Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Shane McClanahan delivers against the New York Yankees in the first inning of a baseball game, Friday, Oct. 1, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

So maybe we should agree that it’s time to stop acting as if the Tampa Bay Rays are an October surprise and instead see them for what they really are, an October staple: seven postseason appearances in the last 14 seasons (including each of the past three), division winners in each of the last two, winners of 100 games for the first time this season, and a strong candidate to make it into back-to-back World Series.

But then we see the difference in payrolls—of the 10 playoff qualifiers this season, eight of them spent more than double the Rays’ payroll of $70.8 million (according to Spotrac’s MLB Payroll Tracker), with the defending champion Dodgers’ $267.2 million almost quadrupling the Rays’ outlay—and we ask ourselves again, how do they do it? 

“I assume it’s voodoo,’’ said Thad Levine, the senior vice president and general manager of the Minnesota Twins, “though I shouldn’t be quoted on that.’’

Levine was joking, of course.

“We work in a highly competitive industry,’’ he continued. “And I think one of the interesting nuances of working in a highly competitive industry is the mutual respect that we have with people who have been pioneers. And, you know, from Andrew Friedman to now (GM) Erik Neander, (team president) Matt Silverman, Chaim Bloom and Kevin Ibach and everybody who's been there, the intellectual capital that they've been able to promote and give the freedom to run the baseball franchise in a very unique way is exceptional.’’

Bloom left the Rays after the 2019 season and is now Chief Baseball Officer for the Red Sox, who will meet the Rays in the AL Division Series beginning Thursday night in Tropicana Field.

“I’ve always believed that lasting success in this game is driven by people and culture,’’ Bloom wrote in an email earlier this season when asked about his former team. “Great people working together well can and will accomplish great things, and that is where it all starts.

“Beyond that, two things stand out to me. One, worrying about the future is not sexy and not easy to do, but when you care about it as much as the Rays do, in time, you reap the rewards as they are now. Two, they care more about a player’s talent than how famous he is, and they will do what they believe is right even when it’s unpopular.’’

Lots of teams have smart people in charge, of course. Kevin Cash, who has managed the Rays since 2015, would prefer that people focus on the guys wearing the uniforms.

“It’s all about the players,” Cash told the Tampa Bay Times. “And I would pound the table on that.”

There should be no diminishing how talented the Rays are, but there is also no question there is a difference in how the Rays assemble and deploy their talent.

A former major league executive believes the Rays have an advantage that other clubs don’t.

“How much external expectation, do they have?’’ he asked, alluding to the Rays’ low attendance, “Zero. It's almost like a laboratory. I've always thought that was an advantage. Don't get me wrong, they draft well, they've developed well, they play the game well. But they might be the only team in Major League Baseball that has got the type of environment where they can try things out. They can go with openers, platooning, defensive shifting, they can experiment a little bit here and there. You do the same thing in Fenway, you know you’re going to hear about it if it doesn’t work out.

“The whole thing is different. New York, Boston, Philly, L.A. to a lesser extent, Chicago, the heat is on in the inside of the room and the outside of the room. But when there isn't any heat on the outside, it allows you to be experimental. I think it’s far ranging, too, with how you use your younger players. You know if you're a rookie with the Red Sox or the Yankees, OK, you’d better be pretty good like, today.’’

The Twins’ Levine elaborated on the difference in the Rays’ approach.

“One of the things that as a rival team we note about Tampa Bay is it feels sometimes like they violate some of the core tenets that we all adhere to relative to building a healthy franchise,’’ he said. “And when I say that I'm referring mostly to this kind of mystique around the word ‘chemistry,’ right?

"Most of us feel there are limits to which you can get every player on the team to play very specific roles that require them each and every day to come in and maybe assume a slightly different means of impacting the team. There are not many of us who would ever have a guy hit in the 3-hole, hit eighth the next day, sit the next two days, then hit third again. Then there’s the frequency with which they have options of two players performing well at the (same position) at the major league level. That is something that we also might think could negatively impact the morale of the clubhouse. There are countless other examples.

