Rays walk the walk here like no other.

What About Position Players?

Bringing out the best in position players requires unique usage strategies. Because pitchers control the game, it is relatively simple to accentuate their best qualities. For hitters, you can’t just tell the good fastball hitters to see more fastballs, but what you can do is put each player (and therefore the team) in the best position to succeed. Much of this can usually be done by matching hitters up with pitchers of the opposite hand. Two Rays that can benefit greatly from this are Joey Wendle and Daniel Robertson, who have both recorded an above average wRC+ against opposite-handed pitchers when healthy over the last two years. Both have been consistently reliable defenders all over the field, so some of their value can come from late-inning defensive substitutions as well.

Although this thinking pattern is used more for who to bring out of the bullpen, managers could theoretically put certain hitters in the lineup against a type of pitcher they should perform well against based on mechanics or any other special characteristic of their game. Wendle’s swing is not exploited by the high fastball as badly as most players’ are, so it would make sense to start him against a pitcher like Gerritt Cole. If you’re curious, Wendle has a line of .429/.444/.714 against Cole excluding playoffs.

If a player was good enough to be selected in the first ten rounds of the Draft, and especially the first five rounds, the talent they showed then is definitely still there unless they are old or have suffered a significant injury. No matter how defined their niche is, these players at least deserve the opportunity, especially for a team that lacks the revenue to sign universally-recognized stars.

Playing For a Profit

The cost-conscious culture pervades all areas of the Rays, including how they target players. The Draft is considered by many to be the beet way of acquiring inexpensive talent, which is why they invest heavily in their minor league system. Another thing they do is to keep an eye on the development of players they like that were picked by other teams. Eventually, they might end up offering a trade for one of them.

The three trades they made in the offseason have a common theme: acquiring premier players with high-pick histories. In the Tommy Pham trade, former first rounder Hunter Renfroe came to the bay area while clearing enough money to sign Yoshitomo Tsutsugo from Japan. Even trading top prospect Matthew Liberatore, the Rays moved from the second Competitive Balance Round to the first (that pick became shortstop Alika Williams). Trading Emilio Pagan netted catcher Logan Driscoll, the 73rd overall pick in 2019.

Why does this matter? Because these are the types of players who allow for the Rays to keep their payroll in line with their revenue. Players on their rookie contracts, especially before arbitration, are typically paid a salary between league minimum and $10M. By keeping a steady flow of fresh faces from the minor leagues, the amount of pre-arbitration guys on the roster makes it financially feasible for Morton, Kiermaier, Snell and Tsutsugo to have their contracts. This is something that even the Yankees do: they can develop hitting better than pitching, so their relatively inexpensive offense gives them the leeway to spend on big arms like Cole and Aroldis Chapman. The difference between the two teams, however, is that the Yankees chose to do this. This is the only conventional method the Rays have to be competitive for the long haul. Because they can’t win the Yankees’ way, they do things a little differently… and nobody can play the Rays’ game better than the Rays.

Once these talented players reach the big leagues, they aren’t always well-known stars. And that’s where the Rays come in. Trading for Renfroe, Glasnow, Roe, etc. keeps the money under control because they haven’t lived up to their expectations yet, but that doesn’t take away from their ability on the field. Essentially, the Rays can field a team that is paid less than they believe it is truly worth.

Many people believe the Rays have some secret to success. After all, they are known for their executives’ intelligence, and they manage to win on MLB’s lowest payroll of the teams that are considered contenders. The irony is that the driving factor behind what they do, or the “secret,” is to make the best of what you have. That’s what they preach to the players, and it just so happens to be that this philosophy is rooted in the foundation of the organization.

Nicholas Lobraico

High school student, former baseball player. Pitching enthusiast. Rays man in a Yankees land. Follow me on Twitter @LobraicoNick