Over the last decade or so the Tampa Bay Rays have made a legacy out of being overshadowed by teams in their division playing worse than them on the field, and 2013 is no exception.
While the headlines are dominated by the drama between the New York Yankees and star third baseman/designated hitter/pariah Alex Rodriguez, the Rays have been quietly piling up win after win in pursuit of the first-place Boston Red Sox, climbing from seven games back on June 28 to a single game out of the division lead going into this Thursday's action while leading third-place Baltimore in the hunt for the top American League Wild Card spot by three games.
Part of the reason for the strong surge -- perhaps the primary reason, in fact -- is that as soon as the calendar rolled over from June into July, the Rays carved into the soft underbelly of their schedule. In previous years, the automated process that puts together each season's MLB schedule was structured to weight divisional tilts heavily at the beginning and end of the year for various narrative and marketing reasons -- division rivals would play each other a lot at the beginning of the season because those are the matchups and rivalries that capture the most interest from casual fans, hopefully hooking them and keeping them engaged when third and fourth place teams from the other side of the country rolled through town, and at the end of the season, so that hopefully the divisional races were decided in September instead of sometime around the All-Star break.
This season, year-round interleague play has dented this a little bit --schedules are still unbalanced, with more games against those inside of the division than those outside of it, but they're distributed more evenly across the six-month regular season. Tampa Bay, for example, usually alternates stretches of three straight series against AL East teams and three straight series against teams from the other AL divisions or the National League.
Combined with some lucky bounces in the process, that means that following a June where they mostly faced teams like Detroit, Baltimore, Boston, and New York, the Rays were greeted with this July schedule: four games at Houston, three games against the Chicago White Sox, four games against the Minnesota Twins, another three games against the Astros, and then finally some divisional play against … the last-place Toronto Blue Jays. The Rays haven't lost a series since dropping two games out of three to New York from June 21-23, and since then have gone 21-5, an absurd .807 winning percentage that no other team in baseball except the resurgent Los Angeles Dodgers can match (the Dodgers have also gone 21-5 since June 24 entering Thursday's games, and have taken over first place in the NL West).
Over the past month, both teams have seen the best possible outcomes of their organizational philosophies at work: the Dodgers are winning right now on the backs of an amazing (but top-heavy and expensive) rotation and the bats of superstar trade acquisitions Hanley Ramirez and Adrian Gonzalez, while the Rays are winning thanks to contributions from young, cost-controlled players and savvy, cheap free agent pickups on the mound, in the field, and at the plate.
Take first baseman James Loney, for instance. There's probably no bigger symbol of the Dodgers teams of the Frank McCourt era than Loney, who parlayed about 150 games of great hitting across the 2006 and 2007 seasons into four straight years of mediocrity at the plate. He was able to get on base a little bit but never drive the ball the way a first base bat needed to. One of the first orders of business under the new regime was to deal Loney to the Red Sox as part of the megadeal that brought Gonzalez to Los Angeles. He was having a particularly poor season at the plate (even for him) in 2012, as bad in Boston as he was with the Dodgers. The Red Sox let him walk in free agency, and most people assumed that was the end of Loney as an everyday player.
Then he signed with Tampa Bay, and we knew we were wrong. Sure enough, in the great tradition of Carlos Pena and Casey Kotchman, Loney is once again a productive hitter for no particularly good reason except the fact that he always had the ability to produce and now, in Tampa Bay, he is. There was a time it looked like Loney's hitting was falling off hard enough that they'd have to start platooning him so he only faced lefties -- he only posted a .697 OPS in June -- but he's raised that to .750 in July so far and as long as he continues to provide roughly that value through the rest of the season (shouldn't be too tall an order for a career .764 hitter) he and his $2 million salary will be another notch in the Rays' belt. And if he gets hot again, he'll end up being one of the best one-year deals signed this offseason.
Then there's Wil Myers, who took an entirely different route to get to Tampa Bay. He was drafted in the third round of the 2009 draft by the Kansas City Royals, and in the Royals system he became one of the premier prospects in baseball -- an outfielder with great corner defense and a truly elite potential bat. The Royals, of course, then traded him to Tampa Bay earlier this year in the infamous James Shields deal. That trade wasn't the first time the Rays preyed upon a panicky general manager's need for immediate on-field results by dangling a proven ace in front of him -- Chris Archer, one of the Rays' more promising breakout young pitchers this season (58 innings pitched, 2.76 ERA), came over in the deal that sent Matt Garza to the Chicago Cubs in January 2011. The Cubs executive who signed off on that trade, Jim Hendry, would be fired six months later, and there's been rumbling recently that Kansas City general manager Dayton Moore should share his fate as the Royals continue to lose games.
In Tampa Bay, Myers and Archer make up a strong core of team-controlled pitchers and position players that also includes center fielder Desmond Jennings and pitchers Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, and Jeremy Hellickson (along with some fun small sample size wonders -- reliever Alex Torres has thrown 30.1 innings of 0.30 ERA baseball so far, which is good for a 1298 ERA+!). But on the whole the major league roster has moved from being a noticeably young squad to a team in its prime -- superstars Evan Longoria and David Price are both 27, sabermetrics darling Ben Zobrist is 32, and most of the other positions players are between 28 and 31, with 38-year-old pitch framing sensation Jose Molina being the grandpa of the bunch.
The Rays are a team a lot like the more celebrated St. Louis Cardinals: built to win now and in the future, and in the middle of a contention window that with smart planning, good drafting and a healthy dose of luck, shouldn't close anytime soon. Especially if they keep trading for guys like Myers and hitting paydirt on guys like Loney.