Using Old-School Methods, Rays Reshape the AL East

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It would seem that the specter of a Yankee-free October is getting more realistic with every passing day. That the Red Sox would be gunning for the division title is no surprise: No one’s going to accuse the owner of the Red Sox, John Henry, of letting his brief stint operating the Marlins encourage him to make any post-title teardowns, not when the tens of millions more that come with contention and playoff appearances are at stake. But something else Florida-related is putting the Yankees in danger of sending off their stadium with a whimper instead of a bang.

Where the Red Sox and Yankees have been locked in their minuet for division titles, pennants, and championships the previous decade, at long last there’s a third team that’s invited themselves to the dance. Although it has been anticipated for several seasons, the Tampa Bay Rays are finally reaping some initial big-league returns on their long-term investment in a player development program of exceptional depth and breadth. The introduction of a franchise that has patiently assembled the game’s best collection of talent into the AL East presents the most fundamental challenge to the division’s balance of power since the Yankees produced Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, and Mariano Rivera on their own.

The Yankees have been able to blend the exceptional productivity of that trio with premium talents perhaps only they could afford, players such as Alex Rodriguez, Mike Mussina, or Jason Giambi. The Red Sox, in contrast, started off as a more borg-like assimilation of different combinations of good talent, constantly adapting and mutating with an eye toward self-improvement. Consider the name players on the Sox: Jason Varitek or Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz or Josh Beckett or Mike Lowell, all brought in from the outside as they exploit opportunities to field the best-possible contender. In each case, finding and employing some of the very best at their individual positions was the name of the game, a game of cat-and-mouse the teams played almost by themselves, perhaps nowhere better reflected than in their equally frantic pursuits of Jose Contreras when he defected from Cuba.

The mirroring of one another continues down into more recent developments. Both teams have modestly integrated a new generation of homegrown talents, now-famous farm products such as Jonathan Papelbon or Joba Chamberlain, Robinson Cano or Dustin Pedroia or Kevin Youkilis. Collectively, those players are still short of the value the famous people have put up, but it wouldn’t be surprising when some are seen as the keys to their respective teams instead of the contributors. On the other hand, both teams have their own disappointing center-field prospects, as Jacoby Ellsbury and Melky Cabrera both try and fail to live up to exaggerated expectations.

The contrast between the new Rays and the division’s decade-long duellists could not be more stark. Nobody on the Rays has ever really been a part of this party before, not unless you want to count both the Yankees and Red Sox missing out on keeping Carlos Pena in 2006 before he blossomed with the Rays in 2007; or the experience of occasionally available DH Cliff Floyd as a stretch-drive deadline pickup by the Sox in 2002. Sometime-closer Troy Percival, as fragile as Floyd, has a ring for his days of shutting the door in Anaheim for the Angels in 2002.

Instead, the Rays are very much the model of old-school player development, with so much self-developed quality on hand that you’d think a new Roger Kahn will be writing about these new boys of summer. The team’s average age of 26.9 for its hitters and 27.6 for its pitchers puts both units smack-dab in the middle of the sweet spot of player performance patterns. With former top draft choices such as outfielders Carl Crawford (second round, 1999) and B.J. Upton (first round, 2002), and third baseman Evan Longoria (first round, 2006) all playing every day, the benefits of picking high in the June amateur draft could not be more apparent. That’s before bringing up the possible arrival of the top overall pick of 2007, power-pitching southpaw David Price, barely a year removed from college stardom at Vanderbilt. However, not every former farmhand was an easily-anticipated star: The Rays can also point to their rotation stalwarts James Shields (16th pick, 2000) and Andy Sonnanstine (13th pick, 2004), who were late enough in the draft for anyone to have picked them.

That isn’t to say they haven’t also been ambitious in restructuring their core of talent, as this winter’s deal that sent blue-chip outfield prospect Delmon Young to the Twins for right-hander Matt Garza and shortstop Jason Bartlett reflects. Certainly, stealing staff ace Scott Kazmir (2.8 SNLVAR, tied with Shields for the team lead in six fewer starts) from the Mets in the infamous deadline deal for Victor Zambrano in 2004 is a gift that keeps on giving. But again, in the little things, the Rays help themselves out: They’ve overhauled their bullpen with relatively inexpensive veterans, and rounded out the lineup with freely available journeymen such as Pena, as well as outfielders Greg Gross (picked up after he was discarded by the Brewers) and Eric Hinske (slugging .500 after coming into camp as a non-roster invite).

Just as the Rays have been rewarded by their exceptional commitment to scouting and player development, though, they’ve smoothed out their roster with new-school evaluation. In the interest of disclosure, you’ll find former Baseball Prospectus interns such as James Click and Chaim Bloom in the Rays’ front office helping them with player evaluation, especially as they ponder whether or not a team already so well-stocked might need help down the stretch. But that’s a reflection of the broad sensibilities of general manager Andrew Friedman. If there’s a way to make a ballclub better, it seems fair to say that Friedman’s open to it, whatever school it comes from. When comes to getting in between two old dance partners, there’s no better way to cut in.

Ms. Kahrl is a writer for Baseball Prospectus. For more state-of-the-art commentary, visit

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