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Inside the Rays’ plan to prove the tanking truthers wrong

PORT CHARLOTTE – The Rays know tanking.

"We tanked in 2006 and '07, if you want to call it that," principal owner Stuart Sternberg said. "We were the original tankers. Or tankees. It seems to be all the fad now."

In losing 101 and 96 games in the first two seasons as they acclimated and experimented under Sternberg's ownership, Andrew Friedman's executive vice presidency and Joe Maddon's management, the Rays won the first overall pick in the draft the next two years.  (And that after picking Evan Longoria third in 2006, as Sternberg had some influence on the 2005 season before fully taking over.)

In 2007, they took David Price, who became the ace of their staff, winning 82 games in five-plus seasons and a Cy Young in joining Longoria as pillars in the impressive run of making the playoffs four times in six years. And in 2008, they took Tim Beckham, who became, well, that's another story …

In trading All-Star Corey Dickerson, 2017 team MVP Steven Souza Jr. and No. 2 starter Jake Odorizzi during the first week of spring training for unimpressive returns, after dealing franchise cornerstone Longoria and All-Star Brad Boxberger similarly during the winter, and in letting nine veterans, including top home run hitter Logan Morrison, get to free agency, the Rays are being accused of revisiting that past strategy.

Sports Illustrated's website labeled them "the latest team to give up on the 2018 season," noting, "There are tank jobs, and then there's what Tampa's front office has done." Deadspin.com spun it that they were "being stripped for parts" and "punting on the 2018 season."  Yahoo! Sports called them "a disgrace," as did Beyondtheboxscore.com, adding they were "far and away the worst offender" in not making moves to improve.

RELATED: What if Rays actually have a good plan?

Agents, scouts and officials with other teams chimed in, too, asking what in the world the Rays are doing. Their moves were not just being compared to what Derek Jeter's cross-state Marlins did but labeled by some as more egregious.

Tampa Bay officials themselves, inadvertently, fed the frenzy with last week's ill-timed debut of an unfortunately named new blog called The Ray Tank.

There was even an updated blueprint to follow, given how the Cubs  lost 91, 101, 96 and 89 games from 2011-2014, and the Astros lost 106, 107, 111 and 92 in the same period, then won the past two World Series, with a runway for sustained success.

But there is one small flaw in that dramatic narrative:

The Rays insist they are not tanking.

And they can make a pretty good case, pointing to a plan that essentially splits the difference:

Prepping for the arrival of the talented young core they've assembled in re-stocking their farm system by clearing paths and shaving some payroll (ostensibly to be banked for future use, while currently around $73 million), while still fielding a team that can, at the least, be competitive and just maybe – with considerable breaks given the potency of the Yankees and Red Sox – compete for a playoff spot.

While last week's flurry of moves – an awkward product of the intransigent winter market – after previously dealing Longoria sparked the roar of criticism, the reality is the Rays have had this plan in place for the past several years.

"We've been really focused on growing something special underneath that more or less wasn't present four years ago," GM Erik Neander said. "We've taken a lot of pride in each of those seasons as we've been doing that, as hard as some of those decisions have been along the way, we've never tanked.

"We've never gone into a season with a roster that looks like it's targeted for 50 wins. That's never been our philosophy. That's never been our approach."

Can it work?

Ultimately, it depends on how that future plays out.

How that core of young players continues to develop, transitions to the major leagues and performs. The injury to top pitching prospect Brent Honeywell, requiring Tommy John surgery, cost them one of those top pieces at least for a couple of years. Some of the other prospects won't ever make it for other reasons.

And it depends on when that "future" actually starts.

One of the easiest things for execs with a franchise in this position to do is keep saying they have the finish line in sight but, like a runner on a treadmill, never quite get there. The Rays have already had four straight losing seasons (though twice at a negligible 80-82), three under present management.

RELATED: Impact of Tommy John surgery cuts deeply for Honeywell, Rays

Without committing to a specific season, Neander, predictably, says they are close to the renaissance, with several headliners, such as Willy Adames and Jake Bauers,  expected to make their debuts at some point this year.

"As our teams have been kind of treading water, there's been that wave that's really building, really coming together, probably even better than I think we expect it," Neander said. "It's about there."

Then the idea is that that core joins an 80ish-win team rather than a 100-loss "gut job" like the Astros and Cubs were. And – also relevant – that the Rays thus won't have to spend excessively in free agency to supplement (for example, keeping Chris Archer to be that ace) as their predecessors did.

"This is a season, as things stand now, where on paper we're somewhere in that middle territory yet again," Neander said. "But what's been building underneath is getting awfully close to colliding with what's a middle-of-the-pack team. And when those things come together, you've got a chance for something special."

But what about now? About 2018?

Rays officials posit they are at the least no worse off, that they have the losses covered between what they had (including a now-healthy Matt Duffy at third) and what they've added (first baseman/DH C.J. Cron, outfielders Denard Span and soon-to-be-official Carlos Gomez).

And the computers seem to agree. Fangraphs.com pegs them for 78-84, and Baseball Prospectus' updated PECOTA projection remains even more optimistic with them at 84-78 and in the playoffs.

"I don't think anybody in our building feels that we're not going to be competitive," manager Kevin Cash said Saturday. "I don't feel that whatsoever."

They felt, and their internal "Uncle Charlie" computer projected, similarly the past two seasons, with varied results. In 2016, a lengthy Kevin Kiermaier injury led to a 94-loss mess (though a rewarding No. 4 draft pick in Brendan McKay). Last year, despite another Kiermaier injury, they stayed in the race long enough to uncharacteristically make several trade deadline additions before fading and falling five games short.

Convincing the public you're still trying to win after losing veteran talent is one thing. Selling the moves in the clubhouse can be tougher. Kiermaier and Archer voiced their displeasure after the initial Odorizzi/Dickerson deals, but after their bosses did some explaining they have taken vows of positivity, to spread the message that they can compete. Unlike with the Marlins, the remaining Rays stars aren't asking for trades.

Span, a 10-year veteran, said he sees why some people are calling the Rays tankers, but when he looks around the clubhouse he sees enough "good players" to feel they can compete knowing the big picture is to develop the kids.

"This is not a total rebuild," Span said. "It's kind of like they're in limbo."

And as extremely tired Archer is of losing – "I'm over it, I want to win" – he is intrigued to see the Rays' renovation project through, curious if the plan works.

"I want to see the fruit of the adversity," he said. "I want to reap the benefits of the transition process."

So, as they insist, there is no Rays tank?

"You know what," Neander said, "if that's what people want to think about the guys in that clubhouse right now, so be it."

Marc Topkin can be reached at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays

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