When the Rays traded Blake Snell and let Charlie Morton depart as a free agent this offseason, many assumed that Tampa Bay would take a step back in the American League East in 2021.
As usual, the Rays are proving their doubters wrong.
Tampa Bay rattled off its 11th straight win Monday, moving into sole possession of first place in the division, before falling to the Royals, 2-1, on Tuesday night. How do the Rays -- whose payroll routinely ranks in the bottom five in the game -- continue to thrive?
“They never surprise me with the winning,” one National League executive said. “They can always pitch, they play fundamental baseball, and they always have a few guys who can hit. Maybe most importantly, they have a big-time winning culture down there.”
“I have thought observers were underrating them this whole time,” an AL executive added. “The underdog mindset is part of the culture.”
General manager Erik Neander has never hesitated to make a move that might raise eyebrows elsewhere, living by a line uttered by Rays owner Stuart Sternberg a few years ago.
Feel free to break some windows; don’t burn down the house.
So when the Rays made the decision to let Morton sign with the Braves and trade Snell to the Padres, Neander trusted the club’s process and inimitable culture would prevail with whatever players they put on the field.
“We're willing to try things that we think have the potential to help us without being overly concerned about the outcome,” Neander said. “It’s being as comfortable as one could be being wrong; having a culture where we can make a mistake and appreciate the benefits and what can be learned from that mistake.
“You're not trying to make mistakes, but in our quest to do the best we can, we recognize that there's going to be things that we attempt to do, be it traditional or not, that are not going to work as desired. It’s about being OK with that and really trying to embrace and find all the benefits that can come with those learning lessons.”
Less than two weeks ago, the Rays were 19-19; their lengthy winning streak made them the first team in the AL to reach the 30-win mark.
“I can’t think of a better way to trust your people than to truly live by a line like that,” the NL exec said, citing Sternberg’s words. “It has to be extremely liberating to be able to do exactly what you think you need to do to maintain a competitive team every year. In some ways, I think the players and staff embrace it, too. It’s impressive.”
Tyler Glasnow has seamlessly ascended to ace status, while 41-year-old Rich Hill has been solid in his first year with the Rays. Those two have combined to make 20 starts, while nine other pitchers have been used to cobble together the other 40. In all, Rays starters have a 3.62 ERA, third in the AL. The bullpen has matched that production, its 3.56 ERA also ranking third in the AL.
“We made some moves this winter that arguably you could say were one step back to hopefully take two steps forward sometime in the future,” Neander said. “Thankfully to this point we've had an abundance of players stepping up to keep us afloat in the early going.”
The Rays’ celebrated culture received a jolt last week when the club traded shortstop Willy Adames to the Brewers for a pair of relievers. Adames was one of the most popular players in the clubhouse, and it’s not conventional to see a contending team trade its everyday shortstop less than two months into the season. Of course, most teams don’t have Wander Franco -- the game’s No. 1 prospect as ranked by MLB Pipeline – waiting in the wings to take over sometime in the near future.
“Human beings are not made any better than Willy Adames,” Neander said. “The intangibles that Willy brings are as good as anybody's; there's a concern with that. It really is trusting that as much as Willy has brought to our group, those impacts are long-lasting in terms of the influence he's had on our culture. It really is the confidence we have in this group in total.”
While winning a pennant is surely something to be celebrated, Neander sees a hunger in his club that can be traced directly back to its World Series loss to the Dodgers last fall.
“While you're proud of what you've accomplished, any of those steps did not include winning a World Series,” Neander said. “There's still work left to be done. The benefits of the experience were fully taken from that, but the motivation to take that last step only intensifies when you get that close but you fall short.”
Mitch on the move?
Mitch Haniger’s breakout 2018 season resulted in his first All-Star selection, giving the Mariners hope they had found their next impact player. Things haven’t gone as well for the outfielder in the years since, as injuries caused him to miss 159 of Seattle’s 222 games since the beginning of 2019, including the entire 2020 season.
Haniger has been healthy and productive in 2021, entering Tuesday with 13 home runs, 32 RBI and an .877 OPS in 46 games. With reigning AL Rookie of the Year Kyle Lewis and top prospect Jarred Kelenic manning the two other outfield spots -- and No. 2 prospect Julio Rodríguez on a fast track to the Majors -- Haniger seems like an obvious trade candidate between now and the July 30 Trade Deadline.
Haniger is earning $3.01 million this season, with one more year of arbitration eligibility before he can become a free agent. Every team can afford his contract, making the 30-year-old an appealing trade target for teams in need of outfield help.
“Jerry [Dipoto] is not afraid to pull the trigger,” an AL executive said, noting that Seattle’s GM has previously been willing to discuss Haniger in trade talks. “I can't think of any reason why they wouldn't [trade Haniger]. They’ve finally got him healthy, he's producing, so that seems like a pretty good one to move given where they are.”
The Giants have been the early surprise team in the NL West, while the Dodgers and Padres have been two of the most talked about teams since last year. The Rockies? They won’t be a factor in the pennant race, but the future of shortstop Trevor Story figures to garner plenty of headlines in the coming weeks.
But don’t overlook the impact the Diamondbacks will have on the pennant race between now and July 30, as Arizona is rapidly approaching seller status. It’s unlikely that any huge names will be moved, but there are a number of notable players who can make an impact for contenders during the season’s second half.
Eduardo Escobar and Asdrúbal Cabrera are among the impending free agents on the D-backs' roster, while David Peralta and Kole Calhoun are two of the club’s potential free agents after 2022. Given Arizona’s NL-worst 18-30 record, GM Mike Hazen could decide to jump-start the market while the majority of teams wait to decide whether to buy or sell.