How the Rays are winning big without spending big money

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SAN DIEGO — Chemistry is a word often scoffed at by many baseball analytics people because there is no way to quantify what it actually means or what it offers. But when you speak to Major League Baseball players who have won a World Series, it’s a word often mentioned by those it affects the most — the ones who share a clubhouse.

In a champagne-drenched clubhouse last year, Max Scherzer was one of several Nationals players who was quick to heap praise on Gerardo Parra — who had been signed by the club in mid-May when the team was struggling mightily — signaling his unifying personality as one of the primary reasons for the Nationals turnaround after Parra arrived.

“He brought so much joy,” Scherzer said. “He reminded us all to relax and have fun playing this game.”

The Tampa Bay Rays are among the smallest of small-market clubs, yet they are on the verge of earning just their second trip to the World Series and this is a formula they have long embraced, mostly because they can’t cover many flaws with a checkbook. Yes, analytics play a significant role in the Rays’ success, something you see by their high number of defensive shifts around the diamond and their popularizing the frequent use of the opener on the pitching mound. But their success is also built on by what happens when the players are all together, which is pretty much every day for hours at a time.

“When we acquire a player, as much work that goes into what he can do on the field, there’s that much on the personality and character,” manager Kevin Cash said. “That’s where scouts come into play and word of mouth comes into play. Getting to know and having relationships throughout the game that you can find some pretty crucial information about how’s his personality. We know we have enough information about how those players can match on the field, but how do they match in the clubhouse.”

Almost out of necessity, the Rays have always been a magnet for the discarded. In Game 2 of the American League Championship against the Astros, Tampa Bay’s starting lineup featured seven players who had been acquired via trade. Only Brandon Lowe and Kevin Kiermaier were original Rays draft picks.

Over the course of the past five years, the team payrolls of the Rays have ranked 28th twice (including this season), 29th once and last at 30th another two times. Their prorated player payroll this season was $28 million, nearly $100 million less than the Yankees ($113 million), whom they eliminated in the ALDS. Yet the Rays’ 40 victories in 60 games was second only to the Dodgers’ 43 wins and their $105 million payroll.

Talent is an obvious must for Tampa Bay to do what it has done over the past dozen years — which includes eight winning seasons — but it’s that culture inside the clubhouse that resonates so much with the ones most affected, the players.

“I think what makes us good is the mentality, how easy it is to come here and play,” said Tyler Glasnow, acquired from Pittsburgh along with 2019 All-Star Austin Meadows in exchange for Chris Archer during the 2018 season. “I think so many of the players here are not necessarily guys that other organizations have given up on, that’s not the right word for it, but they’ve been given a chance here and everyone comes out and plays their heart out. I think they can kind of do what they want with lineups because everyone is so on board with winning. It’s just a perfect storm, I guess.”

The roots of the Rays’ success can be traced to when the franchise hired someone who had never been a big league manager, the nomadic Joe Maddon in 2006. He immediately brought in a counterculture of perspective.

“Joe started that thinking when I was there,” said veteran left-hander David Price, a member of the Rays in 2008-2014. “The first thing he told all of us was to be yourself. If you wanted tattoos or piercings, go ahead and get them. I loved it there. Culture absolutely matters inside the clubhouse, one hundred percent it does, and I don’t care what anyone else says about that. It takes chemistry to win, there’s no way around that. Players know this. I’m very happy for what they’re doing. A little piece of me is still in Tampa.”

The Rays’ system would not work if there were fractures within the organization. Here’s where the Rays excel: they scour every level of minor league systems, as well as the major league level. One area that is an obvious strength is something legendary Royals and Braves general manager John Schuerholz told me years ago, “You must scout your own system better than anyone else, recognize what you have before someone else sees something you may not.”

This might be why the Rays rarely regret trading away anyone from their system and often make fans from other organizations question why some players from their favorite clubs seem to excel once they wear a Rays uniform. Look no further than some current big-time contributors who were traded for, players like Randy Arozarena (Cardinals), Glasnow and Meadows (Pirates), Ji-Man Choi (Brewers), Manuel Margot (Padres), Willy Adames (Tigers), Mike Zunino (Mariners), Nick Anderson (Marlins) and Peter Fairbanks (Rangers).

“They believe in scouting more than people think,” a rival front-office executive said. “They have a tremendous pro, international and amateur scouting department. It’s the only way they can do what they do.”

It’s why the running joke in some baseball circles is that if the Rays are calling about a potential trade, don’t answer the phone. The Rays do serious due diligence, looking under the surface to find players who fit their profile.

“Our scouts, you look at our roster, there’s a lot of people that maybe didn’t come through the system,” Cash said. “That’s a credit to our [research and development] department and our scouts. It’s a collaboration. The amount of communication and discussion that we have from player development to scouting to front office to coaching staff. There’s this constant conversation with ideas being kicked around and being respected from all angles.”

Even someone like new cult hero Mike Brosseau, whose home run in the bottom of the eighth off Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman in Game 5 of the ALDS propelled the Rays past their heated rivals. Brosseau was an undrafted free agent from Oakland (Michigan) University, having been passed over by every club for 40 rounds in the 2016 draft.

“Mike Brosseau is a perfect example of why we feel our organization is so special,” Cash said. “Our scouting to recognize it. Our player development pushing and saying, ‘Get him up here, he’s going to make the most of it.'”

Yet here was Brosseau, as unlikely a playoff hero as there ever has been, wearing the Superman cape after a 10-pitch at-bat against Chapman, one of the nastiest closers in the game.

“They know what we do well and they put us in the scenarios to do that,” Brosseau said. “We have a lot of guys that may have been overlooked in their careers. You can go down the list and there’s probably so many who have been overlooked. When you put that kind of combination, of everybody having a chip on their shoulder, everybody coming to the park ready to play and wanting this team to advance and do their part to make sure that happens, it’s a dangerous combination.”



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