Photo Credit: City of St Petersburg, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
With their 9 - 7 victory over the Boston Red Sox today, the Tampa Bay Rays extended their season-opening win streak to 13, tying the major league record and putting history on the line tomorrow in their matchup against the Toronto Blue Jays. It’s been an incredible start for the Rays, who came into the season with moderately-high expectations after being swept by the Cleveland Guardians in the American League Wild Card Series last year.
The Rays being so successful isn’t that surprising – over the last decade they’ve made five playoff appearances and represented the AL in the World Series in 2020. What is surprising, though, is how a team with a payroll of $74.5 million has six more wins than the New York Mets, a team with a payroll ($344.7 million) nearly five times that of the Rays. In a league that’s more stratified between the haves and have-nots than ever, the Rays are doing the impossible: dominating the big leagues with players on small salaries.
To really put into perspective the gulf in financial resources between the Mets and Rays, consider the fact that the entire Rays payroll doesn’t even eclipse the salaries of the Mets two highest-paid players: starting pitchers Justin Verlander ($43.3 million) and Max Scherzer ($43.3 million). If you dropped Francisco Lindor, the Mets third-highest paid player at a paltry $34.1 million per year, onto the Rays roster, their payroll would almost double on the spot. At the moment, the Mets are paying about $49 million per win. The Rays? $5.7 million. How is this possible?
Simple answer: the Rays have had an easy schedule. With three wins apiece against the projected-to-be-terrible Detroit Tigers, Washington Nationals and Oakland Athletics – and now a four-game sweep of the supposed-to-be-decent Red Sox - it hasn’t exactly been Murderer’s Row for the thrifty Rays. But pointing to the schedule and shrugging off this wonderful start as nothing more than fool’s gold is a disservice to the dominance the Rays have displayed.
Through their first thirteen games, the Rays have thrown four shutouts. Two thirds of the league have thrown one or less so far. Six different pitchers have started a game for Rays and they’ve tossed a combined seven quality starts – and that’s with 2021 Opening Day starter Tyler Glasnow still on the mend with an oblique strain. Jeffrey Springs, a 30-year old pitcher on his third MLB roster, threw six no-hit innings against the Tigers on April 2. Everywhere you look, there’s a pitcher having a great start for the Rays.
And really, that’s been the difference so far. The Rays pitching has been elite, top to bottom. But even more remarkable than the stats themselves, are the journeys many of these pitchers took to get to Tampa.
Take Springs, for example. The lefthander is a former 30th round pick by the Texas Rangers back in 2015 who had just two starts in his career before being traded to the Rays in 2021. After one season of pitching out of the bullpen, Springs was given the chance to be a regular in the rotation. He made 25 starts in 2022 - allowing a meager 2.65 ERA in those games - and never looked back.
Springs, like so many other pitchers on this Rays roster, is a reclamation project. Starting pitcher Drew Rasmussen underwent two Tommy John surgeries before being drafted. Relievers Pete Fairbanks, Garrett Cleavinger, and Jason Adam are on their second, third, and fourth teams, respectively. Give credit to pitching coach Kyle Snyder and bullpen coach Stan Boroski – they clearly have a knack for finding, and developing, passed-over talent.
All of this, at last, brings me to the Cincinnati Reds, who fell to 4 - 7 yesterday after a painful, late-inning loss to the Atlanta Braves. After years of attempting to be the pseudo-Mets, bloated with the back-breaking salaries of aging and underperforming veterans like Mike Moustakas and Joey Votto, the Reds performed the baseball equivalent of financial liposuction in 2022. The roster was stripped down to the bare bones and youth was the order of the day. So far, though, success has been…limited, to say the least.
Still, the Reds must commit to this path. If the Rays have shown us anything, it’s that a titanic payroll like the Mets can raise the floor of an organization, but ceiling? The ceiling is defined purely by talent – not dollars. In this respect, the Reds can compete with big spenders like the Mets, the New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers. They might never be able to spend $300 million on personnel, but guys like Drew Rasmussen and Jeffrey Springs? The Reds can find players like that.
And just think about how good some of the Reds young pitchers already are. Hunter Greene continued to demonstrate his massive potential with ten strikeouts in six innings in yesterday’s 5 - 4 loss to the Braves. Nick Lodolo and Graham Ashcraft have built on their very impressive rookie seasons with two excellent starts each. None is older than 25.
Finding the Reds version of Rasmussen and Springs, though, will be a challenge. The Rays acquired both via trade, which is certainly a reminder of the organization’s ability to identify undervalued players. Can the Reds replicate that success? That’s hard to say.
Justin Dunn, Brandon Williamson, and Chase Petty are three young arms the Reds acquired in trades last year, and while Petty is probably a year or two away from sniffing the majors, Dunn has been alternatively injured and bad, while Williamson failed to impress in spring training this year. If the Reds are going to follow in the Rays footsteps, one or two of these guys will need to flourish at the MLB level.
It’s not impossible. The Reds don’t have the track-record like the Rays do, but they’re finally taking the Rays approach. The days of overpaying mid-tier veterans are over, not just because it’s the best way forward but because otherwise, the city of Cincinnati might revolt. The stench of Mike Moustakas’s four-year, $64 million contract still hasn’t completely faded - and for that matter, Phil Castellini’s unfortunate comments during last year’s Opening Day haven’t completely stopped ringing in Cincinnati’s collective ears either. It’s time to stop pretending that the Reds are a big market team. Budget accordingly.