The small-market Tampa Bay Rays won the AL East division for the second straight season. (Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images)
PLAYERS & TEAM EARNINGS

How the Tampa Bay Rays Keep Doing it

Despite a small market, low payroll, and sparse attendance, the Rays won’t stop winning. Let’s discuss how they became the most compelling story in baseball.

In 2004, Stuart Sternberg bought the Tampa Bay Rays. That year, the franchise was valued at an estimated $152 million and still struggling to put together anything remotely resembling a consistent winning formula since debuting as an expansion team in 1998.

Today, the franchise is worth nearly 10 times that 2004 number — and the Rays are playing in consecutive postseasons for the first time in a decade and only the second time in franchise history as champions of a wealthy, historic American League East division typically dominated by the Yankees and Red Sox. Their 100 wins this season are best in the AL and No. 3 in all of baseball.

As a small-market team that routinely features one of the lowest payrolls and sparsest stadium attendance in the MLB, that’s an absolutely titanic achievement.

So, how do the Rays manage to keep doing this?

The Most Efficient Payroll in the Game

  • 26-man payroll: $43,704,325 (ranked No. 26 out of 30 MLB teams)
  • 40-man payroll: $44,558,156 (No. 26)
  • Highest 2021 salary: Kevin Kirmiaier ($11,500,000)
  • Retained salary: $6,218,025 (No. 23)
  • Salary on injured list: $21,638,800 (No. 12)
  • Luxury tax bill: $0

To put it lightly, the Tampa Bay Rays have never showcased one of the higher payrolls in baseball. The franchise’s Opening Day salary outlays have been in the MLB’s bottom 10 every year since 1998 all but two times: 2000 and 2001, when aging superstars were on the roster to bolster interest in a new team.

Players like Wade Boggs, Fred McGriff, Vinny Castilla, and Dwight Gooden were brought in to help field a club that would appeal to fans, ballooning payrolls noticeably above typically sustainable levels for a team with such a modest market footprint. Aside from those two years, the Rays have sported the single lowest payroll in baseball five separate times, including in 2002 (the worst season in franchise history).

Indeed, spending big money is vital to many franchises’ winning formulas. Just ask the Yanks, Sox, Dodgers, Giants, and Cubs. But it does not guarantee consistent success.

There is a deliberate, systematic roadmap for how the Rays spend money on players, and it’s working like an absolute charm. Take a look at their 10 biggest contracts on the books by total value from date of signing:

Tampa Bay Rays’ 10 biggest active contracts from date of signing, via Spotrac

Yes, folks, the Rays only have:

  • 2 multi-year deals on their entire ledger
  • 6 players headed to free agency making over $1 million this season
  • 3 players making above the MLB’s average annual salary of $4.17 million

In fact, if the team had all its best-paid talent on the field and contributing, it’s worth arguing that they could have finished with the best record in the entire league. Rays players currently on the injured list are making about $21 million this year, with pitchers Chris Archer and Tyler Glasnow making up about half that total between the two of them.

By comparison, the Los Angeles Angels have nearly $100 million in salary on the injured list, the most in the MLB. They missed the playoffs for the seventh consecutive year.

Further, the players Tampa is on the hook to pay millions are almost entirely active members of the team. “Retained salary” refers to the amount of money a team pays out of its payroll for players who are no longer on the team either via trade, release, or buyout — fortunately, the Rays owe just three such players over $1 million in 2021:

  • Giants 3B Evan Longoria: $2,000,000
  • Pirates OF/1B Yoshi Tsutsugo: $1,702,703
  • Mets LHP Rich Hill: $1,532,248

Of course, this isn’t to disparage the bigger market teams who have massive payrolls and criticize their payroll strategies. The Rays have stuck to a formula that works based on maximizing the talent on their roster while cutting down on unnecessary expenses.

A Pipeline Brimming with Phenoms

  • Number of MLB Pipeline Top 100 prospects: 7
  • Top 100 prospects on active MLB roster: 4
  • MLB Pipeline farm system rank: No. 6
  • Key 2021 call-ups: SS Wander Franco, SP Shane Baz, LHP Shane McClanahan
  • 2021 minor league championships: Triple-A (Durham Bulls), High-A (Bowling Green Hot Rods), Low-A (Charleston RiverDogs), Rookie (FCL Rays)

Though the Rays do not spend as money like most other organizations, they boast far more than their fair share of outstanding talent in their pipeline. Headlined by 2020 No. 1 prospect Wander Franco at shortstop — who recently posted a record-tying streak of 43 consecutive games getting on base at age 20 or younger — the Rays have displayed a consistently keen sense of timing for getting top minor league talent to the big league club.

While some rivals tend to use farm systems as trade collateral in the spirit of “win now,” this organization has the sheer patience to cultivate its homegrown prospects, thus keeping their overall payroll down while the quality of the roster remains fairly high and without damaging turnover.

(And that pays off beyond the big leagues — every single Rays minor league affiliate won its respective league championship in 2021 with the exception of the Double-A Montgomery Biscuits, who finished as runners-up.)

Rays farm director Jeff McLerran and scouting director Rob Metzler have done an outstanding job identifying talent within the lower levels to continue to raise up prospects that fit the blueprint manager Kevin Cash has gradually perfected. Whether it’s second baseman Brandon Lowe (a Rays’ 2015 third-round pick) or infielder Austin Meadows, who was acquired as part of a steal of a deal that sent Archer to Pittsburgh — the hurler played two seasons for the Pirates before returning to Tampa Bay in free agency! — identifying and acquiring undervalued talent has been critical to maintaining this organization’s run of success.

Even 2020 postseason hero outfielder Randy Arozarena was once a member of the St. Louis Cardinals’ 2019 postseason roster, but a well-run Redbirds organization didn’t manage to realize what his potential truly was. Today, he’s still rookie eligible and under Rays team control through 2027.

Organizational Stability

  • 2021 record: 100-62 (.617 win rate), won AL East, best record in AL
  • Last two seasons: 140-82 (.631 win rate)
  • Last three seasons: 236-132 (.648 win rate)
  • Last four seasons: 326-200(.620 win rate)

After finding the players to bring in, the people who make the roster decisions must remain consistent both in tenure and philosophy. President of baseball operations Erik Neander had previously served as a team vice president since 2016 and is in his 15th season with the Rays organization. In the scouting department, VP of development and international scouting Carlos Rodriguez is in his 11th season with the Rays. One of Tampa’s two team presidents, Matthew Silverman, served as VP of baseball ops from 2015-17 and has been with the club for 18 years.

And in the dugout, Kevin Cash was given time to grow into his own role. The former big league catcher didn’t post a record above .500 as a manager until his fourth season at Tropicana Field — when he promptly won 90 games.

What we’re looking at is a remarkable level of continuity for a big league organization, where front office and managerial heads are known to roll after even a single season of perceived underachievement. It’s that culture that removes all barriers to pulling the trigger, for example, on trading for more home run pop in the form of 40-year-old Nelson Cruz, is a low-risk move that has unequivocally helped the team.

All told, a consistent and connective philosophy from ownership to front office to the dugout makes it easier to construct not just a successful formula, but a sustainable one. And that’s what’s brought the defending American League champions one step closer to their third-ever trip to the World Series — and a chance to win the big one and truly shock the baseball world for the very first time.