Somewhere out there, in the most secluded parts of Florida, there probably were Tampa Bay Rays fans that ran out of their homes Friday to make sure the sky wasn’t falling. That’s the effect the loss of General Manager Andrew Friedman and Manager Joe Maddon—the two most noteworthy and greatest architects of the Rays’ recent success—in the span of 10 days had on Rays fans. It probably felt like everything was spinning out of control in southern Florida.
It seems appropriate to enact Aaron Rodgers’s favorite five-letter word now, right?
Even though the Rays no longer have Friedman and Maddon, the fans can relax somewhat, as the team likely still has what it takes to continue contending.
It no doubt caught everyone by surprise when Friedman decided to leave the Rays to become the Los Angeles Dodgers’ president of baseball operations less than two weeks ago. Since he joined the then-Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 2004, Friedman has been one of the more savvy General Managers in Major League Baseball (well, you kind of have to be savvy when your team barely outdraws Minor League baseball teams).
After he became the GM after the 2005 season, Friedman ran a franchise with one of the most woeful payrolls in MLB. His 2014 Rays had the highest payroll it ever had under the former Bear Stearns analyst: $76 million. Every other year except 2010, the Rays had a Opening Day payroll of less than $64 million; four times under $44 million.
Yet like any financial wizard, Friedman, along with his crack team of analysts, managed to draft, trade, and build the most cost-effective major-league club of the past seven years. Trading Aubrey Huff and less than $2 million for Ben Zobrist, trading for Chris Archer, poaching Wil Meyers from the Kansas City Royals, trading for Matt Garza, drafting David Price, Evan Longoria, B.J. Upton—the list goes on and on when you think of notable moves Friedman made.
With the front office giving him the pieces to work with every year, Maddon ran away with the team. Through light clubhouse antics and managing the young talent they gave him, Maddon guided the Rays to six-straight winning seasons from 2008 to 2013, winning at least 90 games in all but one season. The noteworthy triumphs? Four playoff appearances, two division titles, and an American League pennant.
But the Rays built that winning recipe on more than just Friedman’s knowledge of the baseball market and Maddon’s dugout skills. Their front office still has most of the analytical crowd that got them the players to win so many games. Stuart Sternberg, the owner, the man who thought of getting a Wall Street analyst to be his GM, is still with the team, as is Matt Silverman, former club president-now GM, who was practically Friedman’s partner in financial baseball slyness.
That closeness of minds goes a long way for Silverman, because he still has the scouting and development crew to find the next Rays steal. Scouting Director R.J. Harrison, Director of Minor League Operations Mitch Lukevics, Vice Presidents of Baseball Operations Chaim Bloom and Erik Neander, Baseball Research and Development Director James Click, and Director of Pro Scouting Matt Arnold are still with the team. Or for a rough translation, the guys who helped Friedman scout Longoria, Price, and Upton, and whispered in his ear when it came time for him to make every steal-trade needed.
Friedman said he won’t divulge the Rays’ trade secrets, so it isn’t as if every team will know what’s inside the vault in St. Petersburg. The Rays, and now the Dodgers, will get to hog that sabermetric guide to winning a cheap MLB postseason spot. So there’s reason to believe Tampa Bay will continue to see stars come into Tropicana Field.
Not to say the Rays have been spotless in their player moves the last few years (this is where the fans only relax somewhat).
While the Rays have continued to make productive trades, their drafting superiority has lacked. Since they selected Price in 2007, the Rays haven’t drafted a star player since. Sure, you can eye trade pieces, but teams are keener to be wary now that the Rays have established themselves as off- and mid-season practitioners of fleecing teams.
Thus, it’s that current Rays roster that will have to take them places.
Tampa Bay still has a number of productive players that they can keep under their control for at least another few years. We already know Longoria (22 homeruns in 2014) will be with them until he loses his hair, but the Rays made sure to nab James Loney (.716 OPS last year) for at least the next two seasons, Matt Joyce (.349 on-base percentage in 2014) for an arbitration season, and Myers (2013 AL Rookie of the Year) on the pre-arbitration and arbitration floor until 2020.
But Friedman and his brain team made sure that the Rays will really thrive past 2014 thanks to their pitching. Assuming arbitration works out fine for the Rays, the earliest any of their starting pitchers can go to free agency is 2017. That means for the semi-long term, the Rays will continue to boast one of the deepest rotations in the Majors.
New ace Drew Smyly may have only pitched in seven games for the Rays, but he struck out 44 with a 1.70 earned run average and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 4. He won’t be a full-fledged free agent until 2019.
Almost-an-ace Alex Cobb recorded a 130 ERA+ last year with a 1.136 WHIP. He won’t be completely for the market until 2018.
Chris Archer averaged eight strikeouts-per-nine-innings and only gave up 12 home runs in 194.2 innings pitched. His option doesn’t even come up until 2020.
And Matt Moore may have lost most of his 2014 season to Tommy John Surgery, but he’ll be back with his career strikeout-per-nine-innings rate at almost nine and his 117 ERA+ in his last full season. Him? The Rays locked him up a long time ago to make sure he won’t test the market uninhibited until 2020. Add Jake McGee (two home runs in 71.1 innings pitched) and Brad Boxberger (158 ERA+) to the list of probable Rays for at least the next three years, and Tampa Bay can breathe a little easier.
Of course, none of this means the Rays will be a contender in, say, 2020, for example. By then Longoria will be out of his prime and at least a few of the star arms likely will have left the financial constraints of the Rays. The Houston Astros’, Minnesota Twins’, and Boston Red Sox’s thriving farm systems might dominate the American League by then and limit the might the Rays can muster.
A staff sixth in MLB in WHIP this season might also not be enough if the club loses what few good offensive players they have now to free agency (Zobrist is the prime example, as he will be a free agent by 2016, at the latest).
But for at least a few more years, the Rays have just about every bit of talent they need to compete in the AL East.
It won’t be clear what Maddon’s absence will do to the Rays until the 2015 season is well under way. It seems like the front office is what really made the Rays into a powerhouse in the AL for years, but Maddon’s effect on the clubhouse was noteworthy. From his “nerd” road trip dress theme in 2012, to encouraging his players not to cut their hair all year in 2011, to inviting a penguin into his clubhouse, Maddon kept his players looser than any other manager in the game. That probably nudged his team towards playing well.
But having players that can play well and lead to wins basically shoves a team into the win column. The Rays still have the personnel to do that without Maddon and Friedman; the only question is, how long will take for them to find their luster again?
So maybe the sky is half-falling in Florida.