From the moment Chaim Bloom arrived in Boston, the lexicon employed by Red Sox fans expanded to include one more four-letter profanity: “Rays.”
Bloom’s arrival as the Red Sox chief baseball officer after a career spent in the Tampa Bay front office came with assumptions he’d change his new organization’s operating practices to imitate those of its shoestring-budget rivals. After roughly 18 months, those suspicions haven’t gone away.
Boston has traded franchise player Mookie Betts, turned over more than half of its 40-man roster, and redefined the lineup as an exploration of the limits of versatility and an exercise in shape-shifting. Yet the dismissive utterances about the “Boston Rays” rarely acknowledge the similarities of performances by the two franchises over more than a decade.
Starting with the 2008 season — in which the Rays beat the Red Sox in a thrilling seven-game ALCS — the Sox are 1,086-921 (.541), the fourth-best record in the majors. The Rays (1,083-925, .539) rank fifth.
Both teams have six playoff appearances and have reached the World Series twice. The Red Sox, of course, have the most important advantage with two championships, but they’ve also endured four last-place humiliations — against one for the Rays — and they’re now in chase mode. The Rays are two straight postseason appearances and one AL pennant deep into what appears to be a wide-open, multiyear window of contention.
That’s despite the Rays perennially residing near the bottom of the league in payroll. According to Spotrac, Tampa Bay is carrying a major league payroll of just more than $67 million this year. As is typically the case, the Red Sox are vastly outspending their division rivals, with $175.5 million in 2021 player salaries.
How have the Rays managed to compete roughly win for win with a team that is outspending it by as much as three times in some years?
“I don’t know that I have a lot of answers for that,” said Rays manager Kevin Cash. “I assure you that you can find it with the guy who’s general manager of the Red Sox right now. [Bloom] would know really, really well. Simply, it’s two organizations that maybe get there different ways at times, but pride themselves on doing everything they can to maximize their opportunities on the field. Teams throughout this industry are built differently. I think our guys benefit from knowing that we try to compete with our entire roster. Some teams are built a little differently. That’s OK. Our guys do a great job of embracing their individual roles that bring our team together.”
The goal for the Red Sox is not, and should not be, to replicate Tampa Bay’s form of roster building. The Sox have the market and resources to acquire players who simply aren’t accessible to the Rays.
Their goal is to deploy the strategies that have made Tampa Bay successful — helping players from other organizations to realize untapped potential, getting meaningful contributions from every spot on the roster, forming a roaring talent pipeline to withstand injuries — while mixing in others that the Rays cannot afford.
Still, along the way, there will be common traits, making a look at the Rays’ current path to contention instructive for how the Sox may try to build in the coming seasons.
In 2014, the Rays saw a window closing on the core that had steadily contended from 2008-13. Their farm system was in disrepair. The team made the proactive decision to work on creating the next core, trading David Price midyear for a package that included Willy Adames, now Tampa Bay’s starting shortstop.
Andrew Friedman left for the Dodgers after that season. After a transitional year under team president-turned-GM Matt Silverman, Rays GM Erik Neander and Bloom (as vice president of baseball operations) took charge of the team’s moves. Tampa Bay stuck to a script in which it tried to contend — entering the season with teams that projected on paper as being roughly .500 or better, hoping for some performance breakthroughs that permitted some hope of a playoff berth — but primarily sought to develop a sustainable championship-caliber core. (Sound familiar?)
While the farm system steadily improved, the 2015-17 big league seasons were unimpressive, with two 80-82 campaigns sandwiching a dismal (68-94) 2016. When the Rays traded Evan Longoria and Jake Odorizzi after 2017, critics accused them of tanking.
But Tampa Bay actually saw itself, after 3½ years of building beneath the major league surface, as near a new window of contention. That view seemed misguided when they went 1-8 while getting clobbered by the Sox and Yankees to open the year, but the poor start proved misleading.
Their young talent coalesced, aided by a mid-2018 trade of longtime ace Chris Archer to the Pirates for Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows. The painful decisions to trade franchise cornerstones became palatable with a 90-72 season, preceding a return to the postseason in 2019 and pennant in 2020.
The Red Sox are in a phase with many similarities to the 2015-17 Rays, though with the resources (at least in theory) to tread at water levels higher than those where the Rays operated. Likewise, moving forward, the Sox have greater flexibility to supplement their core-creation efforts with top talent from other organizations, or by being able to keep rather than continue to trade young stars, perhaps accelerating the road to sustainability.
As much as the Rays’ low-payroll model generates critics, as he watched the 2020 season from home, Red Sox manager Alex Cora saw a lot about the Rays worth imitating.
“It’s fun baseball, as a baseball fan,” he said. “They do all the little things right. That’s what baseball is all about . . . They’re still the defending champions of the American League because they won it last year. They have a good program. They have a good team.”
It is a team good enough that the Red Sox hope to borrow from elements of the Rays playbook, while eventually expanding upon it.