VERO BEACH, FLORIDA – After two seasons of fruitless straying, Tampa Bay is once again returning to “The Ray Way” this season.
You know, the modus operandi that enabled them to contend for a postseason spot yearly for the better part of a decade despite having MLB’s lowest payroll, such as drafting and stealing some of the finest young pitching prospects in the game. And then developing them into standout big league hurlers.
Finished is Tampa Bay’s brief flirtation with more offensive production that yielded only next-to-last and last-place finishes in the American League East the last two campaigns.
Yep, back is the tried-and-true formula that had worked so successfully for them.
It is a methodology borne of economic necessity.
Tampa Bay annually finishes last in attendance, which translates out to a shoestring budget resulting in those miniscule — by today’s MLB standards — player payrolls.
The only problem with their system is it amounts to a catch-and-release program.
After unearthing and developing those hurlers into winners, the Rays have to eventually trade them away rather than lose them through free agency and get nothing in return.
With the Rays, this pitcher drafting/stealing-development-release cycle never ends.
Wash, rinse, repeat.
A heckuva way to build and sustain a winner, but it has worked for Tampa Bay.
And when you think about it, it’s pretty remarkable stuff.
Present pitching staff ace hurler Chris Archer is a classic example of TB doing its own thing. Archer represents a “steal,” acquired in a 2011 trade with the Chicago Cubs when he was still a minor leaguer.
Once with Tampa Bay, Chris developed into an MLB All Star in 2015 and recently sparkled for the champion U.S. team in the World Baseball Classic.
During a clubhouse chat, Archer told MAS: “The way (the Rays) draft pitchers is second to none. And the way they identify pitching talent in the minor leagues is second to none.
“And then when they get to the big leagues,” Archer continued, “Jim Hickey, from my experience, is the best pitching coach I’ve had.
“And other guys coming from other organizations say the same thing.”
Archer explained the Rays’ lack of success the last two seasons thusly, “Two years ago, our pitching staff was extremely banged up — at one point, four of our five starting rotation were injured.
“I was the only one who stayed healthy the whole year.
“And then last season,” Archer continued, “we traded away some of our pitching for some offense and, though it looked like a good strategy at the time, it just didn’t work out for us.”
So the Rays have returned to their old pocket-picking/nurturing ways.
Proof: This past offseason, the Rays traded away slugging second sacker Logan Forsythe (20 homers in ’16) — one of the potent hitters they had previously acquired — to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
In return, TB received the Dodgers top pitching prospect Jose DeLeon, whom they hope will represent yet another pitching gem unearthed.
In four minor league seasons, DeLeon averaged 12.1 strikeouts per nine innings. For his part, Archer may not be around much longer. He is in his free agent year.
Though he struggled mightily in 2016, losing 19 games, there will be not shortage of suitors for his services.
With 19 Ls, you have to be pretty darn good for your ballclub to keep running you out there. And Archer is.
He’s considered one of the best young hurlers in the game. It is unlikely that the Rays will be able to afford his price tag.
He’ll probably be dealt away late this season at the trade deadline, as was the case with David Price and numerous other successful Ray hurlers.
Experts say Archer just needed to get control of his fastball, which he mysteriously lost for much of last season.
Chris got it together over his last 14 starts, though, registering a 3.49 ERA.
Archer is optimistic about a full-season rebound.
“This is definitely the best I’ve felt in March,” revealed Chris, a friendly, ebullient sort. “Hopefully, it translates into a successful six months plus October.”
Thus far this campaign, Archer has certainly put his money where his mouth is.
After three starts, he’s 2-0 with a sparkling 2.21 ERA. Chris has allowed just five earned runs in 20⅓ innings pitched.
For however long Archer is a Ray, he will be part of what pundits say is one of the best starting rotations in the big leagues.
Joining Chris are Vero Beach’s own Alex Cobb (fully healed after ’15 Tommy John surgery), Jake Odorizzi, 10-6, 3.69 ERA in ’16 and 23-year old wunderkind lefty Blake Snell (6-8 but a 3.54 ERA last season) — with a lot of talented youngsters waiting in the wings.
This year’s starters fit the Tampa Bay pattern — almost all are in their early to mid-twenties.
Archer is the grey beard at an ancient — by Ray standards — 28.
This is not to say Tampa Bay is one-dimensional, however. Enough offensive pieces are present for the Rays to regain and retain AL East contender status.
All-Star third sacker Evan Longoria is still around and pumping out homers — 36 to go with 98 RBIs last season.
He is joined by first baseman Brad Miller (30 HRs) and two outfielders with pop — fast developing youngster Corey Dickerson, 24 dingers in ′16, and Steven Souza, who has clouted 33 roundtrippers over the last two campaigns.
But even though the Rays were near the top of the AL in homers last season, they finished with a 68-94 log, their worst record since 2007 — the last year they were known as the Devil Rays.
So, this year any offense provided will be merely complementary.
If a successful rebound occurs, it will be thanks mainly to the ol’ black pitching magic generated by The Ray Way.
Tampa Bay is 6-8 so far but is just 3½ games out of first place in the wide-open AL East.
If they contend to the end and you find yourself once more shaking your head while asking,
“How the heck do the Rays do it?!”, you’ll now be able to answer your own question.
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