The Tampa Bay Rays, since winning the 2008 American League pennant and competing under long financial odds in the subsequent half-decade, have become the model of a savvy front office. Many of the ideas espoused by the new sports intelligentsia -- like the suits of the Sloan Sports Analytic Conference -- can be seen in the Rays.
Chief among those ideas, perhaps, is maintaining a focus on the future, even in moments of contention. The Rays have gone to great lengths to keep the minor league farm system stacked, even after their once-perennial top-five picks in the MLB draft turned into perennial bottom-10 selections. With a payroll budget that has never topped $75 million -- roughly what the Dodgers have committed already to their 2018 payroll -- it's an imperative to develop star talent from amateur signings, capitalizing on three critical years of league-minimum salary.
Look back at the list of key major leaguers the Rays have traded since 2008. Edwin Jackson, following the 2008 season. Scott Kazmir, at the 2009 trading deadline. Akinori Iwamura, following the 2009 season. Jason Bartlett and Matt Garza, following the 2010 season. James Shields, following the 2012 season. That's four starting pitchers, a starting second baseman and a starting shortstop, all gone over the course of four years, along with several other moves involving role players.
This history has had the league convinced that Rays ace David Price -- arbitration-eligible for the third time (of four, due to Super 2 status) and due a projected $13.1 million salary -- would be traded for a huge package of prospects, just as Shields was last year. Although there's still plenty of offseason for Tampa Bay to work out a trade, Price remains a Ray, and the club has indicated they're willing to spend the money to keep it that way. A pair of recent tweets from The Tampa Tribune's Roger Mooney spells it out:
The Rays' recent behavior supports Friedman's assertion. After the Rays paid $72 million for the 2010 American League East champions, the club slashed payroll to $42 million in 2011, before settling at $63 and $62 million for the past two seasons, respectively. In 2010, the Rays chose to hold on to Carl Crawford and his $10 million salary in his final arbitration season. Crawford proceeded to post a career year, hitting .307/.356/.495 with career highs in home runs (19) and OPS+ (135) for the 96-win squad.
It shouldn't be surprising the Rays see the same potential, both in Price and in the 2014 Rays. Price has three All-Star appearances and a Cy Young Award (and a second-place finish). Over the past four years, he is 10th among starters in ERA (3.03) and 12th in FIP (3.21). Perhaps most important, he'll be just 28 next season.
Meanwhile, the Rays have either retained or improved the rest of a roster that won 91 games in 2013. James Loney is back on another surprisingly expensive (by Rays standards) deal, $21 million over three years. Late-season addition David DeJesus is back at $10.5 million over two years. The club has added catching depth with Ryan Hanigan and bullpen depth with Heath Bell.
The Rays will get full-time contributions from a number of young players who came up as midseason reinforcements as well. Rookie of the Year Wil Myers played just 88 games. Impressive 25-year-old pitcher Chris Archer pitched under 130 innings and combined with Myers for 4.2 wins above replacement (per Baseball-Reference). The main losses from the 2013 squad, Roberto Hernandez and Fernando Rodney, combined for -0.1 WAR.
For the Rays, the timing on Major League Baseball's new television deal couldn't be better. At FanGraphs, Wendy Thurm estimated each team will earn an extra $25 million over 2013 this year, due to the new deals signed with ESPN, TBS and Fox. As it happens, $25 million is approximately the combined salaries of Price, Loney and DeJesus. The Rays may have been willing to keep Price anyway, but the extra money makes the decision that much easier (as Thurm suggested in November).
Having a promising future is nice, but for every team, there comes a time to cash in all available assets -- whether prospects or long-term payroll flexibility -- for a chance at a championship. After all, despite the Rays' myriad accomplishments since rising to perennial contention in 2008, they still don't have a World Series title, and they haven't won a postseason series in five years.
Perhaps keeping Price for a shot at glory seems counter to the Rays' usual philosophy. But baseball success is measured in championships, and a 2014 Rays team with David Price at the head of the rotation likely gives Tampa Bay its best shot at a title since 2008, arguably ever. If Price shows up at camp in a Rays uniform in March, it will mean that Friedman's front office is making that argument.