It has become so routine that it’s now considered ho-hum. The Tampa Bay Rays face what seems like a stacked deck and end up being contenders year after year.
Indeed, the Rays are all but assured of reaching the postseason for the fifth straight year. Their magic number for a playoff berth is 19 with 26 games remaining.
Conventional wisdom says it shouldn’t be that way. The Rays play at antiquated Tropicana Field and annually rank among the lowest in Major League Baseball in attendance and payroll.
Yet it’s the early days of September and the Rays are right near the top of the standings. They are in second place in the American League East, 2 1/2 games behind the Baltimore Orioles, and lead the AL wild-card race by 6 1/2 games over the Houston Astros.
The Rays have an 82-54 record despite beginning the season with a $75-million payroll that ranked 27th among the 30 major-league clubs. Just three had lower figures – the Oakland Athletics ($57 million), Orioles ($60 million) and Pittsburgh Pirates ($71 million).
So how do the Rays keep contending year in and year out? There are a lot of elements to the answer, but the Rays have one simple reason.
“We have a pretty talented cast of characters,” closer Pete Fairbanks said.
Manager Kevin Cash wholeheartedly agrees with Fairbanks’ assessment and expounded on it.
“We’ve got really good players,” said Cash, who is in his ninth year on the job. “Big market, small market, it doesn’t matter when you’ve got good players because they are going to find ways to win. Our guys do that. They come together and face whatever odds are against us.
“Every team has different stuff working against it. The big-market teams have other challenges that maybe we’re not aware of, but at the end of the day it ultimately comes down to players, and we have good ones.”
It is how the Rays find those players that leave most of the other 29 MLB teams envious. Time after time, Tampa Bay acquires players struggling with other teams and they wind up being contributors with the Rays.
Sometimes, it appears that Cash and his staff, particularly pitching coach Kyle Snyder, possess magic dust that they secretly spread over their players.
The most recent example is right-handed starting pitcher Zach Littell, who was claimed off waivers on May 12 from the Boston Red Sox.
The 27-year-old had made only two true appearances as a starting pitcher in the major leagues, both with the Minnesota Twins as a rookie in 2018. Littell also served as an opener for two games with the San Francisco Giants in 2021.
However, Littell has helped fill one of the many holes in the Rays’ injury-ravaged rotation by going 3-3 with a 3.92 ERA in nine starts while striking out 34 and walking just three in 41.1 innings.
The Rays are winning despite losing three starting pitchers to season-ending elbow surgeries – left-handers Shane McClanahan and Jeffrey Springs and right-hander Drew Rasmussen.
“All of them were big blows for us,” Cash said. “Our front office does a really good job of acquiring as much quality depth as possible. It’s one thing to have depth but to have quality depth that you can be able to slot in and — I can’t say you’re not going to miss a beat. You’re going to miss a beat – but the depth we’ve had throughout the course of the season has allowed us to remain pretty successful.”
The Rays got Fairbanks from the Texas Rangers for utility player Nick Solak in an under-the-radar trade in 2019. This season, Fairbanks has converted 18 of 20 save opportunities.
“I think Kyle is the best pitching coach in baseball,” Cash said of Snyder. “I think our entire group does a really good job learning what a certain pitcher does well and then we’re going to try to maximize that as much as possible to set them up for success.”
The Rays have been set up for success pretty much since Stuart Sternberg took over as principal owner from Vince Naimoli following the 2005 season and hired the duo of Matt Silverman and Andrew Friedman to run the baseball operations and Joe Maddon as manager.
Three years later, the Rays improbably made a run to the World Series where they lost to the Philadelphia Phillies. That began a string of four postseason appearances in a six-year span from 2008-13. Tampa Bay then took a step back before its current playoff streak.
“It’s unorthodox. It’s different than a lot of other places,” Fairbanks said of the Rays’ consistent success. “I think people still live in the pre-luxury tax era where everyone assumed all the teams that spent all the money would beat all the rest. There’s more than one way to skin a cast, though, and the front office and the scouting department and everyone else in the organization have done a good job with that. We don’t just win by accident.”