“But at every turn, the selling point I imagine that they're delivering to the team is we are going to do everything in our power to put this group of people – and this group includes not only everyone who's here, but at the upper levels of the minor leagues – in a position to win as a group. And there's universal buy-in to that. And whereas for most of us -- and I’m looking at myself in the mirror when I say this – there's a limit to which we've been comfortable trading players when they're in their prime, both age-wise and in contribution to the team. Tampa has shown an amazing discipline, to always be governed by the edict do everything in our power today to help the team improve its chances of winning in the near term.’’

The Rays ranked 26th in the majors in payroll. The four teams that spent less – the Marlins, Pirates, Orioles and Indians – finished a combined 128 games under .500. The four teams just above them – the Mariners, Tigers, Royals and Diamondbacks – finished a combined 62 games under .500, with only the Mariners sporting a winning record.

“They don’t tie themselves down to long contracts,’’ said Angels manager Joe Maddon, who took the Rays to their first-ever postseason appearance in 2008, when they eventually lost to the Phillies in the World Series, and managed them to three other postseason appearances before leaving for the Cubs after the 2014 season.

“They’re flexible, they’re fluid, they’re nimble. And they’re really rapid in developing their pitching, and they really keep an eye on their defense. I think they got away from that a bit right after I left, and it wasn’t working. But I think they just got back to their DNA, meaning that their pitching and defense came first.

“When you don’t tie yourself down with large contracts, you can be nimble and react, and they’re so good at identifying a good player before he becomes a good player. When you’re bogged down to bigger contracts attached to people that are less amenable to possibly platoon or accept a better matchup situation, you’re stuck. These guys are never stuck. But without the depth of their pitching, they would not have been able to sustain this on an annual basis.’’

Last season, when the Rays took the Dodgers to six games before falling in the World Series, two of their best pitchers were Blake Snell, the 2018 American League Cy Young Award winner, and veteran Charlie Morton. Last winter, the Rays traded Snell to the Padres and allowed Morton to leave as a free agent, signing with the Braves.

This fall, three of the pitchers lined up to start in the division series against the Red Sox – Game 1 starter Shane McClanahan, Drew Rasmussen and Shane Baz – hadn’t pitched in the big leagues before this season. The Rays also made bold in-season moves this season, like trading popular shortstop Willy Adames to the Brewers in May and closer Diego Castillo to the Mariners at the trading deadline.

“They’re not going to let (players) go unless they have somebody to replace them with,’’ Maddon said. “And they also do a good job of listening, and adhering to what they believe is the right thing to do. Because they’re nimble and don’t tie themselves down, they can all of a sudden bring up a [Randy] Arozarena, get (Manuel) Margot from the Padres, and have a shortstop in waiting (Wander Franco). They know what they have. That permits them to trade an Adames, and get some nice pieces back, that they know will fit in well with them.’’

Levine noted that the Rays tend to sign more of their younger players to multiyear deals.

“People seem to want to stay there, and free agents want to go there,’’ he said, “because I think they have extreme confidence that the resources that are put around them really will give them the chance to be a better version of themselves than they ever thought they could be. And that's why we're seeing, dare I say, reclamation project after reclamation project, players who go there that people that didn't necessarily have on the radar screen. They're provided with a very specific game plan to succeed, the resources to achieve that, and then the challenge to get there. And if they do it, they're celebrated there, and if they don't, quite frankly, they simply move on to the next guy.

“And if the player doesn’t sign a multiyear deal [as a one-plus player] that was favorable to the Rays, they're trading every single one of them. And even if you do sign the club-friendly deal with them, you're also probably going to get traded. So they have this amazing ability to constantly stay somewhere between the best farm system or fifth or sixth best, because every player now is getting turned into four or five prospects. I think we’re all waiting with bated breath to see who will be available this off-season, because I’m guessing their 2022 team will look very different inflection-wise than this one.’’

That has been the Rays’ way. And while it has yet to result in the ultimate prize, it has proven a reliable road to October.

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