The Royals face off against the Rays for the first time this year, so I thought I would talk to our small market brothers to see how they're remaining competitive despite having the third-smallest payroll in baseball. Daniel Russell, editor of DRaysBay was nice enough to talk
Royals Review: The Rays have surprisingly been in contention this year with a lot of players who aren't necessarily household names. How have they been able to succeed this year?
Daniel Russell: That's a really good question! It's hard to say! Honestly, the front office just made a lot of really great decisions on which players to maintain as depth, and in keeping a lot of players on the chart. We've had nearly 30 players from the 25 man roster reach the disabled list, so as you can imagine it's been a lot of unknown faces and utility players. Part of that is high standards on defense, part of that has been the well distributed use of the bullpen early and often this season, but there's some players who deserve the spotlight, outside the constant flights from Triple-A.
Right now the Rays have Grady Sizemore getting a lot of press, but they only picked him up in the last month. It's the unheralded Joey Butler who deserves the most praise. After Texas only gave him 15 plate appearances, he signed with the Cardinals last season and hit a 174 wRC+ in Triple-A and still didn't get a chance. Joey Butler was a teammate of new-manager Kevin Cash in the Rangers system, and came with the description, "He can hit." That's proven to be quite true. Through nearly 200 plate appearances, he's got a 129 wRC+ with the Rays as the primary DH in the absence of John Jaso and has been splendid to watch. It feels like a flash in the pan, but I'll take it.
In the rotation, rookie Nate Karns has proven far more competent than I've expected, and has been protected by the Manager's quick hook on the mound, and long-man Erasmo Ramirez has settled into a starting role rather nicely. The Rays picked him up for some kid named Mike Montgomery who has been killing it as well this season since his promotion three starts ago in Seattle. Baseball is a fascinating thing. Also important, it should be mentioned, is the career year of Logan Forsythe at the plate. Recently acquired prospect Nick Franklin had a pretty significant oblique injury in Spring Training and the utility player Logan Forsythe stepped up wonderfully on both sides of the ball. Forsythe might even crack the All-Star roster, he's been fun to watch.
Royals Review: Did the loss of manager Joe Maddon sting? What do you think of the managing style of first-year skipper Kevin Cash?
Daniel Russell: Completely and absolutely. There was a time I was certain he would be the first bronze statue outside Tropicana Field, but his departure was sudden, unexpected, and quite different from Andrew Friedman's. When the General Manager left, it was something we all knew would come about someday, and seemed only natural he would try something new after a decade, but we had received overtures from Maddon throughout the off-season of his dedication to the team and franchise.
That's not to say I don't blame Maddon for leaving or wanting to try something new, we'd had an incredible run, nor do I think that Maddon planned on leaving. But when the open door presented itself when the Rays attempted to negotiate his next contract, the allure was too much. In his place I might have done the same thing. It just didn't feel right, and I won't get used to seeing him in Cubbie Blue any time soon.
Royals Review: How's our old friend Jake Odorizzi? We miss him.
Daniel Russell: We miss him too! A surprise oblique strain put him on the disabled list last month, but he really stepped up his game this season and is a big part of why the Rays have been able to stay in contention this season. Hodor (as we call him) isn't the same guy you might remember. Last season he picked up Alex Cobb's split-change, which allowed him to make the leap to a competent major league pitcher, and this Spring he added a "slutter" to transform his slider into a dominant third pitch for his arsenal. That was the real difference maker, and the Rays certainly did well in picking up a guy so willing to transform his game. If he had not been injured, I wouldn't have been surprised to see him named to the All-Star team this month. That's how well he was performing.
Royals Review: By the metrics, Kevin Kiermaier seems like a guy that would fit in our outfield quite well. Is he as good defensively as the numbers say?
Daniel Russell: He really is. "The Outlaw" has an interesting style of play, he's quick to run once the ball is hit, and makes his adjustments after he's halfway there. It gives an impression of not knowing where the ball might be going, but really it his style of play: capitalizing on incredible speed to simply get there. Most of the time he sprints to the spot and simply waits. You also might want to be careful running on KK, he's got an arm that will surprise you. The Rays liked his defense enough that they moved Desmond Jennings to left field this season, until the former every-day center fielder was sidelined with a knee injury. It's hard to see Kiermaier ever giving up his mantle.
Royals Review: Do you expect the Rays to be buyers at the deadline if they keep this up or will they be conservative?
Daniel Russell: It really depends on the health of the rotation. As the starters come back into the fold, the current starters will move to the bullpen, and how that shakes out could be complicated. The Rays certainly see themselves as contenders right now, given the surprising run, and if they perceive a severe weakness with the team I don't think they'll hesitate to make the move. That said, John Jaso is almost ready to return, so the Rays may get by simply by leaning on their depth returning from injury to freshen up the roster.
Royals Review: The Rays are dead last in the league in attendance at just over 14,000 fans per game despite a competitive team. It seems the Rays have been a bit stymied by local officials in their search for a new stadium in the area and there are at least some whispers of Major League Baseball returning to Montreal. What is the long-term situation for the Rays in Tampa Bay and where do you think this team is playing its games in ten years?
Daniel Russell: Ten years from now, I really think the Rays will still be in Tampa Bay and still playing in an indoor stadium, just not Tropicana Field. The television market is strong, which is where the money is, and by moving to a more central location in the area the attendance should see a step up. I don't foresee the Rays ever averaging more than 20k, but a better location would make games a lot more tempting for a fanbase that's quite spread out.
Politics can change; at this point the Mayors on either side of the bay are on the team's side, it's simply the City Council that's blocking all moves that would allow the Rays to move elsewhere. All of those positions can change sometime in the next 5-7 years, which is the window for something to happen. If the Rays continue to be roadblocked, the owner wouldn't be the one to move the team, but he did say he planned on selling the franchise without a new stadium. If he does, a move away from Tampa Bay would be extremely likely, and the new location would be up to wherever the new owner has in mind. Montreal is an option, as would be Brooklyn, Charlotte, or Portland. It's really up to who the next owner would be.
You can read all the latest Rays news at DRaysBay. Many thanks to Daniel Russell for his help.