Tampa Bay Rays: How to win without paying for it

Time goes by like pouring rain: The Rays traded Edwin Jackson, a pretty fair pitcher, for outfielder Matt Joyce and stashed Joyce in the minors for much of the last two years. Jackson has won 23 games, no-hit the Rays and been traded twice more in the two years since. Joyce’s career has been far more boring — even if he’s spent most of it in Durham — and has had only 248 big-league at-bats. He can’t hit lefthanders at all, but the Rays focused more in the second half of 2010 on what Joyce can do: walk (74 times in 490 major-league at-bats), hit for power (.486 lifetime slugging percentage) and play the outfield. There’s no shame in platooning  — 60 percent of an outfielder is better than none at all.

I feel like I’m knocking on heaven’s door: Forget about the Royals. If you want to celebrate a low-budget team for building its farm system and winning, the Rays have already done it. The Royals take imagination. The Rays will add pitcher Jeremy Hellickson to their rotation and Jake McGee to their bullpen, and Desmond Jenning someday to their lineup (not right away, he was sent to the minors). But they’re not done.

  •  Minorleagueball.com calls Matt Moore “the best left-handed pitching prospect in baseball not named Aroldis.” Moore fanned 208 in 144.2 innings in the Florida State League last year and has 490 career minor-league Ks in 342.1 innings.
  • Pitcher Chris Archer came over in the Matt Garza trade, the second time Archer has been traded (the Indians having traded him to the Cubs for, ugh, Mark DeRosa). The Rays won’t be so quick to deal a 22-year-old pitcher averaging a strikeout an inning with a 2.34 2010 ERA and just 102 hits allowed in 142.1 innings.
  • The Rays have created advanced utility roles for Ben Zobrist and Sean Rodriguez; imagine what they’ll do for Robinson Chirinos, who also came over in the Garza trade. At 26, Chirinos is older, but last year he hit. 326 and slugged .583 between AA and AAA. He did nothing but catch last year, but he’s played all four infield positions in the minors.

What is this man doing here? The Rays have rescued lost talent before, but Casey Kotchman isn’t it. Kotchman is a good-fielding first baseman without power, which equates to Doug Mientkiewicz. He’s the rare player who reached the majors at a young age and then got worse. In the majors at 21, an everyday first baseman at 24, batted .217 with a .616 OPS for the Mariners at age 27. In other words, he’s why Felix Hernandez won the Cy Young Award with a 13-12 record.

Outlook: The Rays are the defending AL East champions, for the second time since 2009, and they’ve averaged 92 wins a season over the last three. They’ve built a farm system to help them win, not to look pretty, and they know how to use it.

There are important distinctions to be drawn, not just between the Rays and their AL East rivals, but between the Rays and the Royals, this year’s cause celebre. Call us when the Royals win a division or the pennant, because it’s one thing to build a farm system and another to build a team. The Rays know how to do both.

The Red Sox and Yankees try to solve problems by spending, the Rays by spending frugally and thinking creatively. Even the Rays probably aren’t sure how well they can keep up this year, and they know they have questions: at what stage of depreciation are Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez, can they build a bullpen with Kyle Farnsworth when no one else has, can Reid Brignac man shortstop and Dan Johnson a middle-of-the-order lineup position, will Robinson Chirinos — who was cut earlier — return and put the super in the super-utility designation?

Even the Rays management has to be unsure, but there is lots of young talent and versatile pieces, and a manager and front office who knows how to use both. The Rays will win games this year — maybe not as many as the Red Sox or Yankees, but maybe more.

It’s foolish to count them out, and premature to hold up another organization as the example for low-budget teams. Until someone else does what the Rays have already done, they’re the model.

Remember when: When the Devil was in the Rays, and Wade Boggs, Fred McGriff and Quinton McCracken. Somehow Rolando Arrojo won 14 games. The only original Rays still active? Miguel Cairo and Randy Winn.

Next: Toronto


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