Home Sports Inside the minds of the Yankees’ now and future AL East rival

Inside the minds of the Yankees’ now and future AL East rival

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This 2020 Major League Baseball season, should it actually launch, will feature fewer games, less travel and quite possibly zero fans.

More Yankees-Rays games, tho (as the kids spell it). Or at least a higher percentage of them.

That would be good for baseball and, at best from a Bronx perspective, challenging for the Yankees. Probably, it would represent the Yankees’ most significant challenge to a repeat of their AL East title.

The small-market, stadium-challenged, little engines that could from Tampa/St. Pete have returned from their mid-2010s slumber to make life miserable once more for their wine-caving AL East neighbors in New York and Boston. Much like their previous run, they appear equipped to stick around for a while.

“It’s in our DNA to be the David to take on the Goliaths,” Rays president Matt Silverman said in a telephone interview, “I’m not sure how well David would have fared taking on two Goliaths, but that’s our lot in life, and we have embraced that challenge. It makes it even more rewarding when we’ve reached the playoffs.”

They reached the playoffs last year, leveraging a $64 million payroll to finish 96-66 (12 games ahead of the Red Sox) and grab the second AL wild-card spot. They wound up advancing to the AL Division Series and taking the eventual league-champion Astros to the maximum five games. As the Red Sox parted ways with their scandal-plagued manager Alex Cora and traded their best player Mookie Betts to the Dodgers last offseason, it further cleared the path for the Rays — who can boast of a farm system ranked as the industry’s best by MLB.com — to crash the highbrow party.

Rays general manager Erik Neander
Rays general manager Erik NeanderAP

“We admire and respect the work of the teams that we compete against,” Rays general manager Erik Neander said. “But any meaningful time that you spend thinking about that doesn’t help you get better.”

Last year’s visit to the postseason marked the Rays’ first such success since 2013 and turned an important page of sorts in the team’s annals. The ’13 wild-card berth ended a stretch of four October voyages in six years — kicked off by the worst-to-first, pennant-winning campaign of 2008. As much as star players such as Carl Crawford, Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist led that charge, arguably just as prominent were the team’s architect, Andrew Friedman, and the manager he hired, Joe Maddon.

Friedman left the Rays for the Dodgers in October 2014, following a 77-85 showing, and less than a month later, Maddon — armed with contract language that liberated him in the event of a Friedman departure — joined the Cubs, both men aligning with the dark side of the large markets.

It marked the end of an era for the Rays, and how they responded under principal owner Stuart Sternberg reflects the organizational confidence that enabled them to trade valuable players midseason while in contention in 2018, or introduce the opener to baseball that same season, or propose a two-country, two-ballpark solution to their longlasting attendance headaches by which they’d toggle between Tampa and Montreal (the viability of which remains undetermined). Because of their financial disadvantages — their 2020 payroll stood at about $67 million, as per Spotrac, had this been a normal-length season — the Rays essentially require front-office leaders and managers to perform at just as elite a level as their best players. So they set about finding more.

Silverman — who had been the team’s president since 2006, overseeing all aspects of the organization — shifted to president of baseball operations and hired Kevin Cash, a Tampa native who previously worked as the Indians’ bullpen coach, to manage. Both moves occurred with sights on the long term.

“When Andrew and Joe left, it was jarring,” Silverman said. “It was a shock to the franchise, a shock to the organization. … We knew we had some challenges ahead of us. Our farm system was pretty barren at the time, so it would be no quick fix. We didn’t have the stomach for a Cubs- or Astros-style rebuild, so we kept our focus on the major league club.

“Stu believed that we had the future leadership in place, especially Erik. We wanted to give him and the rest of the group time to grow into the role, a little bit of separation of timelines from Andrew and Joe. And looking back we were very fortunate that the timing lined up for us to hire Kevin Cash. When we hired Joe, he was with us for nine years. We wanted someone like Kevin whom we could give a long runway.”

During Silverman’s three years atop baseball ops, the Rays posted records of 80-82, 68-94 and 80-82, extending their streak of sub-.500 seasons to four. Yet Cash gained reps in the manager’s seat, Neander and his deputy Chaim Bloom (who left for the Red Sox last winter) clocked enough experience to propel Silverman back to his president title and the Rays collected talent like they were hoarding Purell for a pandemic.

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When they turned the corner in 2018, going 90-72, eight of the Rays’ best 12 players (as per Baseball-Reference WAR) arrived via trade, waiver claim or free agency. Last year, in getting back to the playoffs, that number jumped to nine, including the top four of stud starting pitcher Charlie Morton (a free agent), shortstop Willy Adames (acquired from the Tigers for David Price in 2014) and outfielders Austin Meadows (acquired from the Pirates for Chris Archer in 2018) and Tommy Pham (acquired from the Cardinals in 2018 and traded to the Padres last December).

“We’re not shy about making transactions,” Neander said. “We’re active. When you make as many transactions as we do, you’re bound to have some that go your way and, on the flip side, some that you’d rather not have made.”

Recently, the Rays have recorded far more of the former than the latter. Recently acquired gems like right-hander Tyler Glasnow, who came with Meadows in the Archer trade, and infielder Yandy Diaz, who arrived from Cleveland in a 2018 trade, join homegrown building blocks like Blake Snell, the 2018 AL Cy Young Award winner, and outfielder Kevin Kiermaier on the first unit. Shortstop Wander Franco, 19 and the top-ranked prospect in all of baseball, heads the list of exciting youngsters on the way.

“We feel like we’ve put ourselves in a pretty good position to compete,” Neander said. “Now it’s a matter of doing it.”

For the pinstriped Goliath, there will be no ignoring this David.

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