We shouldn’t be surprised anymore when the Tampa Bay Rays perform well. Since dropping the Devil Rays moniker after the 2007 season they went on to make the playoffs four of the next seven years. Despite the loss of manager Joe Maddon and Andrew Friedman—head of baseball operations since November 2005—in the same offseason, we’re almost halfway through the 2015 campaign and they’re threatening to do it again.
Their attendance numbers continue to be the worst in baseball, but that hasn’t stopped them from resting atop the AL East standings, ahead of four other clubs whose payrolls entering this season total at least $110 million:
New York Yankees: $219,282,196
Boston Red Sox: $187,407,202
Toronto Blue Jays: $122,506,600
Baltimore Orioles: $110,146,097
Tampa Bay Rays: $76,061,707
In fact the Rays boast the third-lowest payroll in all of baseball, but this comes as no surprise. In regards to their minuscule attendance numbers, they are 20–21 at home compared to 21–12 on the road. While their success has little to do in terms of financial means and even less to do with fan support, they’ve also lacked a significant presence at the plate.
Thus far the Rays are 25th in runs scored, while resting among the bottom half in batting average, on-base, and slugging percentage. Their good hitters—though few and far between—have been fairly surprising with the exception of Evan Longoria. Infielder Logan Forsythe, 35-year-old outfielder David DeJesus, and the inexperienced Joey Butler have all produced admirably.
Forsythe holds a career line of .247/.318/.365 but is in the midst of a career year, currently slashing .293/.373/.454 with eight home runs. He leads the league in games played with 72 but has never played in more than 110 games in a single season (2014). In his previous three seasons he didn’t tally more than 91.
DeJesus holds a career line of .278/.353/.413 over parts of 13 seasons so his 2015 marks of .299/.359/.443 aren’t as surprising, but one would think age would start catching up. It hasn’t yet, and the veteran is doing all he can to convince Tampa Bay to pick up their team option on him for $5 million next season.
Finally Butler, the designated hitter. While he’s able to play left field when necessary, Butler has played 32 of his 44 games this season as DH. Entering 2015 he only had 21 professional plate appearances to his name, but the 29-year-old has made the most of his playing time with the Rays, swinging to the tune of .338/.378/.519 with six home runs over 164 plate appearances.
While their offense overall hasn’t been much to brag about, the Rays have gotten key contributions from the unlikeliest of suspects. Still, the biggest factor in their success has been their pitching, namely Chris Archer. Once you take into account the injuries to their rotation, it becomes a little more jarring just how promising the Rays have been without more star power.
Alex Cobb (27), Matt Moore (26), Jake Odorizzi (25), and Drew Smyly (26) are all currently on the shelf, but it’s the first two names on that list that were most damning on paper. Cobb and Moore are potential stars; over the past two seasons Cobb averaged a 2.82 ERA, 3.30 FIP, 8.3 SO/9, 0.7 HR/9, and a walk rate of 7.3 percent. He underwent Tommy John surgery back in May, and obviously won’t be back until next year. Moore finished ninth in Cy Young voting for the 2013 season but made just two starts the following year before also undergoing Tommy John surgery last April. He had a bullpen session scheduled earlier this week before the next evaluation, but his return to the rotation appears to be on the cards sooner than later.
Then there’s Odorizzi, a pitcher who was starting to show all of his promise before straining his left oblique. The hope is he’ll be back in two weeks. In 12 starts this season he had a 2.47 ERA, 2.98 FIP, and a 2.51 Deserved Run Average (DRA). His strikeout rate is a solid 20.5 percent, while his walk rate of 4.9 percent is the best it’s ever been at the major league level.
Finally Smyly, who has been out since early May with left shoulder soreness, started doing long tosses from 105 feet on Monday. In the meantime promising rotation piece turned ace Chris Archer has held down the fort.
Archer, who was third in 2013’s AL Rookie of the Year voting and ranked as high as 29th by Baseball Prospectus among prospects before 2013, has flourished this year. In his 16 starts he’s second in the AL with 123 strikeouts, holds a SO/9 of 10.7, a HR/9 of just 0.5, while his ERA/FIP/DRA come in at 2.01/2.24/1.99. He is truly something special on a Rays staff that if healthy, becomes incredibly scary good.
Over the last few years years we’ve seen the Rays make very notable trades, shipping off top starters like James Shields (along with the now almost untouchable reliever Wade Davis) and David Price, not to mention 2013 ROY outfielder Wil Myers. Yet no matter how many arms they trade they always have more coming in, whether it be via trades (Archer, Odorizzi, Smyly) or the draft (Cobb, Moore).
If the Rays can hold off on trading their current crop anytime soon, they’re guaranteed a solid core for the next few years. Archer is signed through 2019, when he will be 30 years old, but has two team options in 2020 and 2021 totaling $9 million and $11 million respectively. It’ll be interesting with Cobb, who is out for the season, as he becomes eligible for arbitration in the offseason, but he isn’t eligible for free agency until 2018. Moore is under contract through 2016 as well but has three team options from 2017–19 ranging from $7 million to $10 million.
Odorizzi, who’s making just over $500,000, doesn’t become arbitration eligible until 2017 and cannot become a free agent until 2020, so if he keeps pitching like he has this year the Rays will be in good shape with him for the next couple years. Smyly will be arbitration eligible at the end of the season as well, but again, won’t be eligible for the free agent market until 2019.
Over the next few years it’s likely we see three things: First, the Rays extend one or two of these guys. Secondly, they flip the others for more promising players (and if history is anything to go by they’ll pan out). Lastly, their team—one that is consistently built on a stable and reliable rotation—continues to win and exceed our expectations.
It’s that last point that has become the overarching theme for this franchise for the last eight years: the Tampa Bay Rays are good; nobody should be surprised anymore.