ST. PETERSBURG -- Hope fuels the Hot Stove League. Every true baseball fan peruses the information about the sport that is ground out daily and imagines what their team will look like by the time the season starts.
Fortunately for Rays fans, their hopes are based in reality and not a pipe dream. Since reaching the World Series in 2008, the club has remained a contender and not once has the fan base had to endure the dreaded disclaimer of professional sports that the team is rebuilding.
Executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman addressed how the organization as a whole has embraced the challenge of remaining competitive and not falling into the "blow it all up and start over" mode.
"We've talked about this ad nauseam really since 2006 in that our goal was to create a championship-caliber team, but equally as important was to be able to sustain that run of success," Friedman said. "And so, it's almost become a cliche, but the one eye on the present and one eye on the future is how we have to operate if we're going to have any chance of sustaining our run of success."
Friedman indicated that while there is satisfaction in the fact that the Rays have managed to maintain their competitiveness, the organization won't rest on its laurels.
"When we look back, it's not something we get caught up in [thinking], 'OK, we've [remained a contender] for X number of years.' We are intensely driven by trying to maintain our window going forward," Friedman said. "And, obviously, there are a number of industry-wide challenges."
Of those challenges, Friedman cited the "way the amateur talent acquisition process is set up" among "a lot of other things" that make the road of a small-revenue team a difficult one to travel.
"But with that, we have to make moves that require more boldness," Friedman said. "It's something that you're not always incredibly comfortable doing, but we'd rather be out in front as opposed to sitting back and falling off the proverbial cliff."
Over the course of the past several years, Tampa Bay has made several moves that have fallen into that uncomfortable zone.
Prior to the 2008 season, the Rays traded Delmon Young and Brendan Harris to the Twins in return for Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett. Based on what Young had accomplished as a rookie and his status as a former No. 1 overall pick in the Draft, some questioned the merits of that deal.
However, when all the smoke cleared, Tampa Bay had acquired an everyday shortstop in Bartlett and a top-of-the-rotation right-hander with incredibly nasty stuff in Garza.
After the 2010 season, the Rays again went into a proactive mode after watching the best player in franchise history, Carl Crawford, leave via free agency. In addition, they traded Garza to the Cubs for Chris Archer, Sam Fuld, Brandon Guyer, Hak-Ju Lee and Robinson Chirinos. While Fuld has been the most productive of the group, each of the others is considered a legitimate prospect.
The Rays also traded Bartlett to the Padres following the 2010 season and came away with left-hander Cesar Ramos and right-hander Brandon Gomes, who have both contributed to the team over the past two seasons. Each could also play a significant role in 2013.
If ever Tampa Bay appeared to be in rebuilding mode, the period following that 2010 season fit the bill. But as fans remember, everything came up roses in 2011, as they went 91-71 and reached the playoffs. The feeling that management knows what it's doing not only pleases the fans, but it also instills confidence in the clubhouse.
"I think back to my first year when really we were in as big a rebuilding thing as they've been in and nobody had any real expectations for us," said Fuld, who appeared in 105 games in 2011 and posted a .240 average. "The fact we were able to make the playoffs that year just gave everybody in the organization even more confidence. Yeah, it's very comforting knowing we're going to have a chance to succeed every year."
The Rays are in a similar situation again after they traded James Shields and Wade Davis to the Royals for four prospects, highlighted by outfielder Wil Myers.
A fan favorite, Shields compiled the most wins in franchise history, and Davis had performed well and appeared to have a bright future. Thus, pushing the button to make the deal took some courage. But like Friedman said, in order to remain competitive, Tampa Bay must charge the future with boldness for the simple reason that rebuilding doesn't sit well with fans. And, according to Friedman, it doesn't sit well with the organization either.
"Everyone that works for the Rays, all of our fans, everyone who plays for the Rays, everyone's objective is to win a World Series, to be as competitive as you can be for as long as you can possibly do it," Friedman said. "And so with that, I think you'd be hard pressed to find moves that we've done that don't speak to that.
"Again, there's times when we err more on the present than the future and vice versa, but we have to be extremely cognizant of the future to have a chance to sustain our success for the foreseeable future."