Small market baseball teams are accustomed to feeling disrespected in comparison to payroll giants. But Florida won’t stand for it anymore.
After the Major League Baseball oddball shortened season last year, many questioned the validity of player’s performances and whether or not they could sustain it for the normal, 162 game season. Moreover, people began to question not just individuals, but teams as a whole that possibly overperformed due to the drastically cut season.
Atop this list of highly doubted success stories in 2020 were the two Florida teams. The Miami Marlins had absolutely no expectations coming into 2020, with most considering them the bottom feeders of the NL East. To make things worse, the team faced a widespread covid-19 outbreak within the organization, and yet, somehow, they slipped their way into the playoffs. It did not end there either, as they were able to maintain their franchise’s perfect playoff record, defeating the Chicago Cubs in the first round. However, their dream season eventually ran out of gas and the real-world caught up to their cinderella story.
As for the other Florida team, the Tampa Bay Rays have been consistently placed in this weird box of superstar-less rosters with tremendous amounts of depth. Furthermore, being in one the league’s most competitive divisions, which includes the exorbitant New York Yankees, meant few ever have real, sincere belief in the Rays to succeed. However, 2020 was Tampa’s year, and not just in baseball. The success the city of Tampa Bay saw in such a dreadful year for most was truly extraordinary and something I, let alone many others, had never experienced. The Rays concluded the 60-game season with the second best record in baseball, just three games shy of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Surprisingly enough, this year was one of the few times in which the two best regular season teams actually faced off in the World Series.
This was the classic matchup of David versus Goliath. The forgotten, small market team versus the historic, big city team that had now successfully brought home three national league pennants in four years. However, what they had been unsuccessful at was finishing the job… until now. After a wild series that saw one of the most chaotic walk-offs in recent playoff history, the Los Angeles Dodgers and their whopping 108 million dollar payroll (reduced due to shortened season) had finally reached the mountaintop, defeating the Tampa Bay Rays in six games.
But the Rays spent $80 million dollars less and still wound up atop the American League. Even crazier is the fact that to reach the World Series, the Rays had to go through the Yankees, who spent four million more than the Dodgers in 2020. So, in a year where the MLB season was possibly not even going to happen, a year that had many teams battle through Covid-19 surges, and a year where the second highest spending team of the decade ($2.04 billion) finally won it all, the team right there with them, fighting for that illustrious commissioner’s trophy was the one who had spent the least in the past decade ($671 million), the Tampa Bay Rays.
Alright, now that my 500-word rewind of the 2020 season, I can finally move into the offseason. Like I said before, this free agency was going to be a weird one because of team’s uncertainness in player’s actual success from the year prior. However, it was not free agent signings that sparked the offseason, instead it was a trade.
Following an outstanding playoffs, which included some questionable leashes (thanks Kevin Cash), Blake Snell looked to be back in his Cy Young form. Therefore, with the Rays looking to be true title contenders, as well as Snell having a very team friendly contract of just $13 mil/year and three years of control, a typical baseball team would go find that true superstar bat or player to push them past powerhouse ballclubs like the Yankees and Dodgers. However, if any Rays’ fans actually expected this, they must not actually be fans because that is simply not the Rays’ way.
Instead, they traded Snell to the up-and-coming San Diego Padres for nothing too special. Luis Patiño and Francisco Mejia highlighted Tampa’s return, but regardless it was heartbreaking as a fan to see such a move. Especially since the team also let Charlie Morton, the man some would argue as the team’s ace the previous two seasons, walk. Now why would a team allow their two best pitchers to leave in the same offseason?
Money. Money is and forever will be the Rays biggest problem under the current ownership. Morton ended up signing with the Atlanta Braves for just one year, $15 million. Rather than spending that on one player, Tampa elected to sign seven players to major league contracts at a total of $18.7 million, with the return of Chris Archer being the highest paid at $6.5 million.
This was basically it for their offseason, whereas other contenders were making big-money moves. The Dodgers somehow afforded to award reigning NL Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer a three year, 102 million dollar contract. While the Yankees raised the Dodgers by spending just over $114 million for five MLB contracts, with the resigning of DJ LeMahieu accounting for $90 million of it. This truly is just how baseball works. Fans of other professional sports must find this imbalance remarkably unfair and illogical, which it is to some extent, but it is simply the way it goes for teams like Tampa.
Coming into the season, it was clear who the favorites were. When a team is willing to spend over a quarter of a billion dollars on a single season’s payroll, they expect to win. Despite their impressive offseason, San Diego, a team many considered the second best ballclub in baseball, was still not even predicted to win their division because of the high-rolling Dodgers. Whereas the Rays, following their typical offseason recycle, had been perceived as worse than the year before with their strong pitching depth diminished and their lack of hitters not being reinforced.
However, yet again on par with how the Rays generally work, Tampa’s pitching proved themselves as one of the elite set of arms the league entails. The problem was hitting. Watching this team attempt to score runs was truthfully painful at first. They began to turn things around slowly, making them relevant in the AL East, but still not quite in contention with the surprising Red Sox. And then something happened. I cannot point out a singularity that could be reason for this surge (except for maybe the return of the legendary Ji-Man Choi), but Rays went on a winning streak, and a long one too. Tampa Bay had won fifteen out of sixteen games, with eleven victories being consecutive, one shy of tying the ’04 franchise record.
This streak had pushed the Rays not only past the Red Sox for the AL East lead, but all the way into the best record in baseball. Their current two game losing streak, though, has unfortunately gave way for a new team atop the MLB, and it is not the Dodgers. In fact, the Dodgers are not only not in first, they are not even in second place in their division, granted this is the best division in baseball so far. Additionally, the team with the current best win percentage in baseball is not the San Diego Padres either, but rather another Californian team beginning with “San.” The San Francisco Giants have been the shock of the MLB this year for many, except for maybe the Twins only in the wrong direction.
However, something that was not unexpected by myself, but is possibly bewildering to others is the continued success in Tampa Bay. This team showed the world last year they have an unparalleled farm system with an abundance of young, promising talent. Yet still, nobody believes in them. Let us not forget either that Tampa is doing all this without the best prospect in baseball who, for whatever reason (contract loophole because the Rays are cheap), remains in Durham, despite the team moving on from their starting shortstop Willy Adames.
The Tampa Bay Rays may not spend money like others. They may not retain talented players like others. But no team in the league can have a consistently top-tier future like them. A future that is finally coming into its own and arriving to the big leagues after its back-to-back AAA championship runs in 2017 and 2018. Whether or not this style can succeed in winning the final series of the season is still uncertain, but one thing is.
The disrespect of the Tampa Bay Rays needs to stop, they are not simply a good team, they are among the best, and have every opportunity to run it back this year.
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