ST. PETERSBURG -- Over the past couple seasons, the Rays have preached patience as the organization provided time for the top prospects to make it up to the Majors. Aside from a minor shopping spree in 2017 when the team believed it had a shot at an American League Wild Card spot, the focus has been in remaining flexible and keeping positions open for the young talent arriving from the Minors.
Losing seasons accompanied that patience, but in 2018 Tampa Bay got a glimpse of why the organization believed that waiting for the younger players was the best outlook for the club. The Rays won 90 games in '18 and, according to Stats LLC, became the first team in Major League history to use at least 23 rookies and finish at least 18 games over .500.
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Due to that success, general manager Erik Neander and senior vice president of baseball operations Chaim Bloom went into the offseason looking for pieces to complement a young core to help the team make the playoffs in 2019.
"We do not want to ever take for granted when we can go into a year feeling that we have a legitimate chance at playing in the postseason, and hopefully play deep into the postseason. That's important, it's something to be cherished," Bloom said. "At the same time, we got into this position by being willing to give opportunity and give chances to young players to give them room to grow and give them some leash. They took that and ran with it. We don't want to turn our backs on that, because that's really how we got into this position."
The team avoided acquiring players that could impede the progress of the young core and looked instead for pieces to get the team over the hump and into October.
The first piece was addressing the catcher situation, and the Rays did that by acquiring Mike Zunino from Seattle in November. The bigger acquisition came during the Winter Meetings, when the Rays signed Charlie Morton to a two-year, $15 million deal. The next move was to acquire Yandy Díaz, whom Tampa Bay has been high on for years.
The club traded away one of its young pieces in Jake Bauers in order to acquire Diaz, who also has five years of club control remaining. The Rays then bolstered their bullpen by acquiring Emilio Pagán from the Athletics. Finally, they came to an agreement with outfielder Avisaíl García on a one-year deal.
None of those moves include adding a big-name bat to the lineup, but the Rays are confident the current roster has what it takes to make a run at the postseason for the first time since 2013.
Maintaining depth was a priority for the Rays. They could've elected to trade one or two of the current infielders in order to acquire another piece at another position, but Tampa Bay is cognizant of the fact that there's a chance -- as is always the case -- that some of the young players on the roster could go through growing pains throughout the season.
Reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell will lead a rotation that should be in good shape with the addition of Morton and a full season of Tyler Glasnow. Willy Adames will lead the young position players, but it'll be his first season as the team's everyday shortstop. Daniel Robertson and Joey Wendle look to build on an impressive first full season, while Kevin Kiermaier and Tommy Pham look to provide some leadership in the outfield.
The Rays' payroll is around $54.7 million, which is lower than the $67.4 million figure the franchise opened 2018 with. But even with a reduced payroll, the team believes it is in a better situation with the roster than it was just a season ago. It also gives the Rays the financial flexibility to offer the younger players an extension in the future, or go out and spend for extra pieces as they keep the core intact over the next couple years.
Overall, the goal for Tampa Bay is to make the postseason in 2019. While that's the goal every year, it feels like more of a realistic goal heading into this season. But in the process of trying to make the postseason, the Rays will remain aware that they're trying to set themselves up for multiple years of success. They hope '19 is just the beginning.